Stepping into the world of food service can seem intimidating if you’re new to the industry. Not only is everyone moving at an incredibly fast pace, but they’re also using words that sound like a foreign language! Since food service is a highly specialized industry, it’s not uncommon for newbies to feel lost. Whether you’re a chef, server, or restaurant operator, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the culinary terms used in a commercial kitchen so you can keep up to speed and stay safe.
In this article, we’ve compiled 100 must-know culinary terms that will prepare you for your next career opportunity within the restaurant industry. Our carefully curated list of culinary terms includes a mix of cooking terminology and restaurant jargon.
Culinary terms are defined as specialized vocabulary used to describe processes, items, and other descriptors used in a kitchen or restaurant. Having a shared language in a restaurant helps to maximize efficiency and ensure that all staff are on the same page.
For those who work in the food service industry or are trying to pursue a job opportunity in the industry, making sure you’re familiar with restaurant lingo can help you better communicate with your coworkers, as well as customers. Since working in a restaurant can often be very fast-paced, having a quicker way to communicate with each other will allow the team to stay on top of orders and strive for success.
A quick review of the list below will have you prepped and ready for the kitchen or restaurant in no time!
2-top, 4-top, etc.: Either the number of people within a dining party or how many guests a table can seat. For example, a 2-top is a party of two people or a table that can seat two people. Hosts will often use this term to inform servers of new parties that have just been seated in their section.
86ed: When the kitchen has run out of an ingredient or an entire menu item. Can also be used to describe a patron that’s been escorted off the premises due to poor behavior.
A la carte: Despite the literal translation from French to be “by the card”, it’s interpreted in both French and English to mean “according to the menu”. It refers to separate dishes from a menu that are not part of a set meal.
Acidulation: Adding acidic substances, such as lemon juice or vinegar, to a dish.
Al dente: Al dente, an Italian term, describes pasta that is cooked to a firm yet tender consistency, offering a satisfying chewiness.
All day: The total number of one particular dish that the kitchen has to make. For example, if a table orders one tiramisu and another table orders three tiramisus, it would be “four tiramisus all day”.
Au gratin: A cooking method where a dish is topped with breadcrumbs, cheese, or a combination of both before being baked or broiled until a golden and crispy crust forms.
Au jus: A sauce made by deglazing the pan drippings of cooked meat with broth, wine, or other liquid, resulting in a rich and savory flavor.
Au sec: Translates to "dry" in French, used to describe a cooking technique where liquids, such as stocks or sauces, are reduced until almost completely evaporated.
Back-of-House (BOH): The areas where food is prepared, cooked, and organized, often including the kitchen and storage spaces.
Barding: The practice of wrapping meat with strips of fat before cooking.
Baste: A cooking method where you periodically drizzle, brush, or spoon liquids (such as juices, fats, or sauces) over food as it cooks.
Behind: Often called out by staff to inform each other when they are walking behind someone with an armful. Used to avoid bumping into each other and causing spills.
Blanching: A technique that involves briefly immersing food, usually vegetables or fruits, in boiling water and then quickly transferring them to an ice bath to stop the cooking process.
Brining: Soaking food, often meat or poultry, in a saltwater solution to enhance flavor, moisture retention, and tenderness.
Braising: A slow-cooking method that involves searing meat in a pan before simmering it in a flavorful liquid, such as broth or wine, until tender.
Bump it: Clearing an order from the kitchen’s order display screen once it’s been made and ready to be served.
Busser: A staff member that is responsible for clearing and resetting tables to ensure they are clean and prepared for the next guests.
Butterfly: A technique where poultry or fish is split open and flattened before cooking to help it cook evenly. Also known as spatchcocking.
Campers: Guests who stay to chat long after they’ve paid their check.
Caramelize: A cooking process where sugars present in foods, such as fruits, vegetables, or meats, are heated and broken down to create a rich, golden-brown color and caramel flavor.
Chit: A slip of paper that staff use to record and communicate customer orders to the kitchen. Also known as a “ticket”.
Comped: When items are given to guests at no charge.
