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Blog // Creativity
February 24, 2007

Mise en Place – The Ready State for Cooking and also Creativity

Think of those cooking shows were the ingredients are carefully prepared and laid out before the cook. That’s Mise en Place. This idea applies to more than just cooking.

I’ve been enjoying Gretchen Ruben’s writing on the The Happiness Project blog. A few days ago there was a fascinating piece on the culinary term – Mise en Place. Ruben suggests this way of working teaches us some principles we can use beyond the kitchen, in other aspects of our lives.

If you are unfamiliar with the term Mise en Place, then imagine the traditional cooking show all those carefully prepared ingredients in matching bowls and containers. A bowl full of carefully diced onions, another with peeled and chopped garlic. All the trays, and pans, and dishes are close by. The oven in already pre-heated. That’s Mise en Place. Everything in it’s place. think, here’s the one I marinated earlier – think, pre-heated ovens – that’s Mis en Place (here’s some more practical examples).

But, can Mise en Place do something for our personal happiness?

Mise en Place As A Path To Happiness

We all know the stuff we need to get the various jobs in our life done. But, we don’t always take the time to prepare well and get all the tools ready. We’ve seen the cooking shows and yet when it comes time to make dinner we’re pulling stuff out of the fridge at the last minute and trying to separate the food from the mess as we cook.

Of course, professional cooks don’t work like this. They aren’t chopping carrots or portioning fish after you place your order. All the preparation was done before the meal service started. They’re working in a station full of ingredients laid out thoughtfully to make cooking quick and efficient.

Ruben sees a natural progression from this idea to other kinds of work. Taking a moment to prepare your stuff also helps prepare your mind. This generates a sense of calm that makes it easier to get into the flow of working. There’s a joy in being well prepared and in working with deep focus. Both help foster feelings of happiness.

“Now that I’ve learned the term mise en place, I’m more deliberate about composing myself to begin work—whether at my desk at home, on the long table at the library, or in a coffee shop.”
– Gretchen Ruben

Mise En Place As A Way Of Working

Professional cooks obsess about Mise en Place. Anthony Bourdain called it their religion. It’s not about being tidy for the sake of it. It’s a way of working in a challenging job, where things move fast, and attention to detail is crucially important. Professional kitchens are always teetering on the brink of anarchy so having good processes and preparation are essential to being able to cope with the job.

“I worked with a chef who used to step behind the line to a dirty cook’s station in the middle of a rush to explain why the offending cook was falling behind. He’d press his palm down on the cutting board, which was littered with peppercorns, spattered sauce, bits of parsley, bread crumbs and the usual flotsam and jetsam that accumulates quickly on a station if not constantly wiped away with a moist side towel. “You see this?” he’d inquire, raising his palm so that the cook could see the bits of dirt and scraps sticking to his chef’s palm. “That’s what the inside of your head looks like now.”
– Anthony Bourdain

For the home cook preparing a Mise en Place can seem like a lot of extra work. But with it comes peace of mind. It can not only help you avoid a ruined meal but also free you up enough to enjoy being a good host as well.

Learning To Embrace The Chaos

Back when I used to teach guitar I always found myself trying to get my students to pay more attention to their instrument and to themselves as musicians. They would start playing before tuning up their guitar. And sometimes their guitar simply wasn’t tunable. They’d turn up late, forget their music, or forget to practice, or turn up without anything to make notes with. If they can’t cope with a lesson how will they cope with a gig.

This is so different to the way professional musicians behave – especially session musicians. They turn up early, tune up unprompted, already rehearsed, with a pencil ready for any last minute changes to the music.

They have their Mise en Place.

More and more I’m finding myself thinking about Mis en Place in relation to creative activities and workflow, from writing, to arranging to recording. Leaving the desk ready for the next task, having the computer with browser and email closed, writing some notes so I can start the next task quickly.

Life is full of chaos. Things go wrong. Pressure can build up. Mise en Place thinking isn’t about locking out the chaos. It’s about being able to cope with it.

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