Ahhh…a clean and organized kitchen is my heaven! Not only do I love to cook – creating experiences for my friends and family through taste and presentation – I also relish the prep time. The quiet time in the kitchen before guests arrive… before the smells and sounds of the kitchen commence… my alone time where I feel most at peace and relaxed. Cooking but most importantly prepping my kitchen is one of my most favorite zen times. I like to joke that I buy kitchen and chefs tools like most women buy shoes and purses (not a very Southern Belle trait of me but I digress…)
Have you ever heard the term “Mise En Place”? It’s one of my favorite kitchen terms…perhaps a mantra for my time in the kitchen. One of the best descriptions I’d read is from chef, author and television personality, Anthony Bourdain. (Pardon the language…it is his quote after all and I’m quoting directly…us Southern Belles don’t usually use foul language *wink wink*)
“Mise-en-place is the religion of all good line cooks. Do not fuck with a line cook’s ‘meez’ — meaning his setup, his carefully arranged supplies of sea salt, rough-cracked pepper, softened butter, cooking oil, wine, backups, and so on. As a cook, your station, and its condition, its state of readiness, is an extension of your nervous system… 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, your defenses are deployed. If you let your mise-en-place run down, get dirty and disorganized, you’ll quickly find yourself spinning in place and calling for backup. I worked with a chef who used to step behind the line to a dirty cook’s station in the middle of a rush to explain why the offending cook was falling behind. He’d press his palm down on the cutting board, which was littered with peppercorns, spattered sauce, bits of parsley, bread crumbs and the usual flotsam and jetsam that accumulates quickly on a station if not constantly wiped away with a moist side towel. “You see this?” he’d inquire, raising his palm so that the cook could see the bits of dirt and scraps sticking to his chef’s palm. “That’s what the inside of your head looks like now.” You need to find your own meez. You need to arrange the elements and do it your way, not somebody else’s way, and that’s what I’m going to fumble through live and in-public. What exactly is this mystical mise-en-place I keep going on about? Why are some line cooks driven to apoplexy at the pinching of even a few grains of salt, a pinch of parsley? Because it’s ours. Because we set it up the way we want it. Because it’s like our knives, about which you hear the comment: ‘Don’t touch my dick, don’t touch my knife.’” — Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential
How true! For me, preparing for cooking and creating a culinary experience starts with my setup. It’s almost like my premeditation time where I prepare my mind and my physical surroundings. My Italian grandmother always used to say that a well prepared kitchen and cleaning as you go (in addition to a glass of wine or two) makes for a happy (and relaxed) chef. It may be different for every chef but what the setup tells you is the same. A chefs “meez” let’s you glance into the window of their cooking world – tools and ingredients they keep immediately at hand. How they organize them. Which knives do they keep close? Which seasonings? Which ingredients? A glance at a chef’s “meez” tells you not just what they cook, but how they cook — what their approach is, what mindset they bring to their dishes. It’s like looking at all of the art tools a painter uses before you see the final result on the canvas.
The term Mise En Place is believed by some to have originated with the man behind the Savoy Hotel’s kitchen in London and subsequently the first Ritz Carlton hotel kitchens in Paris and then London. His name was Georges Auguste Escoffier and was a leader in French cuisine in the 20th century. He worked in restaurants on the French Riviera and then in the Army in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War. Perhaps it was his experience in the Army kitchens that helped shape the idea of having everything in its place. After the war, Georges opened his own restaurant in Cannes and then later worked with the hotels in Paris and London, recruiting chefs and reorganizing their kitchens. He simplified existing kitchen practices and helped make the famous tea time at the Ritz become an institution.
I ask you, my readers, what are some of your kitchen practices? I’d love it if you’d share in the comments section below! But for me, it’s back to my zen place. My prep space. My kitchen….