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Building Your Mise en Place

Illustration: Sarah Wilkins

A step-by-step guide to getting your kitchen and mind ready for cooking

Professional cooks learn the concept of mise en place before they’re allowed to crack open their knife kits. As culinary freshmen, they stand at attention while a seasoned chef shares the simple, foundational law of the kitchen. Proper mise en place is a smart rule to follow in the home kitchen, too. If honored, it will lead to ballet-like culinary performances. At its heart it’s about ritualized organization. It’s as much a mindset as it is a series of activities. If ritual is ignored in a kitchen, chaos ensues. If, as an aspiring top-shelf home cook, you ignore the rituals, dinner won’t be done on time, cleanup will take forever, and you’ll likely not enjoy cooking.

Yes, cooking involves applying heat to foods to make them edible, but it’s an act of service to others, too. It is a dance. Enjoy the process. Shop reverently. Unpack deliberately. Activate soundtrack. Strategically position your cookbook. Read the whole recipe. Gather tools. Prep your ingredients. Clean as you go. Follow directions carefully. Enjoy your meal. 

Welcome to the Ritual

A good home cook is part ballet dancer, part chemist, part juggler, part anthropologist, part laborer, and part project manager. The best inherently understands the following five principles and embraces them in their kitchens and their souls. 

  1. Planning is the most important step. The best intentions for cooking a meal can be derailed by gradually realizing you don’t have 25 percent of the ingredients suggested in a recipe. And even with competent improvising, some dishes require specific ingredients to be true to themselves. So, before you start, take the time to inventory your pantry, make a quick and easy shopping list, and be sure you have the right equipment for the job. When you have everything you need to produce a dish, cooking can be downright euphoric. 
     
  2. Cook to suit your mood. Tackle recipes with a degree of difficulty that matches your emotional tolerance level for the day—and your ability to focus at the stove. Have plans A and B in mind, with A being the “I’m ready to cook anything” mood, and B being the “I’ve got to get dinner on the table” mood. Make cooking easy for yourself. In professional kitchens, we speak of cross-utilization of ingredients. That means you keep a number of ingredients or preparations on hand that can be used in an array of recipes. It streamlines meal prep. 
     
  3. Flow matters. For great, stress-free meals to come together, an organized work space is key. Utensils and ingredients should have a designated space in the kitchen. Frequently used items should be within arm’s reach. It’s okay to store whisks and spoons and salt on your countertop. Writers keep pens on their desks, artists keep paintbrushes at the ready, so it makes sense for cooks to keep the tools of their craft out within easy reach. Cooking requires you to move easily from ingredient to utensil to pan to stove to oven to sink to trash can. Remove unnecessary clutter, keep yourself organized, and build in flow.  
     
  4. Multitasking is a myth. Repeat after me: “It is very tricky to do more than one thing at a time.” Our brains are not multiprocessors. We do things more competently when we handle one specific task at a time. You’ll find that the recipes in this book are crafted differently than in most cookbooks. First, I explain the “why” of every ingredient decision, so that you don’t have to wonder. Second, the tasks are segmented into single strokes, so that you don’t lose your place while cooking and so that you’re reminded to grab this, that, or the other well in advance of needing it. Make a game plan for meal prep connected to the clock. It’ll help. You will feel like a pro in short order. You’re not doing “a thousand things at once.” You’re cooking, one step at a time. Commandingly. 
     
  5. Cooking is not a chore. Cooking well requires both engagement and enjoyment. This is not your job. It’s your chosen hobby, craft, or diversion. Grab your favorite apron, choose a playlist based on your mood du moment, pour yourself a beverage, and get your mind on the mise en place.