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How is a Kitchen Like a Studio?

A few posts ago I describe how cooking meals for five while in lockdown helped my music and how I discovered how much I love to cook. Well I recently had the chance to experience a true master at work and my culinary life was changed forever. Over the Christmas period my wife, my sister-in-law, and I flew over the Rockies to meet up with our family in Utah. We took all precautions necessary and we had a lovely trip that was kicked off by a visit to Boushon, a Thomas Keller Restaurant at the Veneitian Hotel in Las Vegas. I could wax on at length about how amazing it all was but to get the sentiment across I’ll just say this: I never particularly liked tomato soup before now but it’s been totally ruined for me because I don’t believe anything can possibly top the orange elixir I was presented with at this restaurant. And don’t even get me started on the steak.

Upon further research about how professional chefs and kitchens function, I stumbled upon something interesting that I had first heard about in brief in the Pixar film Rattatouie (spoiler alert, we’ll be seeing quite a bit of French in this post). This was the full kitchen brigade pecking order and their roles. The more I thought about it I began to realize that there is less segmentation in so many kitchens and a lot more work is being put on to one or two people. The more I thought about the plight of the short order cook the more I realized that I could structure a very efficiently run studio around what I learned about how kitchens run.

Before I totally jump the gun here, let me lay out for you the kitchen hierarchy and roles in its entirety:

0. Executive Chef:

Only the largest establishments have this role and it’s mainly management. Tend to advise business managers, owners, and in some cases CEOs what is and isn’t possible and what direction they want to take the food in relation to marketing (if any). Can also manage kitchens at multiple locations.

1. Chef de Cuisine (aka Head Chef):

Controls the kitchen and manages kitchen staff. Controls kitchen costs, liaises with suppliers and creates menus.

2. Sous Chef

Literally meaning “second/deputy chef” they are the second in command. They fulfill many of the same roles as the Head Chef but are generally more involved with the day to day running of the kitchen. They also take over for the Head Chef when they aren’t around and can occasionally fill in for a Chef de Partie.

3. Chef de Partie (aka Station Chef, Line Cook):

Each chef here is responsible for a different station within the kitchen. They are usually the only worker in that department but sometimes may have several assistants. In some places there may be modifiers like junior or senior. These stations are (in order of hierarchy):

· Saucier (aka Sauté Chef and Sauce Chef) – They are in charge of sautéing items as well as creating all sauces and gravies that are required. They report directly to the Sous Chef and the Head Chef and for that reason are often very respected.

· Boucher (Butcher Chef) – In charge of preparing meat and poultry before they are delivered to their respective stations.

· Poissionner (Fish Chef) – In charge of preparing fish and seafood as well as their respective sauces. In smaller kitchens the Boucher will pull double duty in this position

· Rotisseur (Roast Chef) – While unclear if they are the sassiest cooks in the kitchen or not, these chefs are in charge of roasted meats and preparing the respective sauces.

· Frituerier (Fry Chef) – Prepares and specializes in fried food items.

· Grillardin (Grill Chef) – In charge of everything grilled

· Garde Manger (Pantry Chef) – In charge of preparing cold food items such as salads, dressings, and pâtés.

· Pattiseur (Desert Chef) – In charge of pastries, baked goods, and deserts.

· Chef de Tournant (Rounds Chef or Relief Chef) – This chef fills in for other chefs on all stations as needed.

· Entremtier (Vegetable Chef) – In charge of preparing vegetables, Soups, Starches, and Eggs. In larger kitchens this role may be broken up into the Legumer for vegetable dishes and Poitager for soups.

4. Commis Chef:

These are usually younger people sometimes working under a Chef de Partie to learn the ins and outs of a specific station. They may be in or completing formal culinary training.

· Kitchen Hand – Helps out around the kitchen with cleaning duties and food preparation like peeling potatoes, and washing salad.

· Esculerie (Dishwasher. Also the root of the English word Scullery) – This person collects and washes dishes from the dinging room and from the kitchen and conducts garbage duties.

· Aboyeur (Wait Staff) – Customer facing role. Serve food and report any problems with the food back to the kitchen.

