By Scott Mechura EBS Food Columnist
Mise en place is a French term used in kitchens for decades that translates to “put in place.” The phrase refers to having all the food, cooking equipment and tools you will need for service in their proper places for efficient access.
Most every occupation or trade inevitably has its own mise en place: Carpenters, surgeons, artists. But your mise en place should also serve as your mental organization. An organized workspace and an organized mind go hand in hand.
When I learned the term mise en place as a teen in one of my first jobs, I used to look at other people’s tools and work stations to try and figure out just how organized they were. I once watched my aunt setting up her pencils as she began to draw, and I said, “Oh, your mise en place.”
“My what?” she asked.
“Your tools, the items you need are all lined up ready to grab.”
“Oh right,” she said. “I guess that’s what it is.”
I’d been working under a chef for almost a year, which by old French chef standards is not very long. He was tireless in his lessons of how things should be; the only way things should be. He impressed upon us daily – no, make that hourly – the importance of a properly set workspace and station.
One evening the restaurant was headed into a busy night, and I had crossed my T’s and dotted my I’s. I was prepped. My station was set, and not only did I look organized, but more importantly I felt mentally organized.
I was “arms folded” as we say in the business, meaning I was so ready that I had nothing to do right before service. Chef walked through our stations as he did every day but today I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t intimidated. I was ready. He walked through, perusing my station, and with the tiniest of smirks but no change in his step, he said, “You are not ready.”
“What?” I thought. “You can’t be serious.” I was certain I had everything in order. What did I miss? Chef hadn’t touched anything so it had to be something obvious. I just couldn’t find it.
After watching me search my station for a minute, he walked into my station without looking at me, and picked up my knife. It was lying neatly on my cutting board, blade facing away, and he tucked it, edge first, under the left side of the board knowing I was left handed. As he did this, without a hint of facial expression, he said, “Now you are ready,” and walked away.
On the surface I was happy. Proud really, that my knife being out of position was all he found “out of place.” But it also made me think. It seemed like such an inconsequential triviality. Was he just trying to prove a point? Well, yes, actually. It was a lesson in total organization. I was confident enough that day to challenge the master. The mentor. And he won. Again.
That day, while seemingly unimportant years later, still sticks with me as one of the turning points in my growth as a young cook. “Organized space, organized mind.” I will forever hear chef’s words.
Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the Executive Chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.