Good evening, friends and neighbors.
Bakers live at least 24 hours in the future. We get a reputation for being sticklers and detail-oriented, because we are somewhat literally programming ourselves for the next few days. We predict eventualities, contingencies, and even our own potential failings.
Cooking is about control- ordering and directing everything from your ingredients, to your environment, to your equipment, to yourself. Baking- being necessarily hands-off for an enormous part of a process that is itself time-consuming- requires this to the extreme. It leads to bizarre truths of kitchen- the sauce for your steak having been started earlier that morning, or that freshly-baked pie starting it’s production nearly a week ago.
To invoke that much control, attention, and planning is practically a martial art- one that cooks call “mise en place.”
Mise en place (pronounced ‘meez in plahs’) is French for “Put in Place.” It means having everything you need in front of/near you, in the form you need it, at the temperature you need it, so that you can execute a preparation quickly and almost thoughtlessly.
For line cooks, this is absolutely critical, as it keeps them functioning and organized minute-by-minute. They have garnishes and sauces in front of them, ready to be used. Main ingredients (such as the raw steak for steak frites) is in a small fridge at their knees called a low boy. Everything is in the exact same place, in the same orientation, so that a cook can grab things without needing to turn and look- they just KNOW they are there. If a cooks mise gets messed up, rearranged, or runs out, it can spiral them- and the rest of the line- straight into the weeds.
Bakers have it a little slower- but not by any means easier. Unlike many hot preparations, baking necessarily takes MUCH longer to create edible products- and utterly unlike most cooking, the crucial process of actually BAKING the food is entirely hands off- it’s in an oven. A baker must rely on their skills, their knowledge of physics and chemistry to make sure that that cake or loaf of bread does EXACTLY what it needs to do while the bakers isn’t looking.
Bakers, ironically, must control their ingredients the most at a time when they are LEAST in their control.
To illustrate, here is the ideal timeline for when I make an apple pie at work, from inception to service.
If You Wish To Make A Pie From Scratch (And Carl Sagan Isn’t Present)
– Decide to make pie.
– If pie dough is not made, inform Gwen in production.
– Gwen: dices 7 lbs. of butter and lays on papered sheet pan. Places in freezer to sit overnight.
– If dough IS available, roll and form pie crust in pan. Set to freeze to ensure against shrinkage.
– Make filling
– Dice apples. Set over medium-high heat to render initial liquid.
– Weigh and mix brown sugar, corn starch, spices, vanilla/liquor. Line up near range.
– Add when sufficient liquid as formed. Mix well.
– Stir occasionally until desired consistency is reached. Place on sheet pan and wrap in plastic. Place in walk-in, let cool till tomorrow.
– Clean down.
T- 24 hours
– If pie dough was not available:
– Gwen uses butter from yesterday that froze overnight to make pie dough. This is critical, since the butter cannot be allowed to warm up or melt while mixing in order to ensure a perfectly flaky crust.
– Once pie dough is made, dough goes to prep guys for portioning/final kneading. Swipe two discs immediately, roll, form, and quick-freeze. Others go to walk-in for Victoria.
– If pie dough WAS available:
– Assemble pie. Use filling.
– Roll and apply top crust.
– Egg wash and let sit in walk-in for 10 minutes to firm.
– Vent and bake.
– After bake, let cool remainder of day. Tent with tinfoil overnight for protection.
T- 00 Hours
– Recrisp if needed- cut and serve.
Please note this is the process for a full, working pastry crew (yes, PIE is a team effort.) At home, shorten the timeline by 24 hours because I love warm pie and don’t need to worry if there’s too much stuff on the counter. Remove all decision trees with “Matt does it because he’s the one making pie”.
Cooking and baking can be complicated, and mise en place gives it all structure. It creates an order of operations- an instinctive procedure, that lets A lead to B, to C, to D, to Cake.
It was one of the first things I was taught when I started in culinary school. Literally. It was Culinary 101- “Introduction to Culinary Arts-” the same class where we learned to hold knives, clean, and basic sanitation. THAT is how elemental this is.
Consequently, I can almost always tell when we get a new student in the cafe who wasn’t taught this- their table is a mess. They have to go running laps through the kitchen grabbing things they forgot. They get flustered and confused easily, losing things that are right in front of their faces.
Most obvious is when I say “mise en place,” and they go “What?”
That isn’t unique to the kitchen. People go through their lives and complain of never feeling able to keep up. They berate themselves for being forgetful, and spend God-knows-how-much money on self-help books to “DECLUTTER YOUR LIFE” and “MAKE TIME FOR TIME!”
What they NEED… is a professional cooking lesson.
A few years back, NPR had an excellent segment on what the average person can learn from the lifestyle of chefs– and not just recipes, colorful language, and how to lose the feeling in your fingertips. Ultimately, mise en place is about self-discipline and self-mastery- being aware of yourself, your needs, and your surroundings to make handling your daily tasks quick and effortless.
I don’t know anyone that COULDN’T use that level of attentiveness and self-confidence.
Here is a couple of ways to bring mise en place out of the kitchen and into your life- maybe there will even be pie.
When I walk into the bakery, the first thing I do every morning is check/make my production list. Looking at upcoming orders, requests from the rest of the kitchen, my own projects, etc, I amass a single master list of everything I need to get done that day.
Once you have the physical list in front of you, it’s easier to prioritize. “They need rose cookies for tomorrow morning, so that MUST get done… but that recipe I want to test out doesn’t have a deadline. It can wait till tomorrow if necessary.”
2. Slow Down To Speed Up.
Now that you have your list, stop for a minute and take a breath. Thinking about order, and expending effort. If you are likely to be in the same place for the two things, take care of them both instead of doing two trips. If you need to bring things along, start by gathering those together- separated by task, but near each other. The goal is to have everything you need at your disposal, and not have to run around because you forgot you needed something.
3. If your surroundings are messy, so is your mind.
Keep yourself and your surroundings neat and orderly. One of my teachers would take points off our grade if we had ANYTHING on our table that wasn’t directly related to the current task, or wasn’t getting touched in the next 10 minutes. “Your workspace reflects your headspace,” she said. “If you have messes and old dishes everywhere, it’s no wonder you can’t focus!”
Between tasks, I always clean down my station and send any dishes I’m not using again immediately to the wash. I don’t need ingredients out in the morning for a recipe I’m making at the end of the day.
4. Plan Like You Might Screw Up, Then Don’t.
We’re human. We mess up. A lot. This is the part of mise en place where you need to be honest with yourself, and recognize your own flaws- not to berate yourself around them, but to work around them.
“Ok, I have the cookies baked to be decorated tomorrow, and they’re wrapped and put away. I know I have a crappy memory though, so I’m going to write a note in tomorrow’s log book to remind myself.”
5. If You Have All Day, Move Like You Have An Hour.
Nothing will take the time you think it will. EVER. This one is about living with the assumption that Murphy’s Law is in full effect- especially the one that says “If you give someone 10 hours to do a 10-minute task, they will take the full 10 hours to complete the task.
In the kitchen, this is called hustling, or “a sense of urgency.” If it needs to be done, GET IT DONE- because in the next 30 minutes, fifty other things will need to be done. The more you put things off, the less time you will have to do them well, the more stressed you will be.