The Triumph and the Tragedy of Mise-En-Place
A professional kitchen is an intense place. Once the doors open for that evening’s service, there is no more time to think, debate, or put off what is about to happen. The creativity in culinary art—playing with ingredients, figuring out new dishes—has already happened and now it is time to cook. Hungry guests are going to order food, and the kitchen must get the food prepared and sent out, no matter what. Professional chefs will spend time before the restaurant opens making sure they have everything they need to make tonight’s dishes ready and waiting. Sauces reduced, parsley chopped, meats trimmed, vegetables peeled. This preparation and organization is called mise-en-place, French for “everything in place.”
Mise-en-place is not about how to prepare food, it is about how to prepare the context to prepare food. There is no last-minute scramble to have the ingredients to cook a dish ready, because spending time getting one’s mise-en-place together means everything is organized and ready to go. Anthony Bourdain describes setting up mise-en-place as a religious experience, that goes beyond simply getting ready to cook, and instead becomes a transformative moment from civilian to chef. A good mise-en-place ritual focuses the chef, and allows for a smooth service. With everything prepared, the act of cooking can become a triumphant dance of ingredients, oven, skillets, knife and tongs.
Anyone who is a maker of work has some sense of mise-en-place. Your studio is set up just so. Your coffee at the ready. Your paints mixed, your clay moist, your computer backed up, your pencils sharp. This is how you get in the zone of creating, where setting up your mise-en-place transforms you from civilian to designer. The catch is that your ritual can take any amount of time you allow it to. You can, in fact, fool yourself into thinking that your mise-en-place is your work: First I have to find the right paper. I have to find a better to-do list app. I have to find brighter lighting. You can spend days, weeks, months, or years getting ready to start.
The designer who gets distracted by getting ready can become a tragic mess of hasty, last-minute decisions when the deadlines start looming. Rather than a ritual of preparedness, it becomes a way to focus on something other than the actual work, while still feeling like you are doing something useful. There is usually a moment in art and design where you need to cross the line from getting ready to work, to actually working, and mise-en-place can make this line blurry and hard to see