If you know me well then you know I love to cook.
When I cook, one of the things I do is based on what professional chefs call mise en place.
Take yesterday for example. I was cooking a ragu for the family; it wasn’t gramigna alla salsiccia, my usual favourite, because I couldn’t get the gramigna and didn’t have time to make the pasta from fresh. So I got some fresh egg spaghetti instead … especially since my grandson adores spaghetti. The two-year-old makes the demolition of spaghetti an art form, as only two-year-olds can.
But I stayed true to making the ragu a salsiccia of sorts. And I wanted to make sure the sauce was allowed to cook for at least six hours, preferably more like eight. So I got started yesterday morning, and the first thing I did was this:
I laid out the ingredients. You can’t see the sausage meat or the pork mince or the beef mince (they’re all still in the fridge) nor can you see the milk (which was keeping the meat company in the fridge, in separate compartments of course).
I try and do it every time I cook; it’s something that professional chefs do. I’m lucky enough to have visited many great chefs at work in their kitchens, and privileged to call a number of them good friends. If they think something’s a good idea, whom am I to argue?
I find the whole process of preparing the mise-en-place instructive, often uplifting, sometimes even cathartic. Preparing the ingredients by hand gets you involved in the cooking in ways that you just couldn’t otherwise. For example, you get to really know the aroma released by a herb when you crush or tear it by hand; you get to feel the texture of the soffrito ingredients, a feeling that helps you figure out when they are truly soffrito, under-fried. And if you’re like me, you graze not-quite-absentmindedly on the leftovers while you peel, chop and crush. By the time you’ve laid all the ingredients out you have a heightened sense of the smell, taste and texture of the dish.
From a practical viewpoint, you get to perform a visual check, a quick way to confirm that everything is in its place and that there’s a place for everything. So there’s no oopsing and traipsing off to get the missing ingredient, you can proceed serenely.
There’s also something else. If you do this every time you cook a particular dish, you get a real feel for proportion, for the relationships between the various ingredients. When you couple this “proportion” knowledge with the “smell, taste and texture” from the process of preparation, you have something very powerful: you can experiment with accentuating or diminishing the character of the dish in subtle ways, because you know something about how they fit together. You know it deep inside you.
I love music but wouldn’t call myself a musician. A crass amateur guitarist at best. When I see real musicians, I know they feel their way about a piece of music in a similar way: they know, instinctively, what goes with what, and how they can vary things, the proportions, the sequences, the lot. I have no such feel for music. Even though I love music, I love musical instruments, I love listening to music, I love going to concerts. Even though I have good friends (including close relatives) who are really talented. (For example, I’m at the Dylan concert on Tuesday, and watching my nephew’s band Parekh and Singh a week or two later. Check them out. Really looking forward to both events).
When you’re cooking something like a ragu, there’re a few added benefits. You can wash and clear away all the utensils while you’re putting the sauce through its early paces, as it does its egg-larva-pupa-imago transformation. Which looks a bit like this, going clockwise from top left:
I don’t taste the sauce while it’s in the first two quadrants; I need to be sure the meat is cooked sufficiently before I intervene. But I smell it all the way. For sure. And I stir it regularly to get a sense of the texture. If interventions are required, the earlier I know about it the better.
By the time the sauce is ready for the taste test I will have laid the table, set out drinks, put away the preparation utensils and started getting together the serving dishes and ladles and spoons and suchlike. There’s a variant of the mise-en-place at this point, when you get to do visual checks on the empty serving dishes. Parmesan? Check. Pasta? Check. Salad? Check. Kevin? Kevin!
Yes, cooking like this can be edifying, uplifting, sometimes even cathartic.
But it’s not just about cooking. I found myself doing something very similar when I went travelling. I would lay out the things I needed, first in a list, then in a visual presentation, then get going. Flying out early tomorrow morning? Pack and get clothes out tonight. That sort of thing.
There’s something about this whole discipline that I like thinking about when it comes to getting things done. The overall population of tasks. What’s mandatory, what’s optional. The relationships and proportions. Subgroups and dependencies. What you can vary and when, in what proportion. The effect it will have. The need to test regularly. The knowledge of how to act on the feedback. The minimum time. The maximum time. The optimal time.
What mise en place does for me is to remind me about the power of the senses in all this. How sight and sound and smell and touch help me. And what that means in the context of things other than cooking. The “muscle memory” of getting things done. The synaesthetic aspects, the sanity checks, the smell tests, all of which come from practice and observation and learning.
The principal reason I cook is because I enjoy cooking. And eating. And serving others what I’ve prepared.
But there are other things I learn at the same time. Which makes it all so pleasurable.