As a restauranteur, you need to be able to understand and speak the distinct language native to the back of the house, also known as ‘kitchen slang’. If you’ve never worked in the kitchen, the slang your cooks use may sound completely foreign to you, and it is pretty unique.
If you are going to understand your cooks or be able to step foot in the kitchen to help, you’re going to need a crash course on the kitchen slang you’re almost certainly going to hear.
The pass is the long, flat surface where the completed dishes are picked up by the servers. Some restaurants also refer to this area as “the window” as it is the big opening in the wall between the cooks and the servers. The pass is where dishes are plated, garnished and cleaned up before going out to guests.
If there is going to be a pass, there has to be someone working it. The chef or cook who “runs the pass” or is “expo’ing,” is in charge of watching the order tickets and making sure each dish is properly plated and looks good before it goes out to the dining room. The chef who is running the pass is responsible for getting all of the plates for an order together and placed on the pass or in “the window” for servers or the food runner to take out to guests.
Hot food that is ready to be run out to the table that has been sitting on the pass for too long is “dying on the pass”. The food is getting cold and becoming less enjoyable by the moment so you may hear a chef yell to servers that food is dying on the pass to get someone to come pick it up. This tends to happen when servers are in the weeds and a manager can become a complete savior by stepping in and helping to deliver food that’s dying.
This is where the cooking is done in most restaurants. Being “on the line” simply means you’re a line cook. This is one of those phrases that is literal because, in most restaurants, this area of the kitchen is arranged in a straight line.
Most culinary students get experience in the kitchen as line cooks on their paths to becoming chefs. Line cooks are the front line infantry of your kitchen army and this is where a lot of new cooks start.
As orders come in, the chef or cook in charge of running the pass lets the line cooks know what dishes are coming up, or what’s “on deck”. Just like baseball, this is what’s coming up next.
The chef or cook running the pass calls out what’s on deck so the line cooks can set up what they need to efficiently cook the next meal. If the order has a particularly time-consuming dish to prepare, this practice gives the line cook a head start on it before starting the rest of the dishes.
Cooks use the term “86’d” when the restaurant has run out of a dish. A dish can also be 86’d if the chef is unhappy with how it’s being prepared and wants to take it off the menu for the time being. It can also be used to get rid of someone by kicking them out of your restaurant.
This phrase might actually be the oldest term on this list and one of the most debated. Like so many slang terms and phrases, there is some dispute about the earliest usage in popular culture. One thing that we know for sure is that it was definitely in use by 1933 when Walter Winchell used it in a column exactly how it’s used today. There’s also disagreement about whether it was actually in use or whether Winchell was trying to coin the phrase and gain some additional notoriety.
The origins of this particular term are interesting because there is nothing remotely intuitive about it, unlike many of the other terms on this list. The origins are so muddled that even the fact checkers at Snopes were unable to narrow it down to a definite original source.
We may not know exactly where this term comes from but there is no shortage of theories. One theory is that some bars and restaurants were not permitted to have more than 85 patrons on their premises at any one time so the 86th person would be denied service. It is possible that “86’d” started as rhyming slang for the word “nixed.”
Yet another theory posits that the origin is from Article 86 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. This article includes the AWOL (absent without leave) section of that code that makes it a crime for one serving in the military to fail or refuse to go to his or her appointed place of duty.
At the end of the day, we have no idea where this term came from but it is definitely one of the most important kitchen slang phrases to know.
This word is French so it is pronounced “meez” and it refers to the French phrase, “mise en place”. Directly translated, this phrase means “everything in its place”. If you hear a cook say they are “mise-d out for the day” it means they’re fully prepared and all of the prep for each dish is ready to go.
Mise-ing everything out can look like having all of your vegetables peeled, chopped, and ready to start cooking. This makes the entire process much more efficient and streamlined.
If you hear “on the fly” in the kitchen, it means a server needs a particular dish as soon as possible. It could be that the server forgot to put the order in or a cook forgot to make it but the point of this phrase is to make it clear that you need to drop everything and get this dish out pronto.
The term “comp” simply means complimentary. This may be used to give away something for free as part of a promotion, for a birthday, for a special customer, or to smooth appease a customer who has a complaint.
If someone tells you that they’re in the weeds, they need your help and they need it now. Being “in the weeds” is being so busy (or slammed) that you’re so overwhelmed and behind that, you’re about to lose control of the situation.
You know how a well-done burger is tough and black from being somewhat burnt? In the kitchen, that’s lovingly referred to as a “hockey puck.”
Nuking something is simply microwaving it. This might be requested by a server when a customer complains that their food isn’t quite hot enough for them.
You might see this term used on an order ticket or hear it shouted to you from across the kitchen. It simply means to serve the sauce on the side for that particular dish. You may be told that you have “3 baby back ribs on deck, 1 SOS” and that means that just for one of them, you place the sauce on the side.
This is when you quickly cook something that is too undercooked. This might be required if someone orders a steak medium rare and decides it a little too red for them and they’d prefer it to be more on the medium side.
Thankfully, hearing this shouted does not mean there is a kitchen fire. Instead, it means that you can start cooking a dish that has been previously ordered. For example, a server may have put an order through but is holding off until the table is nearly ready for their next course.
It may also be used if there are time-consuming dishes on an order that also has a rare New York Strip on it or when you have a breakfast order that comes with toast. This helps cooks coordinate when to start cooking each dish so that they’re all ready at the same time.
Looking for something and someone tells you that it’s in the low boy? That means it’s in the fridge that’s just below the counter. This refrigerator is used for items that need to be kept chilled but also need to be readily available at a moment’s notice.
Once an order comes through and a ticket is printed it is stuck to “the rail” or “the board”. This refers to the metal device that holds all of the tickets the kitchen is currently working on. “Clearing the board” or “clearing the rail” means the kitchen has just completed a large set of tickets.
During a busy service, the chef or expeditor (the person reading off the orders) might call out something like, “Two snappers all day,” meaning that there are two orders of that dish currently on the rail.
This is a quick way to make sure that there is no confusion about how many of each dish are needed in total. It’s very easy to think you have 2 of a dish needed only to find out that was just for one order and you actually need 3 to clear the rail.
This term is pretty self-explanatory but it’s also one of the most important things you need to know when working in any part of a restaurant. In a kitchen, you’re surrounded by people with hot food and sharp utensils. Things can get pretty dangerous when you don’t know that someone is directly behind you.
With everyone moving around quickly, kitchens can get hectic so making frequent use of “behind!” helps keep everyone safe. If you want to be really helpful, get specific by saying “hot, behind!” or “sharp, behind!” so others know to be extra careful when you have something hot or sharp behind them. If you have Spanish-speaking kitchen staff, you should know that “atrás!” means “behind!” in Spanish.
When you hear that “the man” or “the boogie man” is on the premises, you know the health inspector is somewhere in the restaurant. This is an amusing way for cooks to let one another know to make sure that everything is as clean as humanly possible for the inspection.
Of course, there are plenty of other kitchen slang terms and every kitchen has its own culture with its own phrases. With these 20 kitchen slang phrases, you’ll begin to feel at home in the kitchen where the language doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to an outsider.
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