Professional chefs don’t peel and chop an onion, get it sweating in a pan, then scratch their heads and think about preparing garlic, peppers, mushrooms or whatever to go with it.
They know what ingredients and equipment a dish needs. They get them ready before they start. (Or get someone else to do it.) They don’t pause during cooking to squeeze a lemon. The lemon juice is there, ready when they need it.
In a kitchen that preparation is called mise en place. It’s literally “putting in place”.
Why do chefs work like that? Consider, as you read this list, that the principles hold just as well for non-chefs, doing any kind of work.
- Preparation forces you to think through, carefully, and in advance, what a job entails. That’s a chance to eliminate non-essentials, refine and improve what you do need, and pre-empt mistakes.
- By doing what can be done ahead of time you’ll be more focused, confident and able to deal with fast-moving events when the heat is on.
- Being organised means you’ll get the task done faster, neater and with less stress.
- You’ll create obvious opportunities for delegating discrete parts of the job, involving team members and helping build their skills and understanding.
A valuable spin-off of breaking projects into identifiable and discrete processes is that you can get to enjoy them for their own sake. Instead of being a tiresome chore on the way to your goal, they become a potential source of satisfaction and professional pride.
Here’s one meticulous cook and writer, Peter Hertzmann, growing very lyrical about his Zen-like approach to a task of apparently great tedium. He was assigned to peel some peas. Yep, that’s peeling garden peas, taking off the thicker outer membrane of the pea after they’ve been podded and blanched. (It’s a serious cookery thing.)
The cook that passed the task to me apologized profusely for his actions, but he was happy not to do it himself. It’s not a difficult process. A small nick is made in the skin of each pea with a knife — a bird’s beak knife worked well — and the skin comes off by squeezing the pea slightly. The contents without the skin taste much sweeter than the whole pea with the skin. Your fingers become increasingly gummy and slippery as the starch from the peas coats them, and frequent rinsing only seems to help a little. The main problem is that it takes about two hours to peel a quart of peas. The task can be quite tedious. For some reason, it wasn’t tedious for me. Maybe because I ignored the overall goal of completing the job and instead concentrated on each individual pea. It became important for me to do the best job I could on each individual pea — to get the skin to “pop” with the smallest possible nick of the knife — to get the skin to release its contents gently into the basin the skinned peas were destined for and not to shoot them across the room. As I completed the peeling of each pea, I observed quickly the results of the process and attempted to make minor adjustments so the next pea would be peeled a little better. When I had completed peeling the whole quart, I was actually disappointed to be done. The chef mentioned that I seemed to be very calm.
From a long article on mise en place on Hertzmann’s website.
Learning to work quickly and efficiently, with care and pride, can transform any mundane job – collating sets of figures, making routine phone calls, proofreading a report, photocopying, purging dormant files, writing minutes…. As long as the task is purposeful and necessary, mastering it can bring satisfaction and reduce stress.