Mise-en-place: a way of life

It’s no secret. I’m not very good at blogging while I’m working. I’m a freelancer, and the work I do requires full-on attention when I get it. Usually I’ll have three days or a week or three weeks (if I’m lucky), and in that time I (and my partners, if I’m working in a team) have to crack it. You can’t miss. You can’t screw up. This is payday; you have to earn and deserve. That’s it. So taking the time to blog is something I can’t really do, even though I miss it. Today I have a tiny break.

Ironically, as the project was just heating up, I had a post in mind for you. It had to do with the way we work. I heard this story on NPR over the Christmas holidays, and it’s been playing in my head ever since. “For a More Ordered Life, Organize Like a Chef.” At the risk of sounding presumptuous, I do try to work like this. It seems, actually, the only way, often, to get everything done.

Since I’ve had children, I’ve heard myself mutter in self-conscious advice mode more times than I’d like to remember, “The key is organization.” But I think it really is. Everything goes smoother, every one is happier, everything is just a wee bit saner, when it’s all well organized. But that doesn’t come close, not really, to the philosophy explained and espoused by the chefs in this NPR story. It’s all about mis-en-place, the organizational method/mindset used by chefs in the kitchen.


If you don’t have time or desire to hear the story, the basics are as follows (this includes some chefs’ individual interpretations):

1. Start with a list.
2. Become one with your list.
3. Adopt the preparation mindset—everything ready and at hand.
4. Account for every minute and every movement
5. Work clean—clear your workspace, clear your mind
6. Clean as you go
7. Slow down to speed up, or, as we say in the ad/design world: do it right the first time.

Underlying all this is, in my mind, an eloquent and beautiful way of seeing the world. One of the chef’s expressed it like this: “Time is precious, resources are precious, space is precious, your self-respect and your respect of others are precious.” Amen, a million times.



Many, many years ago, and some of my closest friends will already know this about me, I used to quote Mary Randolph’s Virginia Housewife, also entitled Methodical Cook, published in 1860. She starts the book like this, before getting into curing herrings and roasting snipes. I’ve put my favorite part in bold. It cracks me up:

The grand arcanum of management lies in three simple rules:–“Let every thing be done at a proper time, keep every thing in its proper place, and put every thing to its proper use.” If the mistress of a family, will every morning examine minutely the different departments of her household, she must detect errors in their infant state, when they can be corrected with ease; but a few days’ growth gives them gigantic strength: and disorder, with all her attendant evils, are introduced. Early rising is also essential to the good government of a family. A late breakfast deranges the whole business of the day, and throws a portion of it on the next, which opens the door for confusion to enter.

And so that confusion will not enter, I will close this blog post for the day and put my shoulder back to the grindstone. My freelance work continues tomorrow, so we may not hear from each other for a few days. Until then, work well, work clean, and enjoy yourself.

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14 Responses to Mise-en-place: a way of life

  1. janette gross says:

    This was perfect to read this morning as I pack to go off for a retreat where I (and a friend) do all the cooking for 11 people for the week. We have to prepare as much food ahead of time as possible, so we don’t miss out on any of the good stuff and there are only limited stores near-by. I have lists upon lists of items and last minute ingredients and my own work that I bring to share and don’t forget one’s underwear! Thanks!

    • Wow. The very best of luck to you! I look forward to hearing how it goes!

      • janette144 says:

        It went great! We cooks were totally exhausted afterwards, but it was all worth it. Even with our lists and spreadsheets and recipes and notes, we forgot some things and had to wing it. However, it all worked out fine and even better in some cases – like my latest weaving project – it was suppose to be one thing but turned out to be another and is way more lively and interesting.

  2. sbaird says:

    Thank you for a beautiful post, so meaningful on this Monday and everyday.

    • I answered your comment but my answer went wandering around the comments lounge and ended up in the wrong spot! I hope you know that you were “in” that post…thought of you the whole time.

  3. dayphoto says:

    I live by lists…for anything and everything. Sometimes I have trouble with my list as I don’t even know how to start…I sorta know what I want to accomplish —I sorta know…then I can’t make a list. After awhile I don’t even remember why I wanted a list…it all just fades away. So you are fight…know what you want, stick to the list, then THERE you are!


    • This is funny. Not sure why but it is…I am trying to think back to when I was a really rigorous list-maker…I think I don’t adhere to lists quite as well as I used to because sometimes I resent the structure they impose. But I have already seen, that when I stay “on task” things go better all around. What I miss, really miss, though…is unscheduled time. Time to just muse and reflect…maybe I need to put that time on my list!

  4. Thought of you, of course. I hope you knew that.

  5. Gerlinde says:

    I make lists in my head every morning before getting up and that helps. When I cook I improvise, that’s why blogging is so important for me. I have to be precise, not an easy task for me. Cooking is a creative process that happens while I’m doing it. I only cook for friends and family.
    As to living I often like to stumble and float through life. It is so much fun and I can do it because I’m retired.

  6. I completely agree- having been a cafe owner and caterer. And now to transfer that to daily life. I have lots of lists. But my continuing goal is shedding ‘stuff’. I’m putting a box in each room and collecting items over the next month or however long it takes to not only help organize but rid the clutter and non use items.

  7. I love the box idea. I have to shed stuff very badly right now. We have just bought a new smaller house and I will have to pack us in it like we’re living on a boat. I’m really looking forward to it…living with what we need, and little else. I find that clutter weighs me down in all sorts of ways. I hate it. I loved your golden milk recipe by the way. I am eager to try it.

  8. garybuie01 says:

    Thank you for visiting my post over in Illinois today, I thought I’d return the favour! I consider myself to be pretty organized although I guess that Mrs Randolf might have other ideas!

  9. Joselin says:

    I belatedly read this post, but like most things in life, it arrived at exactly the right time. I’ve been so overwhelmed with life that nothing gets correctly prepped, planned, executed or put away. Just reading, I feel my breath slowly, my mind settling. Tonight, I have a long ride where I can try to come back to center.

    So much better than a reunion!

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