Basics / Personal

Notes on Mise En Place

All cooks from the hoighty-toighty chefs down to the lowly line cook have one thing in common when they walk into a kitchen: the mise en place. Literally meaning “to put in place” this little fancy sounding French term means basically getting all your culinary ducks in a row. In a commercial kitchen this means having all your veggies that you’ll need for the night’s service chopped an easily accessible, along with all of the other ingredients (salt, pepper, stock, etc). Of course if you’re not working in a commercial kitchen there’s no need for that, right? Screw you culinary tradition, I am a man and men don’t chop their vegetables in advance! Ha!

Ahem, of course that is just ridiculous. These days I almost always build a mise en place before I start to actually work on the dish. I started doing this because I wanted to make pictures of all of the ingredients as I was cooking and it made sense to do it all at the beginning. But now I’ve realized the importance of getting everything ready to go before I start to cook. Here is a shot of my mise en place for a batch of cookies that I just made.

St. Louis Food Photographer Jonathan Gayman

I collected all of the ingredients, measured them, and put them in easy grab-and-pour containers. What does this accomplish other than looking pretty for the photograph and making a lot of extra dishes to wash?

When I am headed out to a photo shoot, the first thing I do is to go through all of my equipment. I check my cameras, my lenses and my lights. I make sure that my batteries are charged, and I make sure that I have all of the cables I’ll need. I do this by laying everything out on the floor and making sure that I have eyes on each piece of equipment, no matter how small. This is especially important when I’m using a set of equipment that I haven’t used in a while. I pack my bags in a very specific way to avoid leaving things behind, but it’s important to be sure. Just because it was there the last time doesn’t mean that I haven’t borrowed something and forgotten to put it back.

The same goes with the ingredients to a recipe. It certainly makes the task easier if I have everything pulled out of the cupboards and measured before I start. If I’m missing something, I know it before I’m knee deep in the recipe and beyond the point of no return. For example, as I was building my mise en place for the cookie recipe I realized that I didn’t know where the table salt was. I knew I had it somewhere, but I couldn’t find it. I had to stop and dig around for it. This wasn’t a problem since I found it eventually, but it was certainly easier at that stage then in the middle of the recipe. Making sure you have everything is key.

Not only that, but I’ve found that making the mise en place forces me to read through the entire recipe before I get started. Like being in grade school. “Read all of the instructions before starting the test.” I was terrible at that in grade school and haven’t improved much now. I often find myself skimming the methods of a recipe without comprehension and then getting stuck when I realized I skipped a step or read something wrong. If I’m going through all of the instructions while making my mise en place, I cut down on those mistakes a great deal.

Finally, it’s just plain easier to have a mise en place than not. When I’m worrying about the exact moment to add the vegetables to the pot, or flour to the dough I don’t want to have to worry about anything burning or drying while I frantically try to get the ingredients ready. In the heat of the moment, literally, I want as little responsibility as possible. It is so easy to simply toss in the ingredients that you’ve already prepared. And really, the extra dishes aren’t that big of a deal. I use a random collection of bowls in various sizes that I’ve collected over the years (who knew they would actually come in handy). Those little bowls for you put soy sauce in when eating sushi work out well. If you don’t have 101 random bowls you can buy really nice sets of mise en place bowlsthat aren’t really that expensive.They even have some neato sets now that have lidsso you can get your mise en place done in advance.

And so we have reached the end of today’s sermon on mise en place.

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