It’s the first thing they teach you in chef school: a system called mise-en-place, or literally, “put in place.” It’s a French phrase that means to gather and arrange the ingredients and tools needed for cooking.
The mise evolved out of the rigid “brigade system” of culinary hierarchy codified in the 19th century by Chef Georges-Auguste Escoffier.
This system emphasizes focus and self-discipline and a high level of organization and order.
Escoffier would probably have agreed with Ben Franklin who once said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”
In the high-stress world of the professional chefs, planning and preparation are paramount. How else could they prepare so many meals of exceptional quality, one after the other in a three-hour period, night after night after night?
Preparation is the essence of mise-en-place.
At its most basic, mise-en-place means to set out all of your ingredients before you start to cook.
Measure out what you will need, chop the vegetables that will need to be chopped, and have everything ready on the counter or in small bowls on a tray.
In the following YouTube video, “How to Mise-en-Place, published by Cooking Light, Chef Keith Schroeder, author of MAD DELICIOUS: The Science of Making Healthy Food Taste Amazing!, demonstrates how home cooks can start to “mise” their recipes.
TAKING IT TO THE NEXT LEVEL
If you talk to professional chefs, that part of the mise-en-place is just the tip of a very large iceberg. Some of them get downright Zen or Jedi about it. Everything has to be in place, including your stance and your mindset.
Writer Dan Charnas, of hip-hop journalism fame, wrote a book, WORK CLEAN: The Life-Changing Power of Mise-en-Place to Organize Your Life, Work, and Mind. It grew out of his interviews of dozens of culinary professionals and executives and focused on his understanding of mise-en-place as a personal code of ethics that emphasized excellence.
As Charnas says in an article he wrote for National Public Radio, “….most colleges and grad schools don’t teach basic organization. Culinary schools and professional kitchens do.”
This YouTube video, “The Ingredients of Work Clean,” published by Rodale Press shortly before the book came out, contains a brief explanation of what it is: a simple system that helps you focus your actions and accomplish your aims
- Planning is prime. Be ruthlessly honest about time and timing. It’s the only way you can set it up right.
- Arrange spaces so you can perfect moves. Place things so you can make your moves with just the flick of your fingers. Know how you move and place your dishes of prepared ingredients and your tools right where you will be able to reach them when it’s time to use them.
- Clean as you go. Keep your tools and your station as organized as when you first started. This knife goes in this space. The chopped chives go right there. Everything that is no longer needed does not belong at your station. You’ll need it later so if you’ve got a breathing space, wash up the thing you’ve used and put it aside for when you’ll next need it.
- Know what to start first. Start the longest process first. It will be done by the time you get to the shortest process and by the time you’re done, you’ll be at the end.
- Do not wait to finish. It isn’t finished until it’s delivered. As soon as it’s ready, let it go.
- Slow down to speed up. Don’t panic when things get hectic. Calm your body, calm your mind. Hurry opens the door to mistakes. Get it right, and fast will happen.
- Open your eyes and ears. Balance your internal and external awareness. Remain focused and open. Be receptive. React as needed to the world around you but stay focused on what you are doing.
- Call and call back. Streamline and confirm essential communications. Follow up, update your team and turn information into intel you all can use to work together well.
- Inspect and correct. Excellence requires vigilance. Check your work.
- Aim for total utilization. Avoid wasting time, space, motion, resources or persons. Figure out how to tap into the flow of using them all and making them move in the direction you want them to go. Look to create a synergy that you can step into.
The real is that mise-en-place is about being able to “work clean.” It’s not about “creating order,” as in, “Gee, wow, I’ve organized my desk and doesn’t it look clean and cool?”
What mise-en-place says is, “I’m committed to move through all of these many steps I need to do and get them done right. When I’ve finished with all the steps of this project I am on now, I’ll wrap it up and deliver it. Then I’ll resume my stance at my station, put myself in a position where everything is in place for me to work on the next project, and I’ll deliver that one.”
With mise-en-place you can repeat as needed for as long as necessary and it all gets done right every time. You think about the process of making something from start to finish, and then you set up a system so you can get it done.
The system you create and maintain will allow you to stay focused on the most important thing at each moment. What you need to do to accomplish something gets done faster and more proficiently because everything you need to do it is right there in front of you.
It’s cooking, planned and executed like a military campaign, and the moves are eminently transferable to other life-things as well.
A companion YouTube video, also published by Rodale Press, “The Daily Meeze” is a short introduction to the 30-minute daily planning session that Charnas recommends as a way to take mise-en-place out of the kitchen and apply it to regular life.
You may be able to figure out your own way to make your “meeze” your own. Think about it.
Here’s a poem:
I SHOW UP
I suppose one thing there is
That can be said about me:
I show up.
It isn’t much, that.
I raise no mountains.
It’s not like I’m riding
On the waves at Jaws,
Throwing myself down
The face of some
Massive wall of water,
The epitome of Cool.
I show up.
What needs to be done
Gets done because of that.
The gears get oiled,
The wheels keep turning
And nothing comes
To a screeching halt.
I show up.
By Netta Kanoho
Header picture credit: “Dongjiadu Mise-en-place” by Gary Stevens via Flickr [CC BY-2.0]
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