Can Mise-en-Place Bring Calm to Your Life? The Answer is Yes.

Can Mise-en-Place Bring Calm to Your Life? The Answer is Yes.

March 17, 2021

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Chef’s Table is a Netflix documentary series of some of the most iconic chefs in the world. My favorite episode is Alinea’s Grant Achatz (Season 2, Episode 1). When plating, the chefs barely move their arms, all the ingredients are laid in a grid, in small containers, within reach. A mantra for some, a tattoo for others, mise-en-place is the art of prepping and arranging the ingredients and the tools before launching to cook. It literally means “put in place” in French. It’s how chefs survive and thrive in the kitchen.

According to Anthony Bourdain, 

the universe is in order when your station is set up the way you like it: you know where to find everything with your eyes closed, everything you need during the course of the shift is at the ready at arm’s reach”

Could this system bring calm in other corners of our lives? The answer is yes.

While mise-en-place is intuitive, it’s also intentional. The word “mise” is the past participle of the verb “mettre”, which means to put. To say mise en place, means that it has been placed at its place. It didn’t get there on its own. The concept of ideating, careful planning, and arranging to be rewarded by a great flow of execution, is hopeful and empowering.  The concept originated from the kitchen brigade system led by the culinary royalty Georges-Auguste Escoffier, in the 18th century. Inspired by a military-like hierarchy, the first iteration of mise-en-place, had different positions with defined roles and specific tasks to be completed at different times of each service. Instead of the chaos with cooks running around, this system brought a sense of calm to the kitchen. The system is simple and the metaphor, relatable.  David Charnas covers this topic in depth in his book Everything in Its Place (originally “Work Clean”). Out of the 10 work clean principles these three delivered results on my creative process on day one. 

I. Arranging Spaces, Perfecting Movements

Chefs pivot within their quadrant to make tiny movements. They rarely have space. Maybe they don’t need it. Everything has been carefully displayed to be within reach. Anthony Bourdain calls each workstation the chef’s universe and maybe he meant it in a literal way. Everything should be there for the shift.  And isn’t our goal for productivity nearly the same? Having everything we need, when we need it?  Take the Zettelkasten, or “slipbox” method. The German sociologist and philosopher Dr Niklas Luhmann published more than 70 books and nearly 400 scholarly articles in his lifetime by arranging note-cards in different containers. For each book he wanted to write he had a drawer with all the ingredients prepped.  In today’s digital kitchen, having your “meez” is the equivalent of your desktop organized so that you can access your notes and tools with fewer mouse clicks. You want to arrange your space and your resources so you are not constantly switching contexts. For my English coaching I used to have different folders for articles and notes. Today, from one Notion page my clients can access all the session notes and resources. Both my clients and I know exactly what to find where, because it is all organized and ready to be consumed. 

II. Cleaning as You Go

Forget batch cleaning. In the kitchen the cleaner you work, the faster you work. And good chefs clean as they go. This applies to my notetaking. Creating and polishing notes on-the-go has been a game changer.  I used to take a lot of notes but a few days later, they would be incoherent and unusable. The extra 5 to 10 seconds I spend on typing a brief context, what the note actually means, and where I want to surface it in the future, ensures that 3 weeks later I will still understand what the notes mean. This is what I call, the ignorance test, clueless test, and the no-context test. Last year only about 5% of my notes would pass this test. Now, maybe about 80% do. My ingredients are ready for future use. 

III. Finishing Actions

Commit to delivering. Imagine you have found the perfectly ripe heirloom tomatoes to go with the imported burrata cheese straight from Italy, drizzled with that olive oil from the boutique vineyard you found at a small town in Spain, with the organic basil that you just picked up on your way home. You have the ingredients for a Caprese salad to die for. You even made the effort to clean, cut, and prep the ingredients. Now, imagine you change your mind and get takeout instead. None of the above matters if you don’t make the dish. The ingredients will go unused and some to waste.  The same goes for our creative work. The notes you gathered for the essay you were excited about. Unless you hit publish, the notes will go unused and some buried. As Seth Godin said in his latest book The Practice, “shipping because it doesn’t count if you don’t share it”. 

Things in their place? Is that all?

You put the ingredients in the right place, and you are set. Sounds easy, right? The concept is really that simple but less so is the underlying planning and careful calculation that paves the way for this system to work.  When planning for my classes or even this essay, I researched, talked to people, gathered data from different sources, and only then started prepping my ingredients to arrange for execution. Back in the Alinea episode, Achatz and two of his executive chefs plan the menu for their new restaurant Next. They are wearing white coats, in front of a whiteboard with no white space left. They discuss their goals, the experience they want the guest to have, the philosophy behind the meal. Before any cooking happens, there is serious planning. And this is the unsung hero of mise-en-place. The system works because the steps preceding the arrangement have been well-considered and carefully designed for each meal. The same goes with the work we put in for our creative pursuits. The wrestling with the ideas causes pain. But there is a reward: if the ideations and planning is well-thought out, the rest takes care of itself.

Scene from Netflix Series Chef’s Table | Season 2, Ep 2: Chefs ideating new menu
Scene from Netflix Series Chef’s Table | Season 2, Ep 2: Chefs ideating new menu

Scene from Netflix Series Chef’s Table | Season 2, Ep 2: Testing and iterating the new menu
Scene from Netflix Series Chef’s Table | Season 2, Ep 2: Testing and iterating the new menu

Scene from Netflix Series Chef’s Table | Season 2, Ep 2: Chefs test new menu
Scene from Netflix Series Chef’s Table | Season 2, Ep 2: Chefs test new menu

What starts on the whiteboard continues in the kitchen. You see the small containers with the ingredients already prepped, and perfectly arranged. No clutter in the background, everything you need, has been mise-en-place.

There is focus, calm, even wine.

Can you recreate this in your life?   Absolutely, yes.