Thursday, March 1, 2012

Mise en place

There’s nothing like home cooking, but especially when the cook has the skills of a master chef. Our culinary school-trained son was home last week. He’s currently cooking in a classy restaurant on the riverfront in Savannah, but he’s also had the privilege of working alongside one of the top chef’s in Santa Rosa, Chef Jeffrey of Jeffrey’s Café. It’s always fun to stand by when a master is at work in any field, but especially one who can do magic in the kitchen.

I’ve watched him preparing food before but this time I was especially paying attention as he assembled each of the ingredients, chopping, dicing, getting everything set. When I commented on the orderliness of his approach he said it’s called “mise en place” (pronounced miz on plas) which is a French term meaning “putting in place.” It’s what professional kitchens do, arranging all their ingredients and putting everything in place before the baking, roasting, frying or salad-making begins. Pre-heating the ovens and having all your mixing bowls, spatulas and other ingredients at the ready is also part of it. His meticulous attention to detail impressed even me.

It made me reflect on all kinds of other applications for mise en place. I have written about writing numerous times over the years and in one of my columns I noted that writing an article is like baking cookies. First you gather the ingredients and get everything set. At the time I didn’t know the French term, but mise en place applies equally to writing articles, books, or term papers.

The concept brought to mind an experience I had as a plumber’s aide in New Jersey the summer before I went off to college. It was a large construction site where all the various trades were represented, from bricklayers and carpenters to electricians. There must have been a dozen plumbers on that crew. I remember three brothers who raced dragsters on weekends. And then there was Eddie Gowackey from Patterson.

Eddie Gowackey was one of the slowest moving human beings you ever saw. Yet, by day’s end he had assembled and welded more copper pipe than anyone. How? Mise en place. He would spend the entire morning laying everything out. By noon lunch it seemed he still had not gotten a single thing done. That was an illusion, of course. He carefully, painstakingly made sure he had every piece ready, pipes cut precisely to size, everything in place. At the end of the afternoon he was the first one finished. No wasted movements. He was deliberate, easygoing, and a walking lesson.

A few years later when I was a painting contractor, the orderly way I’d been taught to paint a room followed the same principle. You prep first, spackling nail holes, taping off the baseboards, etc. It was efficient.

Perhaps the same principle holds true for life itself. When we’re young we’re in such a hurry to grow up. Our teachers and elders tell us to take our time, enjoy your youth. More importantly, we have lessons to learn before we grow up and are on our own. How to handle responsibility, handling money, taking care of our bodies, nourishing our minds, establishing ethical standards…. These are important lessons which when neglected will trip us up later.

There’s nothing like a good home-cooked meal. But a well-lived life comes in a pretty close second.

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