Jan 18

Some people think that all there is to cooking is the ability to follow a recipe. If this were true than I truly think people would be a lot less intimidated by the prospect of making dinner every night, let alone cooking for guests. The reality is that it takes some organization to successfully cook and an unequivocal sense of timing to pull off a gourmet meal.

Knowing how to cook is only half the battle and learning how to be efficient in the kitchen is a separate skill set entirely. I credit the latter as being the most valuable thing I have learned as a professional Chef. Once my habits changed so that I had a better sense of timing, and accomplished more with fewer steps, my cooking not only improved but so did my sense of confidence in the kitchen.

Many highly skilled, successful professionals have mastered the ability of organizing their office and staff in order to accomplish daily jobs. Yet somehow when it comes to a kitchen, where a much simpler set of tasks are involved, these same highly capable people have a hard time finding their right foot from their left. I know this predicament because I once found myself in a very similar situation.

Having an academic background prior to becoming a Chef has served me well, but on my first day working the line of a five star restaurant I couldn’t have felt more out of place, overwhelmed or unprepared. I was assigned a post on the cold appetizer station and handed a list of items to prepare for dinner service. While this station was only responsible for a total of eight appetizers, each plate consisted of at least five separate components, some had even more. In total, I was responsible for creating around forty separate preparations before the restaurant officially opened. I had three hours to gather the necessary ingredients, collect the appropriate equipment and prepare the necessary items, or “mise en place” (ie. everything in its place) for the station.

As is the case in most high caliber restaurant kitchens, all of the line cooks are under immense time pressure to prepare their mise en place and scarcely have a second to lift their heads from chopping, let alone waste a few precious moments helping the clueless rookie straight out of culinary school. My first month on the job every minute on the clock was spent trying to keep my head above water. I was in survival mode and hardly spoke to anyone as I kept my eyes lowered to the cutting board. As I slowly absorbed my surroundings and adjusted to my new work space and routine, I started formulating a game plan.  I realized pretty quickly that I needed a system and after many nights of thinking things through after work I devised a “cheat sheet”. This was essentially a mise en place checklist that delineated all of my tasks for the day and the appropriate amount of time to spend on each. It was divided into categories so that all like-minded jobs were grouped together such as “gathering ingredients” “dicing and slicing” and “cooking on the stove” which allowed me to not only prioritize the work, but save time walking back and forth to different areas of the kitchen.

In other words, I would gather all of the ingredients I needed for the day in one trip at the beginning of my shift. This saved me making multiple trips throughout the day. I would also take care of any necessary chopping during one block versus returning several times to the cutting board to cut one or two things. Consolidating my work, creating time lines for each project, and eliminating wasted steps bought me extra time. Before I even got to the phase of “cooking” a dish I would have all of the necessary ingredients chopped, measured out and organized into small prep bowls so that when it came time to put it all together, I could do it “a la minute”. This allowed me to fully focus on the cooking or assembly phase of a recipe and ensured things cooked perfectly.

While a home kitchen is not nearly as daunting as a restaurant, the same principles still apply to organizing your work space and creating efficiency.  Here are the most important points to remember:

  • Before beginning, read your recipe through at least twice and then create a list of all the ingredients you will need
  • Gather all of your ingredients (checking them off as you go) and necessary equipment in the beginning to minimize time wasted going in and out of the fridge
  • Set your work space up so that you have a clutter free area to organize your ingredients, knives and prep bowls
  • Keep a list on your work area of “to do” items in the order they need to be completed, then check them off as you go
  • Keep a bowl by your cutting board for trash or scraps (this not only saves trips back and forth to the trash, but more importantly it is more sanitary than always putting your hands into a trash can while you are working)
  • Start longer projects first (ie. meals that require long cooking in the oven, or several steps along the way should be first on your list)
  • Do all your chopping, dicing and slicing together to streamline your work, then keep each ingredient in small prep bowls so that they are ready when you begin the cooking phase
  • Keep a list on your work area of “to do” items in the order they need to be completed, then check them off as you go
  • Most importantly, clean as you go. When you finish chopping one ingredient, toss remaining scraps into your bowl and wipe your work area down before proceeding. There is nothing like a messy work space to throw off your organization.

4 Responses to “Kitchen Fundamentals 110: Mise en Place”

  1. Jessica says:

    What a great article! I’m feeling like I could have a dinner party and not be completely stressed out!! Thanks jessica

  2. [...] Note: This dish is a good example of why it is essential to have your mise en place in order before the cooking phase of the recipe. There are a lot of ingredients that get added into [...]

  3. Melody says:

    Thanks Molly, this is truly great advice.

  4. Ginny says:

    I truly enjoyed this article. I try t o be organized in the kitchen but I learned many valuable tips how I can be even more so in the future. Thanks so much for your excellent and expert advice.

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