The French have taught us plenty about fine food – coq au vin and cassoulet, croissants and crêpes.
But one of their most useful culinary lessons is about what should take place before cooking. Good chefs know that a great meal begins with mise en place – putting things in their place. It’s a pro planning technique that any home cook can adopt too, for more mindful, organized meal times.
Simply put, mise en place means methodical prepwork: arranging your workspace for efficiency, gathering tools and ingredients, chopping and slicing before cooking and keeping things clean as you go.
Pro chefs know proper mise en place techniques, while not glamorous, are essential.
“It’s about being as efficient as you possibly can,” said Sean Clark, executive chef of Steamworks Brewing Co. and El Moro Spirits and Tavern in Durango “The French have this way of making everything sound complicated and romantic at the same time, with their fancy words, but at the end of the day, it’s about having your stuff together. Coming in, setting up your station, having everything in arm’s reach.”
Chef Michel Poumay has worked in professional kitchens since age 11 and has owned successful French eateries in Aspen and Durango. Now, as a one-chef show running Michel’s Corner Authentic Crêpes on Main Avenue and College Drive, he says mise en place techniques he learned as a culinary student remain necessary to allow him to crank out hundreds of crêpes daily from his quaint cart.
“Here, every inch counts, and it’s crucial for me to be ready,” he said. “I’m most precise when I’m cooking.” His cart, while small, is completely organized, with every food item, sauce and tool easily within reach of the griddle where he stands most of the day.
He spends the off-season preparing and freezing many of his fillings and sauces and preps everything else in the afternoons after he has closed his cart. Because of such meticulous organization, Poumay’s mornings are streamlined. “I can walk in 15 minutes before opening and everything is in its place,” he said. He just picks some fresh basil, dill and parsley from the tubs of herbs growing outside his cart’s doorway, turns on the griddle and is set to cook.
While the pros need to rely on mise en place techniques to turn out consistent, quality fare for their customers, any home cook can benefit from being conscious about their kitchen work.
“It takes some of the pleasure out of cooking if you’re always scrambling,” Clark said. “It takes you off your game, and you lose that opportunity to connect with the recipe. You rob yourself of that opportunity.”
Likely every cook at some point is robbed of that opportunity: Busy lives, a late departure from work, noisy children, homework tasks, phone calls or other interruptions mean that there are always going to be nights when dinner is a thrown-together, frenzied affair.
But when you are able to make the time, mise en place can bring mindfulness to cooking.
It can transform meal prep into a more measured, careful experience – one in which you take time to appreciate the act of preparing individual foods to be folded, stirred or sautéed into something greater than they would be on their own. It can be a way to appreciate more deeply the efforts we make to nourish our bodies – a sharp knife efficiently slicing vegetables, the clean clink of glass prep bowls, the pretty color combinations of spices tossed together.
“It’s a peaceful time,” Poumay says of his prep work, even though it comes at the end of a long, busy day.
Author Dan Charnas views mise en place as not just a cook’s tool but a way to overhaul your life.
In his new book, Work Clean: The life-changing power of mise-en-place to organize your life, work and mind, Charnas says what it really teaches is consciousness. “It’s a set of values,” he writes. “It’s a philosophy of how to start things and how to complete things … how to say yes to things and no to others. When practiced consciously, mise-en-place can be helpful in creating balance,” in professional and personal lives as well as in the kitchen.
However you choose to apply it in your own life, it’s clear that being more mindful and organized about your kitchen space and cooking habits can only aid in the enjoyment of making a meal.
“People mistake that with chefs sometimes; they say, ‘Man, everything you guys do is fast,’” Clark said. “Maybe it’s fast, or maybe you’re just maximizing your steps. It’s about working smarter, not harder.”
At its most basic level, mise en place is a way to simplify food prep and streamline mealtime. Applied to the broader picture of one’s life, it can become a way of practicing mindfulness in the tasks of nourishing body, mind and soul.
With a few extra dishes to wash.