When I published Elements of Cooking last fall, I also began a blog to address, well, elements of cooking— aromats and water, pâte a choux and ganache—basic stuff, because great cooking, whether it’s in your own kitchen or in the four-star restaurant, is completely reliant on performing the basics well. I was able to talk about the basics I cared about most, learn from others who commented, chefs and home cooks alike, and coerce my amazing wife into giving me an image for the post. And I intend to continue it—but not on a separate blog. Two blogs, too much. I guess I was trying to keep the cooking separate from the opinion, food politics and food rants. But attending to one made me feel I was neglecting the other. And besides, it’s all one thing in the end. So herewith Monday’s element, perhaps the most important single idea in cooking.
Mise en Place
photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman
Mise en place: Literally “put in place,” mise en place is the kitchen term for your set up, the gathering and preparation of all the tools and food you need to complete the task at hand; mise en place can refer to a cook’s organization on the line before the evening’s service (line cooks often refer to it simply as “meez” and can be extremely territorial about their own); mise en place can refer to the wooden spoon, wine, stock, rice, and salt you gather before starting a risotto. Because it’s such an important part of the chef’s life, so critical to efficiency of action and the use of time, the term often carries broader connotations of being ready. Excellent mise represents the ultimate state of preparedness, whether the physical mise en place of food and tools or the mental mise en place of having thought a task through to the end and being ready for each step of it.
One of the reasons I love the world of the kitchen is because so much of the work of cooking has a metaphorical component. I believe that cooking well, or striving to, is a metaphor for living well. Having good mise en place is a metaphor for being organized in your life and in your mind. Its goals are to ensure preparedness and efficiency of action.
The above mise was for a pasta dish I made to bring to my father’s yesterday, a main course to go with Superbowl food he’d be preparing. I needed something that could be largely prepared in advance and was portable. My dad loves a creamy pasta with sausage, and I’d so utterly failed him with the one I made two weeks ago (not enough fat!) that I vowed to do better—roasted vegetables, some of Brian’s Keilbasa (from Charcuterie, lots of fat!), all combined with a shalloty béchamel (an underappreciated mother sauce). Have your mise en place together—whether its a pasta course, a business presentation, heart operation, or putting a tile backsplash in your kitchen—and it all comes together in a snap, but more important, you'll be more likely to surmount the unexpected obstacles that fall in your way. Yea, verily.