Last year, the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) moved to its new Brookfield Place facilities. After 41 years of operation, we relocated to our downtown location in order to design every detail of our school. We wanted to give our students the ability to benefit from the collective years of experience of our chef instructors, and that entailed providing them with the best kitchens for learning and practicing their craft.
Some of the changes we made were practical: We included French tops and induction units in addition to traditional gas ranges so that students can get diverse experience. Some of our changes were aspirational, like building a hydroponic farm and introducing a chocolate lab, where students can learn the chocolate-making process from “bean to bar,” alongside renowned pastry chef Michael Laiskonis. But with any change, we first determined how to best serve our students in their daily lives to give them the best training possible.
Attention to the needs of the people who will be using the space daily is equally important in real-world kitchens. Physical space defines everything about how a kitchen team works. In Manhattan, for example, the limited space of kitchens defines how they are used. Kitchen staffs learn to work in small, efficient spaces and must be disciplined in order to meet a restaurant’s mission.
Renovation usually signifies that the existing space is less-than-perfect. When renovating a kitchen and trying to correct existing flaws, it’s important to have a deeper understanding of what is wrong and to design from the perspective of those actually using the kitchen, or those who will be using it in the future. Design not only affects the functionality of the space, it also influences the morale of the kitchen. In a market where there is a shortage of chefs, ensuring their happiness by giving them a kitchen where they want to work each day is a great way to retain talent.
In ICE’s redesign, we focused on making the kitchens ergonomic—a comfortable place to work—rather than a space in which students struggled to find their footing. Whether you are designing a cooking school or a restaurant, keeping in mind the concept of ergonomics and making things as easy as possible for your cooks will pay dividends in the end.
Improved ergonomics can be achieved with simple changes, like installing drawer refrigerators so that staff members are not bending over every time they need something. In culinary work, where the average day can span anywhere from 10 to 14 hours, attention to detail is critical. Whose back wouldn’t get sore from bending over repeatedly for that many hours? Every step that you save and every bend that you eliminate is a positive thing, and it doesn’t cost much. Rather, it’s a matter of considering all of the details and planning ahead.
It is also essential to talk with the people who are using your kitchen—ask them what is uncomfortable or annoying and what they wish could be different. If the person leading the renovation is a kitchen designer or the executive chef, then the line cook, dishwasher, and wait- staff will no doubt have different perspectives. Those are the people who can give you insight into maximizing the utility and organization of your space.
The most important thing you can do in a renovation is to take the time to plan. Listen to your staff or students, not just what the experts tell you. Dive into the details yourself—no one knows your establishment needs like you do.