Week Two, Part II: Mise en Wha??

So, as promised, I am “revisiting” week two of culinary class to discuss the topic of mise en place.

Mise en place is a really simple concept that can be really difficult to execute properly. In fact, I was recently watching an episode of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares that touched on this topic. He visited a restaurant that was taking upwards of 2 hours (yes, TWO HOURS) to deliver plates to customers–and rotten entrees at that! The owner was losing buckets of money bribing customers not to leave with bottles of wine and free liquor. Wow! Why? Because there was absolutely no method to the madness in the kitchen–totally chaos and anarchy.

So what is mise en place? It basically means “to put in place.” It is the before-you-cook prep work. From gathering and prepping ingredients to gathering and prepping tools, you plan everything you possibly can to make the best use of your time and resources. It can also include other tasks, such as clarifying butter, making bread crumbs and making bouquets garnis.

If you watch the Food Network, you’ve seen evidence of mise en place–all those little clear bowls filled with pre-prepped and measured ingredients or pots and bowls already out and ready to be used. Rachel Ray on her show 30 Minute Meals makes it a point to gather all ingredients and tools at the start of the show. Despite this, a lot of tv prep also goes on behind the scenes and off camera. I never realized how much until I read Noel Riley Fitch’s biography of Julia Child called Appetite for Life. The scripts for her shows including a lot of food choreography meant to show foods prepared ahead to illustrate various incarnations of a dish before it is finished. The work required not only scripting but also an entire staff to coordinate it!

In a home kitchen, I have especially felt the effects of poor planning late in the preparations, when I realize I have forgotten to buy a last-minute ingredient or that I already used the only bowl big enough to hold something that needs to come out of a hot pan RIGHT NOW. The frustration you feel when you realize that too many things have to be done at the same moment to get the meal ready and on the table, or when you realize food has gotten burnt or soggy or sauce has separated because of poor timing, can be overwhelming.

In a professional kitchen, the effects of poor mise en place can be disastrous. You simply have to plan or you will not have customers or kitchen staff for long. Coordination of so many tasks and so many people is impossible without mise en place.

And my first lesson in mise en place in a professional kitchen was eye-opening. Mise en place in my own private kitchen has improved dramatically in recent years, but I am usually only coordinating myself, and possibly one other person–usually my husband. In the classroom, there were three or four of us per table. Each table was required to produce three stocks, a court boullion and clarified butter.

I was sure it would be cake, but most tables were “in the weeds” (i.e. behind) the ENTIRE time. I felt panicked and out of control, frustrated, and unsure of where we were at any given moment. We managed to finish everything, but not without constantly scrambling, grabbing last-minute ingredients and equipment, and in the neverending process of checking to see if we were all taking care of all of the things we were supposed to.

Basically, having to work in teams really highlighted the importance of planning and coordination. And how much we ALL lacked those very skills.

My goal from here on out? Prepare as much as I can before even coming to class, and before any cooking starts, come up with an entire game plan, not just the first step or the first fifteen minutes! Oh, and practice, practice!

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