So this is a pretty well set up hierarchy and it’s proven to work with slight alterations all across the restaurant industry. This means that far from the authoritarian nightmares such strict hierarchies can be made out to be by some, this one is remarkably stable for a number of reasons. First, like all stable hierarchies, the brigade is based on competence and not power. The head chef is the head chef because he is the most competent and experienced person in the kitchen. He or she may have worked in any or all of the roles the people under them currently occupy so know exactly what the limits of each chef’s station are. They also know when to give the line cooks orders so they’re working fast but not getting swamped. All of the line cooks are in their roles because that’s what they’re the best at doing, sure the Grillardine could do the Rotisseur’s job and vice versa but they won’t have the same level of expertise and will generally be a bit less nuanced at the job. Much like big band musicians, they follow the instructions the bandleader wrote out and interpret them in their own way for the customer. Make no mistake the business will fail if one member becomes too tyrannical as the food quality will suffer and customers will stop coming. Demotivated and downtrodden staff may not care how old or where the food in the fridge is or how well they cook it. Especially in the case of seafood, pork, poultry, and assorted allergens this can have lethal consequences.

So how would we apply this to the recording studio? Obviously less things need to be worried about in there so we don’t need quite as many roles but perhaps we can compartmentalize to optimize a bit.

1. Chief Engineer/Producer (Executive Chef):

If they don’t own the studio they tend to advise business managers, owners, and in some cases CEOs as to what is and isn’t possible within the parameters they set. This can mean negotiating deadlines, rates, and legal stuff as well as organizing schedules, purchasing new gear, and minding the books. Can also manage studios at multiple locations such as a mobile rig and a brick and mortar facility and, naturally, can run their own sessions as well. These will generally be the bigger artists the studio works with or old clients that have given the place a lot of business.

2. Engineer/Producer (Chef de Commis):

These people can either be guests that the artist or label brings in to make the record (i.e renting the facility for themselves) and also people employed at the studio. They control the session and manage studio staff, song arrangements, gear, and musicians. Also control costs, they liaise with labels and managers, and are responsible for creating the tones and vibes respectively.

3. Assistant Engineers (Sous Chefs):

There should always be at least one and four is ideal. They fulfill many of the same roles as the Engineer but are generally more involved with the boots-on-the-ground aspects running of the session. This means placing mics, plugging in cables, setting up the room(s), and labeling tielines according to the setup sheet designed by the Engineer. Additionally, if the Engineer needs something adjusted in the live room or isolation booth they will run and do it. One of them is also assigned to run the tape machine/ProTools so the engineer can focus on running the console/audio interface and they also take over for the Engineer when they aren’t around.

4. Techs (Chef de Partie):

Each tech is responsible for a different station within the studio. They are usually the only worker in that department but sometimes may have assistants. These stations are:

· Drum Tech – Responsible for the tuning, preparation and maintenance of the drums, cymbals, hardware, and percussion on the session. They report directly to the Engineer/Producer and can help with drum and cymbal selection

· Electric Stringed Instrument Tech (ESI) – Responsible for restringing, intonating, tuning, repairing, and generally setting up electric guitars and basses that will be used on the session to the satisfaction of the people playing them and the Engineer/Producer.

· Keys Tech – Responsible for the tuning and maintenance of all acoustic and electric pianos, organs, MIDI Controllers, and synthesizers (modular or analogue).

· Gear Tech – Responsible for troubleshooting, repairing, and maintaining outboard gear, consoles/audio interfaces, patch bays, mics, cables, and computers. Because it’s not too often that such big things go wrong it’s common for the Senior Gear Tech to be off site for most of the time and only called in once or twice a week whereas the Junior Gear Tech In larger establishments this could be divided into Mic Tech, Outboard Tech, Software Tech, and Cable Tech roles.

· Relief Tech – No specific role but subs out for other techs when they’re swamped.

5. Understudy Engineer/Assistant (Commis Chef):

These are usually younger people sometimes working under a Tech or an Assistant Engineer to learn the ins and outs of a specific station. They may be in or completing formal audio training.

· Intern (aka studio assistant)– Responsible for basic studio maintenance and preparedness like vacuuming the rugs, restocking the drinks and snacks, taking deliveries of food or gear, and generally helping out and shoring up the gaps that can’t be filled by the other people on staff.

· Representative – I believe this role to be essential to any studio. This person is essentially a salesman who goes from gig to gig (sometimes 2 or more in a night depending on location)

All of these roles can be morphed into each other in one form or another but it’s absolutely a goal of mine to establish some ghost of this system to my own studio someday. I hope you like this idea, let me know what you think!

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