Mise-en-place (French for "putting in place") is the organizational prep work vital to a professional kitchen. It allows for efficiency, speed, and order during even the busiest of times and most chefs spend much of their early years performing these tasks until they can practically do them blind. Work Clean is author Dan Charnas’ very smart book about applying the mise-en-place principles (planning is prime; arranging spaces and perfecting movements; etc.,) to organize not only our own kitchens but our everyday lives.
Work Clean includes interviews with high profile executives and chefs–below is an excerpt from an interview with Marcus Samuelsson, owner of multiple restaurants (a personal favorite is Red Rooster) and the author of several books, including his cookbook Marcus Off Duty and one I’m really excited about for fall (see above), The Red Rooster Cookbook.
*Work Clean is one of our editors’ picks for Best Books of May in Crafts, Hobbies, and Home
Dan Charnas: When you came into the culinary world, who of your chefs were the first to teach you organization?
Marcus Samuelsson: One of my mentors, Herved Antlow. He looked different than everybody else. His apron was ironed, his hat was tall, and he never compromised on his looks. He cooked every day. I never saw one dot of sauce on his apron or anything. He just moved around on a higher level. Before I even touched the stove I had to do mise en place for him. Mise en place is the space for a cook that you live in for a very long time. You don’t even cook the stuff. You just prepare it. You could have prepped it right, but if you didn’t put it in the bowl the way he wanted? “Out!”
The mise en place was really his way of looking if we paid attention. You had to have it chopped, on a towel, on the tray. Mise en place for me, was my way of saying, "Hey Chef, I respect you." It’s a level of building trust, right? Now you can go ahead and do that sauce. you can go ahead and finish that dish because it’s all here. You knew he wanted some onions on the upper left. You know he wanted some butter on the lower right because. It was because the butter came in the very end, which meant that he wanted a little bit of oil and butter up front, not the same as the cold butter he wanted on the lower right. That’s how we finish the dish.
So it wasn’t just “stuff on a dish.” If you didn’t have that, even if you had all the right ingredients, you’d just get a tap on your shoulder, "No. Go home." He didn’t scream. That’s it. Very simple, "Go home." That’s it. Very clear. That was it. You just knew that that day was not going to be your day. There’s no talking yourself out of the situation. You’re just not ready.
Dan Charnas: In Work Clean I broke mise en place down into a set of ten principles. Mise-en-place is the chef’s system of organization, it’s your system. Which principle of mise-en-place resonates the most with you.
Marcus Samuelsson: I love the concept of “Call and Callback,” because that’s something that a chef can completely relate to. If you didn’t get a call back, you didn’t exist. “Carrots?” ”All right I got carrots." It’s almost like setting up a musical band. You’re testing the sound. I also love the whole idea of “Slowing Down to Speed Up.”
Dan Charnas: You talk about that a lot in your book, Yes, Chef: the risks of speed.
Marcus Samuelsson: Oh my god, you walk with a purpose but you’re slowing down so you can really be potent when it matters. The mise en place is clear and it also don’t matter how good the mise en place was if you don’t know how to execute. If your mind is not fresh enough to that execution, it don’t matter. I love that.
Dan Charnas: A lot of us who don’t work in kitchens, we work for people who haven’t necessarily done the job we’re doing. When you’re in a kitchen your chef is usually better than you, faster than you, more experienced than you. Have you ever had a situation where you worked for somebody whom you weren’t learning from? How do you conduct yourself when you want to maintain your own ethics and your own professionalism, and your own quest for excellence, when the people you’re working for aren’t excellent?
Marcus Samuelsson: It hasn’t happened to me because I did my mise en place before. I did my research about the place before. I always said I didn’t have to make money when I was coming up, but I had to do my preparation, who I was going to give my service to. Even my dad, when he said to me, "You can work for a two-star or one-star Michelin,” I was like, "No, it has to be three-star." For me, it was never about money because I didn’t need it in a sense. It was more about if I’d done the preparation of where I’m going to work, I will get something out of it. It wasn’t about one chef, it was about 40 chefs and eating humble pie, lots of it.
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