What's the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the French? Yeah...well...okay, me, too. But what I was actually going for is cooking.
The French have occupied the top spot on the culinary food chain ever since the Italians taught them to cook in the 16th century. And for all of the high-flown and overblown absurdities that are sometimes associated with the classic French kitchen – measuring the height and number of pleats in a chef's toque comes to mind – there is one precept that is absolutely indispensable in any kitchen: mise en place.
Loosely translated, mise en place means “put in place,” and although the codified principle of mise en place can probably be traced back to Georges Auguste Escoffier and his brigade system, the actual concept is basically what your grandmother always told you; a place for everything and everything in its place. This is especially important in the kitchen. And not just in the restaurant kitchen, but in the home kitchen, as well.
A good cook is an efficient cook and employing mise en place assures efficiency. And the practice of mise en place doesn't just apply to professional chefs. Even in home kitchens, organization and efficiency mark the difference between an average cook and an above average cook.
Consider the following recipe for a basic marinara sauce:
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 yellow onion, peeled and chopped fine
3 tbsp olive oil
2 (28-ounce) cans tomato puree
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 tsp sugar
1 cup chicken stock
Red pepper flakes to taste
Salt to taste
In a large saucepan, cook the garlic and onion in the olive oil over medium-low heat for about 10 minutes or until the garlic is tender and the onions are translucent, not brown. Add the red pepper flakes to taste.
Add all the tomato products. Pour the chicken stock into one of the 28-oz cans. Fill it the rest of the way with water and add that and the sugar to the pot. Stir and bring to a simmer. Taste and season with salt and cover. Simmer the sauce for about 1 hour. The sauce should be fairly thin, but not watery and very smooth. Uncover and simmer for 3 minutes if it is too thin for your taste; add a little water if it seems thick.
(This is an excellent recipe, by the way.)
Now, the average cook will likely start by going to the shelf or cupboard for a saucepan. He'll walk over to the stove and place it on a burner. Then he'll go to the pantry and find some olive oil. Next, he'll hunt for some measuring spoons and then head back to the stove to measure in the oil. Now it's back to the pantry for some garlic and then a search for a knife or a garlic press. Once the garlic is crushed, the average cook goes back to the pantry for an onion. He then locates a cutting board and goes back to the counter where he left his knife after he finished with the garlic. After he chops the onion, he goes back to the stove and turns on the burner. He adds in the garlic and onion and then looks for a wooden spoon with which to stir it. Now it's back to the pantry for the tomato products, moving quickly so the garlic and onions don't burn. Find the can opener and open all the cans of tomato product. Ooops! Forgot the red pepper flakes! Back to the pantry. Guess what? No red pepper flakes. Too late now. We'll just have to leave them out. So, now the tomato products are in. Back to the pantry for the chicken stock. Locate the can opener and open the can. Find a measuring cup and measure out the stock. Over to the sink to get some water then back to the pantry for the sugar. Find the measuring spoons again and measure out the sugar, then go back over to the sink and get the can with the stock and the water. Then over to the stove to dump it all in the pan and stir it up. Go get the salt shaker off the table and then go back to the stove to add it to the sauce. Go over to the silverware drawer and get a spoon, then step back over to the stove to taste the sauce. Now, just figure out which lid fits the pan, cover it and the hard part is done!
Except it was a lot harder than it needed to be.
The organized cook checks the recipe first and makes sure he has all the ingredients. It's a lot easier to make a run to the store now than when the sauce is cooking and you discover you don't have something.
Next, the organized cook lays out all the hardware: the pans, spoons, knives, bowls, boards, cups, openers, etc. are all placed within easy reach. Then the ingredients are all gathered together and similarly placed in easy reach. Open all the cans, measure out all the liquid and dry ingredients and place them in handy prep bowls or containers. Chop up the vegetables and put them in prep bowls or containers. Now, you just assemble the prepared ingredients into the prepared cookware and you're done.
That's the way the big time TV chefs do it, baby. You don't see them running back to the fridge for a forgotten carrot, or hunting for the oregano, now do you? Nope. A whole bunch of people in the prep kitchen make sure that everything is laid out and ready before the host chef ever smiles at the camera. That's why it looks so easy on TV. Emeril might be the one to “bam!” his way through the recipe, but there's a lot of folks working off camera to make sure that his mise en place is set up the way he needs it.
Now, for me – and for a lot of other chefs and cooks – mise en place doesn't just apply to the active cooking stage. Everything had a place when you started. It needs to go back there when you're done so it's ready for the next time.
Honestly, I cannot fathom how some people function in kitchens that are disorganized to begin with with and wind up looking like war zones by the time the meal is cooked. I am acquainted with several people who just throw things into drawers and cabinets without regard to what goes with what. Mixing bowls live with canned goods, plastic wrap resides with frying pans, silverware inhabits two or three separate drawers. Yeesh! People, the department stores are full of nifty organizers to help you put your kitchen together more efficiently. If I had to go on safari every time I needed a measuring spoon, I'd probably get sick of cooking, too.
And then there are the people who employ every dish in the kitchen in the preparation of a meal and just stack all the used cookware in tremendous piles. I kid you not, I once knew a woman who stacked her dirty dishes on the floor when she ran out of sink and counter space. I don't have to tell you how nasty that is, do I? And then these people survey the nightmare they've created in the simple preparation of a pot of spaghetti and wail about what a chore cooking is! Please!
Part of my mise en place involves being organized to start with and cleaning up as I go. My drawers, cabinets, and countertops are neat and organized and I know where everything is. I don't have baked on messes on my cooktop because if something spills or boils over while I'm cooking, I clean it up on the spot. I keep a sink full of hot, soapy water on hand as I'm preparing dishes and as I use a pan or a bowl or a utensil, I wash it and put it away. The stand mixer and the food processor get cleaned and put back in their corner as soon as I'm through with them. When I finish preparing a four-course meal, my sink, countertops, and stovetop don't look much different than when I started. A place for everything and everything in its place.
Mise en place – “put in place.” If you make it the beginning and the end of your time in the kitchen,
cooking will never again seem like such a dreadful chore.