Mis-en-place

I’ve found several references in the blogosphere lately to mis-en-place. My partner is actually trained as a chef, so I was already familiar with the concept. Mis-en-place means “everything in its place.” But it hadn’t occurred to me that it might have relevance for my art.

Ever since we met, I’ve teased him about the fact that any meal he cooked meant that every pot and dish in the kitchen got dirty. Culinary school only exacerbated this tendency of his. All the ingredients for the dish are pulled out of cupboards and fridge and lined up on the counter. Something is diced to precisely one quarter inch cubes and put in a small bowl. A lemon is zested with a special tool into another bowl. Something else is sliced paper-thin into a third bowl. Each thing is measured or diced or grated and put in its own little bowl. All this happens before the stove is even turned on. The kitchen is full of dirty dishes when dinner is done. But the meal is always delicious and almost always far beyond my own cooking abilities.

Historically, I’m exactly the opposite kind of cook. I love a “one-pot” meal. I have a vague idea in my head of what I intend to make. I pull the ingredients out of the fridge as I go. I’ll throw one ingredient into the saute pan, then start to chop up the next thing while the first is already browning. Then I’m back to rummaging in the cupboard, looking for something else. Needless to say, the results, while usually edible, are not the technical masterpieces that my partner’s dishes are. For a long time, I didn’t really make pasta or cook rice competently, because I was always multi-tasking and my timing suffered. My timing suffered because I hadn’t prepped properly. Never-mind prepping properly, I usually hadn’t prepped at all. I thought that, since I knew what I was doing in my head, I was prepared. But cooking isn’t just a matter of deciding what you want to eat. Just like making things isn’t just a matter of deciding what one wants to make.

Mis-en-place

Now, it may look like everything is “in its place” here, but really, everything is just someplace. Especially when working with soft glass, my tendency is to lay all the colors out in front of me and try them all. I do like playing with color, but this is kind of risky. If everything is possible, then sometimes nothing really gets done. It’s like if you were to drag all the food out of your fridge every time you made supper. It’s true you might not forget about those leftovers in the back of the fridge quite so often, but you’d also get really hungry taking everything out and putting it all back. There also might not be enough room on the counter to actually cook anything. And when you’re working with hot glass, it’s not really safe to not have ample room to do things properly.

Sure you can mess around with whatever materials happen to be at hand. I think that experimenting and spontaneity are important parts of the process. But they’re only part of the process. What mis-en-place really means is that one has a plan, and that one takes the time to prepare to focus efficiently on the project at hand. There’s real value in research, in developing a plan, in setting out one’s tools and materials in advance. Many thanks to all those who keep reminding me to focus.

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2 Comments

  1. Some Clarifications on Process « tether
  2. The risk of the new « tether

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