The First Thing Great Chefs Do Before They Start Cooking
I am not a trained chef. I am a passionate home cook who has read a lot of cookbooks and nonfiction food writing. I also watch a lot of food television. Having never gone to culinary school, I was late to the mise en place game, but recently I have realized that it not only changed my cooking, it changed my life.
If you don’t know the professional kitchen lingo, mise en place is French for “everything in its place.” It’s a philosophy about preparation that permeates everything about a well-run restaurant kitchen and is a part of any chef’s professional practice. The devotion to mise, as it is often said colloquially, is ultimately about efficiency. A restaurant kitchen must function smoothly, with little wasted time, effort, or energy. It is about being able to execute flawlessly, in the least amount of time, with the least exertion. A huge part of any chef’s day is their prep, which they will often call doing their mise, because it sets them up for the actual cooking.
What is mise en place exactly?
Traditional kitchen mise is a pretty simple concept. First, you take the recipe that you intend to cook and read it thoroughly to familiarize yourself with the timing, techniques, equipment, and ingredients you will need. Second, you pull all of the necessary equipment and arrange it near your cooking station, so that it is at the ready. This could include everything from your knives, to side towels, to bowls/pots/pans, and any other equipment like food processors or immersion blenders. Then you get all of your ingredients, often using sheet pans to be able to get large numbers of things or big quantities without multiple trips to the pantry and walk-in.
Once your ingredients are at your station, you prep them according to the recipe. If things need to be peeled, cut a certain way, measured or weighed, you do this now, arranging the prepped items in convenient containers, usually in the order in which you will need them for the recipe. Lastly, you return any unused ingredients back to their rightful storage places and clean your station so that you are left only with the prepared ingredients and the equipment you will need to make the dish.
Why is mise en place important?
All of this vaguely OCD fuss is for a purpose. Once you start cooking, you don’t have to stop. You won’t need to pause to peel and chop a carrot or go looking for the baking soda or dig in the cabinet to find the blender. Everything you need is at your fingertips the moment you need it, helping you get the best result for your recipe in the smoothest possible way.
I am not naturally a very organized person. Sloppier in my youth than I am in adulthood, I still found that my general impulses are just that, impulsive. A picture of a gooey cookie with attendant recipe on my social media feed might send me into the kitchen to make my own. And more than once, I would get halfway through the new-to-me recipe and discover I was lacking an ingredient or key piece of equipment, or even just didn’t read ahead to find that they require an overnight chill in the fridge making my desire for cookies RIGHT NOW an impossible achievement.
While I was a late adopter of the cult of mise, once I started, I was all-in.
annick vanderschelden photograph/Getty Images
I have a stash of sheet pans in every size, from teeny to full commercial size, and use them to gather and corral ingredients. I organized my kitchen much like a restaurant kitchen and can easily pull necessary equipment. I have become slavish about reading recipes through at least a couple of times before I start to cook, so that nothing catches me off-guard. There is nothing worse than facing down a pot of ever-darkening caramel and realizing too late that the recipe calls for an ice bath to stop the cooking, and knowing in your gut that the closest bag of ice is in the freezer in the basement two floors down and your perfectly amber liquid is going to be coffee black by the time you go get it.
What I hadn’t anticipated was how much the mise would sneak into other areas of my life. I travel a reasonable amount for both business and pleasure, and suddenly found myself doing mise for my packing! Going through my upcoming trips day by day, event by event, weather changes taken into consideration, and laying out complete groupings of outfits instead of piles of pieces. Where I had always been a person who planned packing by simply counting days and then multiplying up items from there (seven pairs of underwear, four shirts, three sweaters, three pairs of pants, one skirt, one dress, etc.) now I was thinking of every day of a trip as a recipe. First, I am going to breakfast, then immediately to a meeting, which will include lunch. My afternoon is free to wander, then my evening requires something fancier, and the whole day is supposed to be intermittently rainy. The recipe of my day tells me what ingredients I need (my clothes), and what equipment I will use (umbrella, raincoat, waterproof walking shoes). Suddenly I stopped returning from trips with a half-suitcase of unworn items and a bunch of new purchases of items I had neglected to bring. I started traveling smarter and more efficiently.
I started planning errands the way a chef would plan their trip around the kitchen to gather what they need, not just making a willy-nilly list of stuff that needs doing, but taking a moment to think about the locations of things and plan the outings starting at the farthest point and working my way logically back home, putting fewer miles on the car, and often cutting my running around time in half. Grocery lists started getting organized by the sections of the store, which I know like the back of my hand. I mise all over the place, and while I am still not a natural, and often slip, especially on areas of clean-up (do not get my husband started on the state of my car trunk), I am finding that my life is just a bit easier and more manageable. Not Marie Kondo perfect, but perfect for me.
Whether it is loading the car for a road trip, packing my tote bag for a day out of the house, or making those cookies, mise en place has changed my life in and out of the kitchen. What might it do for yours?