Corner: Similar to when staff shout, “Behind!”, staff will use “corner” to inform others that they’re coming around a corner to avoid any accidents.
Coulis: A smooth, flavorful sauce made by blending or straining fruits, vegetables, or herbs.
Cover: The number of guests or diners served during a specific period, often a meal service. For example, having 100 covers for dinner service means that 100 guests were served for that specific meal time.
Cut: When a restaurant manager stops giving tables to a server, the server has been “cut”.
Dash: A small, quick pour or shake of a sauce, seasoning, or ingredient. Approximately ⅛ of a teaspoon.
Dead plate: Used to describe a completed dish that has been sitting under the heat lamp for too long.
Deuce: Can either be used to describe a table that can seat two people or a dining party of two.
Double shift: When staff work two shifts back-to-back.
Dredge: To lightly coat food, usually meat or vegetables, with a thin layer of flour, breadcrumbs, or other dry ingredients before cooking.
Drop the check: When the server presents the final bill to the guests at the end of their meal.
Emulsify: Combining two usually immiscible liquids, like oil and water, into a stable and creamy mixture by gradually incorporating one into the other while constantly mixing.
Entree: The main course of the dining experience. Typically served after appetizers or starters and before dessert.
Expo / Expeditor: A staff member that is tasked with making the dishes look their best and organizing the plates to ensure they go to the correct tables on time.
FIFO (First In, First Out): A principle that ensures that food that was prepped first will go out first.
Filet: A tender and lean cut of meat. Can also be used as a verb meaning to skillfully remove bones from a piece of meat or fish, resulting in a boneless and often more easily manageable cut.
Flambe: A technique where alcohol is added to a dish and then ignited to create a burst of flames.
Food runner: A staff member who is responsible for delivering prepared dishes from the kitchen to the appropriate table.
Floor: The main dining area where guests are seated and served.
Front-of-House (FOH): The public-facing areas of a restaurant where customers are received, seated, and served, including the dining room, bar, and host stand.
FSR (Full Service Restaurant): A type of restaurant where customers can enjoy a complete dining experience, including table service and a variety of menu options.
Glaze: Brushing a flavorful liquid, like a sweet sauce or savory reduction, onto cooked food to add a glossy finish and enhance its taste.
Grill: To cook food directly over an open flame to create a charred and smoky flavor.
Grease: Applying a thin layer of fat, such as oil, butter, or cooking spray, onto a cooking surface or pan to prevent food from sticking during cooking or baking.
Heard: Used by staff to acknowledge that they received and understood the information given to them by another staff member.
Hors-d’oeuvre: French for “outside the work”, an hors-d’oeuvre is a small dish served before the main course in a meal, intended to stimulate the appetite.
In the weeds: Used by staff to indicate that they’ve fallen far behind.
In the window: “The window” refers to the warming area between the kitchen and the serving area. When dishes are ready to be served, the kitchen staff will put the dish “in the window” to be served.
Infusion: Steeping ingredients like herbs, spices, or fruits in a hot liquid to infuse it with their flavors, aromas, and sometimes colors.
Julienne: A cutting technique where ingredients, typically vegetables, are sliced into thin strips.
Jus: A flavorful and concentrated meat or vegetable-based liquid that results from cooking and deglazing pan drippings, often used as a sauce to enhance the taste of a dish.
Jacquarding: Creating a pattern of small perforations in tougher cuts of meat using a specialized tool, like a meat tenderizer or jacquard needle.
Kill it: Refers to overcooking a guest’s order to make it very well done.
KDS (Kitchen Display System): A screen in the kitchen that displays all the orders for chefs to see. This system is used to streamline and manage the flow of orders from the point of sale to the kitchen.
Knead: The process of working dough by pressing, folding, and stretching it repeatedly with your hands.
Last call: Signifies the last opportunity for guests to place orders for food and drinks before the restaurant closes.
Larding: Inserting thin strips of fat into lean cuts of meat to add moisture, flavor, and tenderness during cooking.
Liaison: Combining a thickening agent, typically egg yolks or cream, with a hot liquid to create a smooth and cohesive texture, often used in sauces and soups.
