Mise en place

Pete Wells attacked the tyranny of “mise en place” in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine. This cooking term refers to “the practice of having all the ingredients and tools set to go before you even light the stove.” You prep most of the foodstuffs and lay them out in little dishes. He sees this pre-arranging “as an unattainable ideal, a receding mirage, a dream of an organized and contented kitchen life that everyone is enjoying except me.”

He discovers mid-recipe that his peppers are moldy; he runs out of space, time, and patience. So he abandons the march-in-step and just cooks.

Wells quotes food writer Sarah Moulton, who abandoned mise en place, despite her professional training, in her cookbooks. She says, “I had as little time as everybody else, and I realized I couldn’t wait to measure and slice and dice all that stuff…. I noticed I’d be mincing the garlic while I was cooking the onion. I’d be cooking the whole thing by taking advantage of what was already cooking.”

Wells closes with a Thomas Keller recipe, which “has you brown the bacon and start chopping and cooking the long-braised collards, then boil the potatoes in their skins, stir sugar into the strawberries and put the chicken on the grill. While it’s cooking, you mash the potatoes and then whip heavy cream.”

In mise en place, you plan everything ahead and lay it out. In the prep-as-you-go, you do the steps in whatever sequences and combinations work for you.

What I’ve just described is like planners versus plungers. Planner writers decide what to say and how, and then type it, often from an outline. Plunger writers type lots of paragraphs, one leading to another in no sequence, and then rearrange them to make sense.

Planning works better and faster if you try out your plan on somebody smart before you type it. Plunging works best if you draft without revising, cut anything irrelevant, rearrange, and then revise.

Which is better? Both give the same results in the same time. Which you choose might depend on how you cook.

[How do your cooking and writing techniques coincide?]

Published in: on September 20, 2010 at 9:49 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. “In mise en place, you plan everything ahead and lay it out. In the prep-as-you-go, you do the steps in whatever sequences and combinations work for you.”

    I don’t think the analogy actually works here.

    Cooking won’t allow you to do things as you please. You can’t just plunge in, because certain tasks must be completed at certain times. You may not need to chop the onions before you start, but they better done when the meat finishes browning and it’s time for them to hit the pan.

    Wells is really talking about rather sophisticated time management, something I assumed most experienced home cooks were aware of. It’s a matter of knowing how long you need for basic tasks and taking care of those while other items are cooking.

  2. Thanks, Frolic.

    I agree it’s a stretch at the detail level.


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