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Cook Smarter

The Organizing Rites of Mise en Place Will Reorient The Way You Bring a Meal Together

By Emily Kaiser
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 1, 2004; Page F01

When I was little, I so loved tuna noodles -- that comforting combination of macaroni, tuna and cheddar cheese -- that my mother taught me the recipe. Her first rule of cooking, besides no little fingers on the chopping boards, was to assemble everything ahead of time. That way, we wouldn't be halfway through a recipe before discovering we were out of a key ingredient.

While waiting for the pasta water to boil, I measured one cup of macaroni, opened a can of tuna, and, for the cheese sauce, gathered together a cup of milk, a cup of grated cheese and two tablespoons each of butter and flour. My ingredients were like my stuffed animals, which I also liked to line up in a row.

Home Work

The first key to professional-style home cooking is to organize an assembly line of individual stations where you measure, chop and cook -- each in discrete stages.

The second key is to take breaks between each stage.

• Start clean: Put on a clean apron and turn on your favorite music. Clear your counters and stove top of any extraneous equipment or ingredients and sponge them down. What the heck -- if you want to really play professional, pretend the health inspector might show up and sweep your floor, too. Then go look at the sky.

• Assemble all your equipment. Place any pots you'll need on your burners and make sure all utensils are easy to reach. Set out your favorite cutting board and place a damp towel beneath it to ensure that it does not slide. Sharpen your knife. Dance to the music a little.

• Assemble your ingredients. If your counters are separated into different areas by your sink and stove, consider using one as your work space and another for your raw materials.

If you are working from a recipe, use the ingredient list as a checklist. Pull out all your "dry stores": all the oils, vinegars, spices and seasonings you will need. If you like using ramekins, go ahead and measure the ingredients at this point, too. Otherwise, put the containers in an area with measuring spoons and cups nearby. Before opening the refrigerator door, review every vegetable and fruit you'll need, then pull them all out at once. Check out the evening news.

• Wash, peel, chop. . . . Then wash all your vegetables, peel whatever needs to be peeled and start chopping. As you finish each ingredient, place the prepped materials in individual bowls and set aside for easy retrieval later. I like to start with vegetables and do meats and fish last to keep my cutting board as sanitary as possible. When all the prep is done, wash and put away the cutting board and knife, and take another rest if you're not pressed for time. The cooking comes next, so it's nice to be refreshed.

-- Emily Kaiser

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Later, when I became a professional chef, I learned this lineup had a name: mise en place. Literally translated as "put in place," mise en place (MEEZ-ahn-plahs) is a French term for the prep work that is crucial to both professional chefs in restaurants and to home cooks in their own kitchens.

"It [mise en place] is everything," says K.V. Vinod, a native of India and chef-owner of Washington area restaurants Bombay Bistro and Indique. At the cooking school Vinod attended in Madras, the chefs, who spoke only Hindi, used the term daily. "I would say it is the essential thing that is required of any restaurant: to be very organized, to be prepared, to get the food ready on time."

Restaurants must be particularly well-organized because they feed so many people at once. But advance preparation also saves precious time in any kitchen.

Mise en place doesn't just mean food put into place early. It also means ingredients arranged in the order required by the recipe. A good chef organizes her ingredients like the best factory engineer in order to shave seconds off the total prep time. The act of retrieving any one item happens automatically, with artful precision.

Restaurant cooks often look to other cook's workstations for ways to improve organization and save time. To keep her work space efficient, the cook also cleans constantly. An uncluttered area allows the cook to work quickly and smoothly. A common kitchen trope: "Clean station, clean mind."

Mise en place applies to every part of a meal or, in the case of restaurants, to the entire menu. A chef divides almost every dish on her menu into its most basic components and has her cooks put as many of those elements in place before customers arrive. Thus, each order needs only a few minutes to assemble the components and add finishing touches.

The only tricky part is deciding what can be done ahead without sacrificing quality. A tuna noodle dish can be broken down into pasta, sauce and tuna; these can be prepared individually and combined at the last minute (a la minute, another phrase heard all the time in professional kitchens). Pasta cooked al dente doesn't keep well for more than a few minutes, but canned tuna keeps for months. Cheese sauce is still tasty after a day or two, and even benefits from being made early in the day before the service rush.

So that afternoon or even the day before, a cook might make an enormous batch of béchamel sauce with melted cheese and, right before service, crank open a pillar of tuna cans. When service starts, he's ready with a large pot of boiling water, and with every order, drops in individual portions of fresh pasta to warm it and reheats a little sauce in a pan. He'll then toss the drained pasta with the sauce and some nice large lumps of tuna and maybe sprinkle it with some fresh chives (that were chopped early in the day). Within three minutes, the order is ready.

With all dishes, the principles are the same: Save the most sensitive items till the last minute and do everything else ahead of time and in bulk. Fresh pasta, meat and fish are usually the only things left uncooked by the time customers order. And at restaurants where quantity trumps quality, or at large banquets where special attention to individual dishes is impossible, even the fish and meat get seared early and if not cooked all the way through than warmed quickly in a very hot oven right before serving. In certain respects, one can almost judge the quality of a restaurant by the quantity of its mise.

A professional level of planning and organization may sound tedious, especially when there is a pair of little hands trying to help. But it's easy to achieve. And because it can be done at your own pace and ahead of time, it can bring calm and peace to your work space, whether you're preparing a dinner party for 10 or tuna noodle casserole for two.

Ratatouille

6 to 8 servings


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