Mid: A shift that goes from lunch through dinner.
Mise / Mise en place: French for “put in place”, this means to prepare and organize all necessary ingredients and tools before cooking begins.
Marinate: Soaking meat in a sauce to infuse it with the sauce’s flavor.
Mince: To finely chop ingredients into very small pieces.
Needling: Inserting fine slivers of ingredients, like garlic or herbs, directly into meat to infuse it with additional flavor throughout the cooking process.
On the fly: Typically used when a server forgets to input an order and needs the order to be prepared quickly.
Party: A group of guests.
Pass: The designated area or station where finished dishes are organized and checked for quality before being sent out to the dining area.
Pick up: Used when a staff member takes over a table that was previously being served by a different staff member.
Poach: Gently cooking eggs, fish, or poultry by submerging it in a simmering liquid until it reaches a tender consistency.
POS (Point Of Sale): A system where orders are entered, managed, and processed before they are sent to the kitchen for preparation.
Pinch: Typically the amount of an ingredient that can be held between the thumb and forefinger. Approximately 1/16 of a teaspoon.
Puree: To blend or process ingredients into a smooth and uniform mixture.
Quatre-épices: French for “four spices”, quatre-épices refers to a traditional French spice blend composed of ground pepper, cloves, nutmeg, and ginger.
QSR (Quick Service Restaurant): A type of food service establishment known for its fast and efficient service, often offering a limited menu of ready-to-order and pre-prepared items.
Rail: Where kitchen staff place all the tickets for pending orders. Can also be referred to as a “board”.
Run: Bringing dishes or drinks to a table.
Render: Melting and removing the fat from meat using low heat.
Roast: Exposing meat and vegetables to dry, indirect heat in an oven or over an open flame.
Scripting: Providing staff with standardized talking points to ensure consistent and professional communication with customers.
Side Work: Prep work that’s done by front-of-house staff, such as rolling silverware.
SOS: Acronym for sauce on the side.
Stretch it: When the kitchen is running low on an ingredient and chefs need to try to make it last until the end of the meal service.
Sub: To substitute an ingredient for another.
Straight up: Used when a guest orders a dish exactly the way it’s described or presented on the menu.
Sautee: Cooking vegetables or meat in a small amount of hot oil or butter over high heat.
Sear: Quickly cooking the surface of meat or fish over high heat to create a caramelized and flavorful exterior, often using a hot pan or grill.
Simmer: Cooking food gently and slowly in a liquid that is heated to a point just below boiling.
Score: To make shallow cuts on the surface of food usually with a knife.
Table Turn: Cleaning and preparing a table after a guest has left to ensure it’s ready for the next group of guests.
Ticket: A slip of paper that staff use to record and communicate customer orders to the kitchen. Also known as a “chit”.
Tempering: The gradual mixing of a small amount of a hot liquid into a cooler one to raise the temperature of the cooler mixture without it curdling or solidifying.
Upsell: Suggesting or promoting higher-priced menu items or premium options to customers.
Use First: Used to label ingredients or products that need to be used first to prevent waste.
Walkout: When a party leaves the restaurant without paying for their meal. Also known as “dining and dashing”.
Whip: Rapidly beating a food ingredient, such as cream or egg whites, with a whisk or mixer to incorporate air and increase its volume.
Whisk: Vigorously mixing ingredients using a whisk.
Waxing a Table: Giving a table special treatment for VIP or special guests.
Well: The standard, house, or lower-priced selection of alcoholic beverages that are readily available.
Zest: Grating or shaving the outer colorful peel of citrus fruits to add to dishes or drinks.
To be successful in the world of food service, mastering the language is just as important as perfecting your techniques. We hope that our guide on 100 must-know culinary terms offered a solid foundation for newbies and a quick refresher for seasoned food service employees. Just like any other language, practice makes perfect, and spending time working in a restaurant will have you speaking like a pro in no time.
“In the labor numbers, we were reporting about a $300 to $400 difference than what we were getting through Push!”
-Tara Hardie, ZZA Hospitality Group, 16 locations