Mise en Place: What it is, and why it’s important

According to Google Translate, mise en place translates to “setting up”, which is apropos.  However, I’d rather look at translating the words separately, when it can mean “setting up space”, or “setting position”.  In the time I’ve spent in kitchens, I’ve been led to believe it to mean “put in place” or “everything in place”.  All of these things are applicable the way the phrase is used in kitchens, because it basically means, how you’ve choosen to set up your workspace.

Good, clean and “tight” mise en place is of paramount importance in a professional kitchen, because (assuming a cook has set up their mise most optimally suited to them) it ensures maximum efficiency.  After a while of working on a kitchen station set up the same way, muscle memory is developed, and speed can be increased.  Similar are the reasons a proper mise is important in the home kitchen:  Keeping things organized, clean, and safe are all legitimate motivators for properly setting up your mise en place at home.

You might be thinking at this point, “Glenn, a restaurant cook needs to have dozens of ingredients for multiple dishes all reasonably accessible.  I’m only cooking one or two things one time.  Do I really need to set things up so meticulously?”  In short, no you don’t.  A home-cooked meal rarely calls for more than five or six prepared ingredients, which should be easy enough to keep in order.

Speaking of which, now is as good a time as any to bring up how useful it is to have several small-ish dishes or containers for setting aside prepared items.  Let’s say you’re making a dish that calls for small diced onions, minced garlic, diced chicken, chopped parsley, and shredded cheese.  Even if you had a cutting board large enough for all of these items to fit, not only would it be a cross-contamination hazard, but that doesn’t allow for a smooth cooking process when it comes time to add each of those things one-by-one.  Instead, imagine if you could have each of those things in their own separate dish, that wouldn’t require using a full-sized plate or bowl from the cupboard. 

Minced shallots, cleaned lemon wedges, and chopped parsley.

Not only does it keep your working space clean and organized, it makes the actual cooking/plating process easier.  The concept of a “properly equipped” kitchen doesn’t only refer to the tools available – it refers to everything a cook needs to optimize and facilitate the entire cooking process.

Anyway, it’s the staple, frequently-used ingredients that facilitate cooking anything that are the things you need to have en place.  Salt, pepper, oils, spices, towels, utensils and cookware are just some of the things you need to have unfettered access to, throughout the process of cooking anything.  Furthermore, in the case of many home kitchens, the prep area and the cooking area may not be the same station, so you might need to establish two areas of mise en place!

My prep area mise includes small bowls of varying sizes (commonly referred to as mise dishes), finishing oils and vinegars, knives, recipe notebooks, bench-scraper, mortar & pestle, easy drawer access to prep utensils (like spoons, a peeler and measuring spoons), and cupboard access to things like mixing bowls and hand-held appliances (immersion blender, hand mixer, etc.). 

Meanwhile, my cooking mise includes a wide variety of salts, oils, peppers, dry towels (think hotmitts) and cooking utensils, all set up on the side of my dominant (right) hand.  Things should be set up with frequency of use in mind, with the most used items closest to the stove. One should also consider how easily containable the product is.

Salt, for example is closest – not just because of frequency of use, but because you’re bound to lose a few grains between container and pan, and I want the least amount of distance in which I can make a mess.  Some oils are on a paper towel-lined dish to avoid leaks and spills (and yes, squeeze bottles are your friend!), and sparsely-used salts are in the back – out of the way, but still accessible.  Everything that might slip or slide is placed on top of foam shelf-liner or paper towels to ensure they remain as stable as possible.  Three towels hang on the oven bar:  One for wiping dirty/damp hands, one for wiping dry/not-clean hands/things, and one for drying clean things.

Cooking area mise

When at work, a professional cook is obsessive (or at least should be) about maintaining their mise – not just keeping things stocked and tight, but keeping (you guessed it!) everything in place.  To an experienced cook changing the location of a single salt dish by a half-inch, or swapping the places of canola oil and olive oil can easily create a fit of rage fit only for a Game of Thrones episode.  This is why few and far between are the examples I’ve encountered of one cook successfully setting up someone else’s mise en place.

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