‘Mise en place' is an important first step in cooking

10/30/2012
BY DANIEL NEMAN
BLADE FOOD EDITOR
Ingredients measured out and organized for convenience.
Ingredients measured out and organized for convenience.

Have you ever been in the middle of baking a carrot cake, and you suddenly realized you were completely out of raisins? Or have you been cooking a pot roast and you had to leave the meat searing on the stove longer than you wanted because you needed time to find and measure your tomato sauce?

Sure you have. We all have. But chefs have a three-word French phrase to keep you from ever doing it again: mise en place.

The literal translation of mise en place is "put in place," but the substance of the phrase extends far beyond the actual words. It can be taken as an indication of an entire philosophy of cooking.

Is it any wonder it is the first thing taught in culinary school?

At its most basic, mise en place means to set out all of your ingredients before you start to cook. Measure out what you will need, chop the vegetables that will need to be chopped, and have everything ready on the counter or in small bowls on a tray.

This simple but vital first step keeps everything running smoothly, said former cooking instructor Georgeann Brown of Dundee.

"The example I give in my classes all the time is, if you've ever done a stir-fry it all goes quickly at the end. You don't want to have to look around for something while your broccoli is getting mushy," she said.

Mise en place is especially important for baking, she said. "If you are cooking something delicate on the stove, you don't want to have to go looking for the vanilla that you forgot."

Chef Wes Wright prepares the mise en place at Ciao! Ristorante before the dinner rush.
Chef Wes Wright prepares the mise en place at Ciao! Ristorante before the dinner rush.

Ms. Brown, who ran the Un coup de main cooking school, pointed out an additional benefit of mise en place is that it helps you keep track of your ingredients. When she uses each ingredient, she moves the bowl it was in or places it on another counter. That way, she said, when she has used all of the ingredients and there is an egg left over, she can go back to the recipe and see what part she missed.

In fact, she said, one of the best things about mise en place is it forces the cook to thoroughly read the recipe. Too many people simply skim over the recipe before making it, she said, leading to last-minute trips to the grocery store for a bag of onions or a cup of cream.

Not paying enough attention to a recipe before attempting it is one of the primary causes for cooking failures, she said. She tells her students to read a recipe three times before they start to make it. Insisting on setting out their ingredients first in a mise en place is one certain way to get them at least to read the recipe once.

And that is where the philosophy comes in. To cook well, you must plan ahead. You must think about what you will be cooking before you begin.

To Wesley Wright, chef at Ciao! Ristorante in Sylvania, the philosophy embodied by the concept is about precision and execution. "You have to work logically, work in an organized manner. There is a method of doing it; you want to organize yourself and do certain things first and certain things last," he said.

At a restaurant, mise en place is more involved than it is for a home cook, but it is also more essential. When the orders start coming in and the timing is so crucial, the cooks absolutely need to have all the items on hand, and in easy reach, that their dishes will require. To Mr. Wright, that does not just mean the ingredients, it means everything the cooks will need to produce the food, including utensils, cutting boards, towels, and sanitizer for cleaning.

"If I have a cook who has everything ready to go, but he doesn't have a knife, he isn't ready," he said.

As with most restaurants, the kitchen at Ciao! is divided into several stations where each cook specializes in making one certain part of the menu e_SEmD a pizza station, a pasta station, a fish station, and so on. Of these, the salad station probably has the least complicated mise en place, he said, but even it is highly organized.

The lettuce, which has been spun and dried, is kept in large cooler drawers. Above them are the cheeses ready to crumble, dressings, croutons, tomatoes, chopped grilled red peppers, diced red onions, cooked beans, yellow squash, candied pecans, and everything else that goes on the salads. The salad plates, which are refrigerated, are stored nearby.

All of it is prepared and set out ahead of time so it is ready in time for the dinner crunch. That is the essence of mise en place; it gets you ready for the unimpeded experience of cooking and helps to ensure that it will all go smoothly.

And there is one other advantage to mise en place, Mr. Wright said, one other benefit to carefully preparing all the food, to gathering it together in one place, to having it at the ready. Once again the concept slides from being a helpful tip to becoming a philosophy.

With mise en place, he said, "you treat your ingredients with respect."

Contact Daniel Neman at: dneman@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.