In a recent NPR article, “For A More Ordered Life, Organize Like A Chef,” by Dan Chamas, he suggests that we just might learn something more than food preparation from these masters of organization and production. The CIA uses this cooking discipline, “Mise-en-place” in the training of their agents. But let me warn you that this article is not for the faint of heart. Obsession is just the beginning of this journey of absolute time and ingredient management. Proceed with caution!
1. Have your life in place (your compass).
Now the secret to all this is a simple phrase, “Mise-en-place” which means to “put in place” in French. It is the art and science of gathering and arranging all the cooking tools and ingredients needed for preparing your creation without interruption. Many times the preparation and the arrangement of all your kitchen tools and ingredient measurements and assembly will take longer than the actual cooking and serving time.
So what are the ingredients in our lives that could compare to the chef’s kitchen? Well the choices we make for our significant other, our career, our friends, our living quarters, our education levels all affect what we do in our day-to-day. Then when we are at critical mass, we live within those choices. And are we living in our prisons or our countrysides?
And are those choices the right ingredients to create our “Life-meal”? Are you “conducting” your life correctly? The chef is like the conductor of a great symphony orchestra. Everything must be in balance and added in correct time. Nothing must be late. Nothing must be rushed. Nothing must be too heavily seasoned. Nothing must be too loud or too soft. A perfect performance and a perfectly prepared meal are many times one in the same.
2. Have your mind in place (your Zen).
The “Mise-en-place” or “Cooking Zen” must be located mentally before the real cooking can begin. Without it, mistakes are made, time is wasted, and your creation will not become what it was destined to become.
“It starts with your list,” says Wylie Dufresne, the James Beard award-winning chef and owner of New York restaurants wd~50 and Alder.
“What I used to do is, let’s say I had 23 items of mise-en-place I had to do every day. So I’d take a pad and I’d write them all down on the way home. And then I would crumple the list up and throw it out,” he says. “On my way to work I’d write the list again. And you become one with your list. You and the list are the same, because the list is scorched into your head.”
Dan Chamas’s article says, ”But for many culinary professionals, the phrase connotes something deeper. Some cooks call it their religion. It helps them coordinate vast amounts of labor and material, and transforms the lives of its practitioners through focus and self-discipline”.
“I know people that have it tattooed on them,” says Melissa Gray, a senior at the Culinary Institute of America. “It really is a way of life … it’s a way of concentrating your mind to only focus on the aspects that you need to be working on at that moment, to kind of rid yourself of distractions.”
And it’s a habit that some culinary students carry with them even when they’re not in the kitchen. “You mise-en-place your life. You set up your books for class, you set up your chef whites, your shoes are shined, you know everything that you need every step of the day,” says Alexandra Tibbats, another student at the CIA.
Gray says that she now arranges her home office as she would her mise-en-place. “My desk is specifically organized based off of where I reach for things the most. [It’s] being so methodical to the point that you continually put your pen back in one specific place.”
3. Have your time in place (your clock).
Dan continues by saying that some chefs believe that mise-en-place is nothing more than a kitchen version of good old-fashioned military discipline. After all, the rigid culinary hierarchy codified in the 19th century by Georges-Auguste Escoffier is called the “brigade system.”
He demands the same kind of efficiency outside his kitchen. “If I go to the doctor, and if he’s not ready, I leave. And that’s because of mise-en-place.”
So center your life with your Compass, find your mindset with your Zen, and prepare each day on time with your Clock just like you were in the kitchen or conducting a symphony orchestra. No one else will do it better! Find out where your “Mise-en-place” is today and live a delicious and nutritious life tomorrow!
Featured photo credit: Bruce Binn at Spork via ts1.mm.bing.net