Everything In Its Place

There is an interesting expression in cooking: “mise en place.”

In essential terms, it means “everything in its place.” The idea is that before you start cooking a dish, you are organized to cook the dish. You have done your preparation. Ingredients are cleaned, chopped, measured and otherwise readied. The advantage is that once you have started to prepare, you don’t need to worry about where something is. You aren’t scrambling about to find a utensil, scrub a knife, find a spice or slice the next ingredient. Everything is there. Now it is about executing.

I like to cook a great deal, and I’ve come to appreciate the idea of mise en place in preparing a complex meal, and even in cooking a simple one. I didn’t used to, mind you. Historically, my cooking was—to the outside observer—a rather insane, primeval whirlwind of activity. Everything happened at once, or tried to. Arguably, some things didn’t quite happen in the order or with the timing that they should have. Steps got missed. Things got burnt. Or didn’t get cooked quite the way they were supposed to. It was an article of faith that the meal wasn’t actually finished until every pot and pan I owned had been pressed into service.

The challenge in cooking this way is that you start off running and hope everything goes well. You assume you can peel and purée the garlic while the onions sauté. And that the rest of the vegetables can be prepped while the sauce is reducing. And that you can grill and baste and man the stove at the same time. It’s a little bit like juggling, only there’s flame, hot liquids and knives involved.

I’m not sure when or how I learned the value of mise en place when it came to cooking. When I finally bought little glass ingredient bowls and started to use them. When I began to plan out getting the meal prepared so I had a reasonable sense of possibility and pace (and a greater likelihood that my guests would be eating somewhere before, say, midnight). But I did. Cooking is a little saner now. I clean as I go (something my wife is infinitely grateful for). I burn less. And I am less stressed in the process.

So on one level, mise en place is a good thing. It’s a process that suggests that you plan, you prepare and you work proactively. It’s the cooking equivalent of “measure twice, cut once.” Interestingly, though, I’ve come to appreciate that mise en place also has its downsides as well. Once can, arguably, be too prepared.

This can manifest itself in a couple of ways. The first, and probably the most obvious—and tempting for many—is to use it as a form of procrastination. To suggest everything should be in its place is also to suggest that if all of the ingredients aren’t present, or you don’t have just the right tools, then you aren’t ready to begin.

Fellow fetishizers of office supply stores will recognize this temptation. We need just the right binder, or pen, or paper, or highlighters for this project. Before we can start on our next project, we need to clean up all of our previous projects (and while this is noble and not entirely unworthy a consideration, it can without question be pursued to a fault). And we need to clean our desk. And our office. And the rest of the house. What we are doing—unquestionably–is delaying getting started.

It’s not that this procrastination isn’t in some ways rational, or at least understandable. There can be a fear in getting started. That fear may be related to whether we can be successful, or we have the right skills or that we are about to give up our time and invest our energy. Starting a project is a choice, and in making one choice we preclude others.

At the same time, for a lot of people the choice not to start is actually rooted in the fact that they might actually be successful. That their work will be visible, open to critique and challenge. That there will be no place to hide. Being successful is, in fact, uncharted territory. We wonder if we won’t be up to the challenge. A small part of us might not want to take the risk, to open ourselves up to the change. And so we hide behind not being ready.

The other side of this, and it’s one I know I am guilty of, is that to be ready we feel we need to research more. We need to know more. We need more information and insight, to know what has come before and to appropriately build on that with our new work and our new project. Which is not to challenge the value and relevance of research. Taking the time to dig and learn can be an important part of getting ready. But research is a bottomless pit; there will always be more books, more papers, more articles and more web sites offering further nuance, insight and perspective.

That’s where the idea of mise en place comes back to the fore. It’s actually an extraordinarily powerful term. It’s power is that it is used by chefs to mean three things. Firstly, mise en place is used as a noun: it is a setting of preparedness, where ingredients, utensils and tools are lined up and ready to be utilized. It is also a verb: mise en place means to put everything in its place. It is the actual act of preparing and getting ready.

Most importantly, mise en place is a state of mind. It is a mental place of readiness, of confidence, of preparedness. It is the idea of being centred, present, capable and assured. Of knowing that not only are our tools ready, but that we are ready. That’s not to say that there won’t be challenges, risks or obstacles. But its about doing the preparation that you can so that you are prepared to tackle and respond to what challenges do emerge. At the same time, we need to be cautious about being too ready. About procrastinating, or delaying, or avoiding or simply not getting started.

That’s what I perhaps like most about the idea of mise en place. There is no place for not getting started. We don’t prepare for a meal and then not cook it. We don’t chop our ingredients only to leave them on the counter to spoil. We begin our preparation with the idea and the expectation of following through. Getting ready means we have already begun. And once we are underway, it is up to us to keep going.

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