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Chicago chefs share their secrets for dealing with tight kitchen quarters

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Updated: March 6, 2014 6:14AM

When it comes to restaurant kitchens, size does matter. But not in the way you might think. While having plenty of square footage with room for top-of-the-line equipment, the latest gadgets and loads of prep and storage space sounds like the ideal situation to create extraordinary food, that’s not necessarily the case. Rather, say the chefs we spoke with, less often can be more — and that goes for home kitchens, too.

Chef Jimmy Bannos Jr. admits when he first saw the small area that was to become his kitchen at The Purple Pig (500 N. Michigan), he freaked out. “I’m a visual guy, and when I looked at the size of the line before any equipment got put in, I couldn’t picture it.”

But once all the pieces were put in place through some very creative and careful planning, Bannos Jr. grew to love the small kitchen of the restaurant — a former FedEx office — to the point where now he says he wouldn’t have it any other way. “It’s a very close-knit crew and we’ve created an environment where everyone respects each other,” says Bannos Jr. “Also, it allows me a better opportunity to teach since I’m right there next to them.”

That’s something chef Ron Aleman of the new Sophie’s in Saks Fifth Avenue (700 N. Michigan) has discovered, too. Fresh off a stint in the sprawling kitchens of the Fairmont Chicago, Aleman has found his new tighter quarters have had an expected bonus. “I’ve never seen a kitchen team come together so quickly, and I can guarantee it’s because of the small kitchen,” he says of his roughly 360-square-foot space. “Lots of great friendships are building and that’s the way any great kitchen team should be.”

Like Bannos Jr., when chef Tom Van Lente of Two (1132 W. Grand) first saw the 375-square-foot kitchen that he and chef de cuisine Kevin Cuddlihee would soon be working in he was “scared ----less.” (The fact that it was a complete mess from its former tenant didn’t help.) But, he says, “That challenge is what sparked our interest and forced us to adapt, which as a cook is something you do every day.”

Part of that adapting included creating a menu that fits the kitchen’s refrigeration and storage space limitations. “Guests are getting the freshest product possible since we have to be very accurate when ordering as there isn’t room to store a lot of excess product,” says Van Lente. Case in point: Housemade bacon, ice cream, sorbet and pasta are the only items you’ll find in the restaurant’s small freezer. Another benefit of Two’s small kitchen? “It forces my team and I to be as efficient as possible,” the chef says.

That’s something chef Zoe Schor of Ada St. (1664 N. Ada) has experienced, too. “If you have all the space and equipment in the world, the sky’s the limit,” she says. “But when you have a small kitchen, you have to dial it in and work really tight, efficient and clean, which forces a level of discipline.”

While Schor confesses she probably would’ve cried two years ago when the restaurant opened knowing the menu she and her two chefs would be doing now, she’s come to appreciate how the space — or lack thereof — has influenced her menu. “It forces your hand in terms of I can’t put 30 things on this plate and maybe I shouldn’t,” she says. “I’m a big fan of practicing restraint in a culinary sense and this helps with that.”

It’s not just newer restaurant kitchens either where kitchen space is at a premium.

Open for 21 years, the original Mia Francesca (3311 N. Clark) has the highest sales of all the locations and the smallest kitchen. Over the years, says general manager Chris Pucci, they’ve gotten inventive when it comes to creating more space — walk-in coolers were added on the roof of the building for additional storage — and in making do with what they have. “Like many places, the building isn’t made for a restaurant and you just make it work,” says Pucci. That also means, he says half-jokingly, only hiring prep cooks under 6 feet since the ceiling in the basement prep area is only about 5½ feet tall.

On its busiest days, Le Colonial (937 N. Rush) serves some 300 guests out of its 500-square-foot kitchen. “It’s like a well-oiled machine,” says chef David Lam of the 17-year-old restaurant. And that includes the close relationships the restaurant has established with its vendors. “Our fish, meat and produce are delivered to us six days a week, so we never have very much in storage,” says Lam.

So what can home cooks saddled with small kitchens learn from those working in restaurants? Plenty.

Like he and his staff do at The Purple Pig, Bannos Jr. highly recommends home cooks get everything organized, prepped and put where it needs to be from the get-go. “That way when it’s time to cook, it’s all right there in front of you,” he says. Cleaning as you go is vital, too. And if you’re limited in heating sources — because of its location, The Purple Pig can’t use any gas in its kitchen, only electric — induction cooktops are a good option, says Bannos Jr.

Never underestimate the value of great ingredients, says Aleman. “If you start with great ingredients then all the equipment can take a back seat.”

Space-saving tips from Lam include using one protein for multiple dishes and using every aspect of each ingredient. “We use cilantro leaves for garnish on many dishes, while the stems make a great addition to soups stocks and marinades,” he says.

When it comes to storage space, don’t get caught up in how you’re always done it, says Schor, who recommends pulling everything out of your cabinets and seeing if you can put it back in a way that uses the space more efficiently. And speaking of all that stuff, Schor suggests limiting yourself to just three pans and a pot. “How many things can you actually have on the stove at once since you only have four burners?” she points out.

And if you’ve spent any time working at a restaurant, you’re already familiar with those ubiquitous plastic deli containers. For Van Lente, those are a game-changer — at his restaurant and home — not only for storing prepped ingredients but, because they come in cup, pint and quart sizes, they’re a built-in measuring cup, too. Other easy-on-the-wallet items he recommends are Sharpies and painter’s tape.

“You’ll never question what and when you’ve put in the fridge,” he says. “Those are like gold in the kitchen.”

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