One of Shauna Ahern’s recent posts on her beautifully photographed blog Gluten-Free Girl struck a chord with me. She commented that when she first met her husband, a professional chef, her cooking technique made him nervous. She said she tended to turn on the stove and then begin chopping, and “burned a lot of garlic that year.” As she puts it, “Everything grew easier when Danny taught me how to set up my mise en place before cooking.”
Mise en Place
Professional chefs have a system of having everything ready to cook, called mise en place. They do all of their prep first, then concentrate only on cooking when it’s time to work ‘on the line.’ The video Shauna made with her husband Daniel to illustrate ‘mise en place’ is quite cute, and yeah, Danny has my number:
After watching this video a few weeks ago I’ve tried to do a better job of prepping before I cook. It’s a work in progress. It starts with a clean and uncluttered work environment, which for me means straightening up the remains of everyone’s snacks which tend to be scattered around by late afternoon (another thing for this household to work on).
Then I need to read or think about my recipe carefully and assemble the ingredients. Slowing down to carefully read or to organize things is not, my family can tell you, one of my natural strengths. So this mise en place is more an aspiration than a practice for me right now. I’ll often notice when I’m doing the opposite, running around after ingredients while I’m cooking, and the resulting stress. If I’m lucky, I’ll have time to stop, create my peaceful mise en place, and begin again.
The parallels in this process for how I should be managing other areas, like my desk and its accompanying paperwork, are not lost on me. But perhaps I can start with the kitchen?
There’s another practice for creating a more peaceful kitchen that like mise en place, is a no-brainer in theory. It’s menu planning. Here’s one of the better resources I’ve found: a post on weekly menu planning from Ward Street Bistro, the blog of a former professional chef. To start planning for the following week on Saturday morning, she says she can go through the following mental checklist in five to ten minutes:
What’s in the refrigerator that needs to be used up? What’s on special at the market? What’s in season? What’s our schedule next week?
I can say for certain that I myself can’t do this in anything like five to ten minutes. Probably my refrigerator needs a lot more mise en place–another example of how spending time cleaning and preparing the kitchen could save me time later. At times I’ve spent my Saturday morning cleaning the fridge, inventorying the cupboard, and scanning the supermarket specials without ever making it to the farmer’s market at all.
While I spend a lot of time thinking about what we’re going to have for dinner, a lot of that thinking is done at, oh, say at 5 o’clock. Even when I do sit down on the weekend to plan ahead, I can spend a long time thinking or looking in cookbooks or online without making firm plans. Certainly not plans for every day of the week. So this is another ‘aspirational’ one for me.
Both the mise en place and the menu planning require dedicating real time to planning ahead. Well-spent time if if it gains, as Leslie Kaufman notes in her NYT piece on menu planning, “freedom from the painfully frequent question, “What are we going to eat tonight?” And replaces the five o’clock rush with something a lot more effective and peaceful.
I hope to report back to you again about how I’m doing in my quest to create a more peaceful kitchen. What are your best tips?