Chef Laura: Meez, please

Hang around a pro kitchen for about three minutes, and you’ll hear someone say mise en place. Not being in France we probably garble it:  Meezen Plas.

Chefs use it as both a verb and a noun.  We even shortened it with a cute pet name – meez. The literal translation is “put in place,”  but ask three different chefs what it really means, and you’ll get three different answers:

  1. “Everything in its place” – the recent culinary school graduate (aka the “FNG”)
  2. “Setting up my station” – the Line Cook
  3. “Gittin’  my stuff together”  – the Old Timer

We culinary magicians hang our toque on the adage “Fail to plan, plan to fail.”  Mise en place is the water bucket that keeps our night from going up in flames.

Once you understand the nuances of mise en place, you’ll find it’s got a pretty significant civilian use, too. 

It isn’t just being organized or having all your ducks in a row  Mise en place is strategic.  Like a nail-biting chess match, you’ve thought five steps ahead.

For example, regular ol’ “being prepared” is having a pan of diced chicken ready for the popular curry chicken salad. 

Being mise en place’d for the same menu item looks more like this:

  • same as above plus a backup 6-pan of diced cooked chicken in the reach-in,
  • plus a back up Lexan of whole cooked chicken breasts in the walk-in,
  • plus a hotel pan of raw chicken breast in the walk-in,
  • plus a case of frozen chicken breast in the freezer. 

And by the way, everything is wrapped, labeled, dated and FIFO’ed (First In First Out’d).

Does that make us Phil Hartman’s SNL character “The Anal Retentive Chef”?  I will neither confirm nor deny that comparison.  I will say that embracing Mise en Place has helped my life beyond the kitchen.  For example:

  1. Exit, Stage Left.  Yes, I’m still herding cats a bit, but on school nights my girls and I mise en place lunchboxes, backpacks, outfits and breakfast to ensure a smooth(er) morning. 
  2. Bon Voyage! Channel your inner George Clooney in Up in the AirAs a frequent flyer, packing my carry-on has become a task that I can complete in five minutes flat.  The secret: don’t fully unpack from the last trip, have duplicates of toiletries and makeup (one set at home, one in the suitcase), and consider adopting somewhat of a work/travel “uniform”.
  3. 15 second scan – Ever thrown a party and, as good-natured guests arrive, they offer “Can I help you with anything?”  Most hostesses smile and say “I’m good, but thanks for asking.”  She may need help, but doesn’t have time to explain that the wine charms need to be hooked onto the stemware.  When you’re skilled in the art of Mise en Place, you become the ideal party guest.  You can instinctively survey any situation, and seamlessly jump in without the hostess uttering a word…except a silently mouthed “Thank you!” across the room.

Mise en place takes practice, but it’s tremendously rewarding.  It’s a cool “super power” that proves much more useful in the real world than shooting cobwebs out of your wrists.  My spontaneous friends pooh-pooh my Meez-ways, but then they’re the ones wearing lace up boots to DIA.