One of my guilty pleasures is watching reality shows like Top Chef and Chopped.
I know there are people who will judge me for this. Number one, it’s TV, which we all know is not on the list of “approved activities” for a writer. Number two, it’s Reality TV, which is at the top of many “waste of time” lists.
I put myself through college by waiting tables, so I’ve spent a bit of time in a restaurant kitchen. It’s a remarkable world. Maybe that accounts for my fascination with chefs.
But I don’t think so. Mostly, I am fascinated by the creative process. In reality shows I get to observe people in extreme circumstances as they combine skill with creativity to produce a product, and then get judged instantly on the results. This, to me, is a quick way to view the creative process in action.
Recently, these reality shows have me thinking about mise-en-place, and how it pertains to my writing life.
Mise-en-place is a French term that translates as “put in place.” It refers to the way that chefs prepare for dinner service so that they can put together quality, well-presented food in the cauldron that is a restaurant kitchen.
But it's really more than that.
During a segment on NPR’s “The Salt”, Melissa Gray, a student at the Culinary Institute of America, had this to say about mise-en-place:
“I know people who have it tattooed on them. It really is a way of life… a way of concentrating your mind to only focus on the aspects that you need to be working on at the moment, to kind of rid yourself of distractions.”According to Anthony Bourdain, author of Kitchen Confidential, “Mise-en-place is the religion of all good line cooks… As a cook, your station, and its condition, its state of readiness, is an extension of your nervous system… The universe is in order when your station is set.”
A bit more involved than how you dice your onions, it seems.
ELEMENTS OF MISE-EN-PLACE
Professional chefs call it “the Meez” and it has a number of elements, including:
Chefs have trained for many years to perfect their skills. They know everything about how food reacts to heat, how to combine flavors and how to best showcase fresh ingredients. They know not to overwork their dishes. They know, I mean really know, their stuff.
Mise-en-place proponents clean as they go, keep their work stations picked up and make sure the ingredients are fresh. This is obviously a health issue (a dirty kitchen could lead to food poisoning) but it’s also a way to combat clutter and confusion. It’s a mindset that, according to sous-chef Greg Barr, is...
“… a very Zen-like thing for me. It’s so in the moment that like, you don’t have stuff from the past… Everything’s been cleaned down. All my knives are clean. Clean cutting board. Clear space to work. Clear mind.”Slow down to speed up
Good chefs have learned that it’s best to work in a controlled manner. In the middle of a frantic rush, they have to take a moment, slow down and refocus. If they work in a mad dash, the odds of putting out an undercooked steak or an overcooked salmon increase. The dish gets sent back and they have to cook the dish all over again--a big waste of time and food, and something that could dampen a restaurant's reputation.
All of this behind-the-scenes work (as much as six hours of prep for a three hour dinner service) is not visible to the diner at the table, but it definitely shows in the food on the plate.
Chef Dwayne LiPuma, an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America, said,
“The world is a giant gerbil wheel right now. I think if we just became a little bit more organized – a little more mise-en-place – understood what we really need and only do what we really need, I think we’ll have more time.”MISE-EN-PLACE IN THE WRITING LIFE
So, how can I practice a version of mise-en-place in my writing life?
First off, I should embrace the preparation mindset by acknowledging that writers have their own version of prep work. I need to stop thinking that the only time that counts as writing time is when I am actually putting words on a page.
My version of prep work includes:
- Reading, anything and everything
- Thinking about concepts, characters, images, etc. while I pull weeds in the yard and do the dishes.
- Expanding my vocabulary by stopping to look up the full meaning of words that I am unclear on.
- Reading up on craft topics like point of view, characterization, punctuation, etc.
I should get it through my head that it will take years of training and practice to hone my writing skills and abilities. I should have faith that all this behind-the-scenes prep work will eventually show up on the page.
I should work clean by keeping my desk clear of everything except the materials that pertain to the project I am working on. Stay off Facebook and Pinterest, answer emails outside of writing time and leave my cellphone in another room.
When it comes to those looming deadlines (WritingWyoming blog post has to be up on Tuesday morning!) I should slow down to speed up by organizing myself to work toward the deadline, in short increments of time if that’s all I can get, and not thrash around at the last hour.
I should also get over this idea that I have to write it all, right now. Frantic is not conducive to good writing any more than it is conducive to good food.
I can also mise-en-place my attitude by prioritizing and tackling one project at a time, leaving thoughts of all those other projects I have to/want to write out of my mind.
I should take Melissa Gray’s advice and make it a habit of, “… concentrating your mind to only focus on the aspects that you need to be working on at that moment.”
Okay, then, I am ready to apply the Meez to my writing. My list is in order. My desk is cleared off.
I'd better get cooking.
Maybe I need one of those white coats…
For this blog post, I drew quotes and information from the following:
“For a More Ordered Life, Organize Like a Chef,” NPR’s The Salt, by Dan Charnas
“Mis en Place” The Reluctant Gourmet, by G. Stephen Jones