Mise en place (pronounced [miz ɑ̃ plas], literally “putting in place”) is a French phrase defined by the Culinary Institute of America as “everything in place.”
I’ve been cooking for about eight years now, and have been cooking seriously for the last five.
There are three professions I seriously considered having in elementary school (where all career ambitions first bloom). I was determined to be either a teacher, an actress, or a pastry chef.
As it happened I stumbled upon publishing (a career I never considered in elementary school because it didn’t occur to me that such a job existed. Books, I believed, sprung fully-formed onto library shelves, where they waited their whole papery lives to be checked out and devoured by yours truly). Yet, teaching, acting, and cooking never left my life. They remain my dear, abandoned loves, and whenever my guilt allows me to face them, I indulge.
I have many, many food memories. A few bad, but most overwhelmingly good, and several rather charming in their simplicity. I remember going grocery shopping with my family as a child, and how after leaving the deli counter my father would unwrap the cheese and give me a slice to eat while we walked up and down the rest of the aisles. I remember stopping at Anthony’s Bakery sometimes after running errands with my mother, and having to decide between a cheese danish or a Half Moon cookie. I remember my first taste of ginger bread, on a dark Christmas Eve, given to me by my Nana from the bakery she worked at in Boston. But my first memory of actually cooking is when my Grammie taught me to flip pancakes. I remember the nightgown I was wearing. I remember the feel of tile on my bare feet. I remember the agonizing patience required, to wait until the entire surface of the puddled batter erupted with bubbles before flipping the pancake over. Because otherwise, I’d get a runny, goopy mess. And I get a lot of those, because I am not very patient.
And it just so happens that mise en place requires just as much–if not more–patience as perfect pancakes.
Organization does not come naturally to me. I am too restless, too lazy, too impulsive and simultaneously hesitant to be seduced by the idea that setting out everything you’ll need for the task ahead of you in a clean, coherent manner would make cooking (or life) significantly easier.
At best, I would gather all my ingredients and plop them down on the table. Not measured or divided. Not arranged in the order I’d be using them. It was enough of an accomplishment for me to know that I wouldn’t have to go digging around my pantry at the last minute only to discover that I was out of yeast. And there is something to be said for that. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you how many times I overlooked the yeast altogether, not seeing it among the scattered ingredients on my table and forgetting it completely. That sucked.
So this year I decided to put my prejudices aside, and give mise en place a whirl. Do I even need to tell you how much more harmonious my kitchen adventures have become since? Mise en place has revolutionized cooking for me. Amazing how all those professional chefs and organized home cooks have been right all this time. Never again will I lose track of how many cups of flour I’ve already dumped into my mixing bowl.
And while mise en place has revolutionized my life in the kitchen, I’m finding more and more ways to implement it in the non-culinary aspects of my life. I will be the first to admit that I’m disorganized and scatterbrained, and yet suddenly I’m consumed with the need to have “a place for everything, and everything in its place.”
According to my father, I didn’t really become an adult until around 2006-2007. He’s probably right on the money with that one, too. By that time I’d been living in New York for a year or two, I had begun my career, was more or less financially stable, and started cleaning my room/apartment on a regular basis. The fact that I make my bed every morning now probably shocks my immediate family, or anyone who roomed with me in college. It shocks ME, even.
But now that kind of neatness and order and ritual lends a kind of serenity and calm to my life.
So I’ve made room for mise en place in other corners of my life. Whenever I’m applying to jobs I make sure I have my updated resume, references, and cover letter template ready to go before I even begin the application. Last month I reorganized our bathroom closet and put everything into clear containers which I labeled with things like “cleaning supplies” and “medicine/first aid.” Thanks to David (who is naturally an organized person) all of our books are separated by genre and alphabetized by author. And, well, my clothes are all color-coded in my closet. But that’s something I’ve just always done.
It’s definitely a challenge to keep it up. We made fresh pasta last week on Kelly Riley Day 20101 and since the ingredient list was SO minimal I didn’t properly set up my mise en place. And of course, I wound up forgetting 2 tablespoons of olive oil. I added it in time, and the pasta turned out beautifully, but David and I were both laughing and shouting about the importance of mise en place! My 2010 resolution! That has been my lone lapse, though. It does help that we have such darling little prep bowls. They’re so pretty that I’ll find any excuse to use them!
The coolest thing, though, is looking at your pretty little bowls, and well-prepped ingredients and knowing what they’ll turn into. For example, the ingredients in the first picture in this post combined with a little bit of water baked up beautifully into this:
- you are dying to know what Kelly Riley Day 2010 is, aren’t you? Soon, I promise! It’s a complicated post! ↩