Be Prepared

Mise en placeImagine this scenario:  you’ve got a bunch of guests over for a dinner party, or the whole family at Thanksgiving.  Everyone is happily chatting away with drinks or snacks in hand, all of them looking forward to the main event.

Meanwhile, in your impossibly cramped kitchen, you’re flailing around desperately wondering where you hid the oven mitts while something languishes overcooking in the heat.  You’ve got a sauce boiling away like Krakatoa because it just won’t reduce fast enough, and you just now realized that this other thing calls for finely minced garlic?

Dinner was supposed to be at 8, and at 8:15 one of your guests pokes their head in with a look of mixed expectation and sympathy and asks… “can we help you with anything?”

Does this seem familiar to you?  Because it’s happened to me way too many times.  And my resolution going forward is to be a better boy scout and simply be prepared.

“Mise en place” is a French term meaning “everything in place”, and it’s one of those things they teach in the first class of culinary school.  The idea is that regardless of whether you’re invading Normandy or making Chicken Normand, you’re not likely to succeed unless you have a plan.  The next time you cook, take some time to think about the following:

Plan your menu

Unless you’re a professional, don’t try to get overly ambitious.  One-pot slow cookers such as stews or braises are good because the timing isn’t crucial and you can easily accomodate any extra mouths that may show up unexpectedly.  Better yet, you can even make these ahead and re-heat.  For multi-course extravaganzas like Thanksgiving, plan your dishes so they aren’t competing for resources.  You can only have so many pots on the stove at the same time, and if you need to simultaneously slow roast and broil, that won’t work unless you’ve got double ovens.  Make a timeline and look for conflicts.

Read the recipes

Read the recipe all the way through before you do anything.  Make a note of what ingredients you’ll need to add, in what form and quantity, and in what order.  Look for steps that you don’t want to forget in the heat of battle (does the oven need to be pre-heated?  Do your veggies need to go straight from boiling water to an ice bath?) and think through what equipment (pots, spatulas, etc) you’re gonna need at each stage.

Start with a clean kitchen

Make sure the counter, sink, stove, and oven are clear and that any equipment you need is washed and ready to go.  Better yet, get someone to do this for you while you’re recipe planning!

Prep your ingredients

Get out your knife and cutting board and prepare each ingredient as specified in the recipe (“1 onion, chopped medium” or “3 garlic cloves, minced”), then toss them into bowls.  Pre-measure any herbs or spices you’ll need and place those in small dishes as well.  Pull the butter or that container of chicken broth out of the fridge – everything you’re going to need should be right in front of you on the counter.

Gather your equipment

Same thing with tools you’ll be using.  Think of everything you’re going to need – pots, pans, potholders, bowls for mixing, wooden spoons or spatulas… you don’t want to be reaching for a whisk at a critical moment only to find it’s sitting in the dishwasher covered in crud.  And all of this is especially important if you’re in an unfamiliar kitchen.

Finally, keep your station clear!

In the movie Ratatouille, this point is emphatically impressed upon the titular rat and his human accomplice as they learn the operations of a restaurant kitchen.  Keeping things clean as you go helps prevent you from descending into chaos.  In your downtime between steps, take a moment to wash off your cutting board and knife, or toss some things in the dishwasher.  When you need to do some last minute chopping or set up plates on the counter, you’ll be happy you did.

Whether you’re cooking for a crowd or simply making scrambled eggs, learning to incorporate these steps into your cooking routine will do wonders in bringing calm to your kitchen.


So what do you think? Leave a comment and let me know!