The universe is in order when your station is set up the way you like it: you know where to find everything with your eyes closed, everything you need during the course of the shift is at the ready at arm’s reach, your defenses are deployed.
That quote is from Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. A self-proclaimed rant fully intended for people in the business, they call it the culinary world now, not so much as an expose’ but as an affirmation for Chefs. Written around the time the celebrity chef phenomenon was coming to life he truly believed it was a book for the real people in the kitchen. He wanted to uphold what every chef knows, cooking is hard. You try putting out meal after meal exactly the same way at the same quality. You try doing anything over and over with perfection, it’s hard.
There have been a few articles lately on the subject of mise en place. Pronounced meez ahn plass, literal translation, set in place. NPR’s: The Salt did one titled: For a More Ordered Life, Organize Like A Chef. Their premise was if Americans were going to spend almost $10 billion dollars on personal organizing products they might want to adopt a mise en place mentality for a hell of a lot less. They did allude to the deeper meaning to the Chef by saying: “Some cooks call it their religion. It helps them coordinate vast amounts of labor and material, and transforms the lives of its practitioners through focus and self-discipline.” They went on to quote a senior at the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) “It really is a way of life…it’s a way of concentrating your mind to only focus on the aspects that you need to be working on at that moment, to kind of rid yourself of distractions”
Ron Friedman recently wrote about “How to Spend the First 10 Minutes of Your Day for the Harvard Business Review. Quoting none other than Anthony Bourdain, “Mise-en-place is the religion of all good line cooks. Do not fuck with a line cook’s ‘meez’ — meaning his setup, his carefully arranged supplies of sea salt, rough-cracked pepper, softened butter, cooking oil, wine, backups, and so on. As a cook, your station, and its condition, its state of readiness, is an extension of your nervous system… He left out some of the more floral language, obviously he hasn’t worked in the business.
There are productivity companies out there with mise en place in their name. They handle workflow management, paper management, email management, and e-document management.
With all these people talking about mise en place as basic organization I take exception. I haven’t been in food service in over twenty years (slowly but surely I’m being dragged back in, in a good way this time) but I still live in mise en place. Good life management is mise en place. Again, Anthony Bourdain, “If you let your mise-en-place run down, get dirty and disorganized, you’ll quickly find yourself spinning in place and calling for backup. I worked with a chef who used to step behind the line to a dirty cook’s station in the middle of a rush to explain why the offending cook was falling behind. He’d press his palm down on the cutting board, which was littered with peppercorns, spattered sauce, bits of parsley, bread crumbs and the usual flotsam and jetsam that accumulates quickly on a station if not constantly wiped away with a moist side towel. “You see this?” he’d inquire, raising his palm so that the cook could see the bits of dirt and scraps sticking to his chef’s palm. “That’s what the inside of your head looks like now.”
I can’t begin to tell you what the inside of my head looked like; I wasn’t paying attention to my mise en place. I forgot to gather my ingredients, sharpen my knife, keep my board clean, I lived in Plan B. Plan B is NOT mise en place. If you look around my home now I am surrounded by quality ingredients, not high end pricey “stuff”. I’m surrounded by simple and meaningful. You could spend days walking around my tiny home with me and learning the stories of each of my possessions.
A place for everything and everything in its place, thanks Ben Franklin. It makes life easy, every day is the same but different. It’s the same in its simplicity, its creativity, and its ease. I can sit at my desk and reach for anything I need. My tiny kitchen is perfect in its easy reach, organization, clean board, knives ready, fridge stocked. My poor Sister might never live down the day she inadvertently (or maybe not) rearranged the contents of my fridge, and took the bag that I keep my apples in…I know how that sounds and I hope someday you’ll be there with me. Just sayin.
I have a list each day, it usually starts with an adjective, there’s a goal and prioritizing exactly as Ron Friedman suggests. The list, or becoming one with the list as Wylie Dufresne, James Beard award winning chef and restaurant owner claims, is the basis for all good mise en place. It cements your creativity and makes it attainable in a clean and precise manner. The New Professional Chef puts it this way: “mise en place means far more than simple assembling all the ingredients, pots and pans, plates and serving pieces needed for a particular period. Mise en place is also a state of mind. Someone who has truly grasped the concept is able to keep many tasks in mind simultaneously, weighing and assigning each is proper value and priority. This assures that the chef has anticipated and prepared for every situation.”
Any good chef knows that prep is key. There is more time spent on prep than anything else. Menu development, recipe building, mise en place (prep) and the rest is production. If all goes well in the first two, production is instinctive and the benefits are delicious. Call it what you like but find some new religion people. And, if you can, thank a chef.