The Importance of Mise en Place
I know what you are thinking,” I thought this was a culinary guide for novice cooks and now you are throwing some fancy French terminology at us.”
All mise en place, pronounced (MEEZ ahn plahs) or (mi zɑ̃ ˈplas), means is to have all your ingredients prepared and ready to go before you start cooking. Translated, “ to put in place.”
It’s kind of like when you go on a trip, first you make sure you have everything you need and are not forgetting anything, then fold everything nice and neatly so it fits into your bags.
Or how about when you are changing the oil in your car. Wait a minute, who changes their oil anymore?
How about balancing your checkbook?
You get all your cancelled checks and deposit slips in order by arranging them by date or number before you start reconciling your statement. If you don’t, you know you will be going back and starting all over from the beginning.
What Most Home Cooks Do
If you are like many home cooks, me included more times than I want to admit, you jump right into a recipe with little or no prep figuring you can chop the garlic while the onions are sautéing. You get 4 steps into the recipe and find you needed to reduce some balsamic vinegar before adding it to the dish and now you are scurrying around trying to get it done before the onions and garlic overcook and your timing is completely thrown off.
I’m not sure why it is so difficult to get novice cooks to accept this idea but it’s similar to asking someone to preheat their grill or sauté pan before starting to cook. How many of us just go out to the gas grill, turn it on for a couple of minutes, throw a chunk of meat on it and start grilling? It’s the same with searing or sautéing on your stove top.
Let those pans heat up some before you start cooking. If you are cooking with oil, it should just about be smoking before you add your main ingredients.
Before You Start
Now before you can even start preparing the ingredients for cooking, you want to make sure you have all the ingredients. This is the ultimate Mise en Place! I don’t think the great French chefs had this in mind when they came up with the term, but how many of you have started a recipe only to find out you were missing one or two of the key ingredients.
So you jump in the car or call a neighbor and plead for some Port wine that the Beef Tenderloin in a Port wine reduction calls for. I’ve been there.
Here’s where my wife and I approach cooking from different points of view. She is so much more organized than I am and therefore never finds herself running out to the store at the last minute.
She discovers a delicious looking recipe in one of my many cooking magazines, makes a LIST of ingredients that she will need, goes to the store and buys all the ingredients on her LIST, and then comes home to start prepping all the ingredients on her LIST. This is the way to do it. Forget about trying to wing it like I often do and think, “Oh, if I don’t have what I need I will just find a great substitute for it.”
No way. Doesn't work. Maybe if you are a trained professional you could get away with it but it is not a great way for a beginner home cook to learn. And if you ever have the opportunity to meet a professional chef sometime, ask them how much time they put into mise en place everyday.
Watching the Pros
If you ever have the occasion to dine in a restaurant with an open kitchen that has a counter you can sit at and watch the chefs do their work, give it a go. These types of restaurants are especially great if you are dining alone.
Just before I left Park City and moved to Philadelphia, I had dinner alone at one of my favorite local restaurants, Sage Grill, which has an open kitchen and observation counter. It is a great way to watch the professionals do their thing and when it gets really busy, there’s more action than a roller derby.
What amazes me is how they can get out so many appetizers, salads, entrees, & desserts with relative ease. Sure they have a crew of three or four, but think about how much work goes into cooking a gourmet dinner for six in your own home. These guys are putting out a hundred plus dinners per night.
What you notice is their mise en place. Each station is fully prepped with all the ingredients necessary to make a particular dish.
All the meats, chicken, and fish are cut and de boned, the fresh herbs for seasoning sauces are washed, cut, and separated into small bowls, the vegetables are sliced, diced, or julienned to the correct size, everything ready to go because when the show gets going, there is no time to go back and dice up some carrots. The show must go on.
What we don’t see are the hours spent during the day when prep chefs are working hard to get everything ready for the evening event. I would guess as many hours going into prepping for a typical night in a good restaurant as there are for actual cooking.
According to The New Professional Chef, mise en place:
“means far more than simply assembling all the ingredients, pots and pans, plates, and serving pieces needed for a particular period. Mise en place is also a state of mind. Someone who has truly grasped the concept is able to keep many tasks in mind simultaneously, weighing and assigning each its proper value and priority. This assures that the chef has anticipated and prepared for every situation that could logically occur during a service period.”
Wow! Looks like a little mise en place could work in all our personal and professional lives too.
Example of Mis En Place
A good example of using this technique that we all seem to understand is making a simple sandwich. Think about it. You gather up all the ingredients you need and get them ready for assembly.
You may have to make the tuna salad, slice the tomatoes, or grill the chicken, but you have all the makings before you even think of putting the sandwich together.
Make sense? So why not apply the same technique to all your cooking.
Another good example of using this technique is when you stir-fry. Because everything gets cooked so quickly, you must have all your ingredients ready to go.
I promise if you practice this one skill and “put everything in place” before you get started, your dishes will come out better and you will enjoy the act of cooking more than ever.