“He who fails to plan, is planning to fail – Winston Churchill”
There are many things that I don’t know about food and cooking and I actually hope that I never do; I don’t want to live a life where I know it all, that’s no fun. What I do know pretty damn well though is how to be organised. I can’t operate without organisation and having it in the kitchen is no exception. I can honestly say that whenever I’ve cooked for a crowd I’ve never felt overwhelmed or stressed about it and I’m sure it’s because I live by my mise en place; it’s a state of mind.
Generally people think that mise en place is measuring out your ingredients into little bowls, and it is, but it’s much more than that. The planning starts weeks before the event, it starts with menu creation. I consider the theme, weather, budget, the guests, kitchen space, cooking time, ease of cooking those things together and I often take into account my latest obsessions or cravings. Recipes books and pages strewn across my lounge floor while I prepare a first draft menu is quite a common sight.
Next step is preparing the shopping list. I normally split the list into dry, freeze and advance purchases and fresh purchases. This way I can shop with less stress and if on the first outing I can’t find something at least have a few days to source it. When cooking unusual or hard to come by items I do my homework first and often scout the shops weeks in advance for a tester.
Once I’ve made sure my calendar is clear in the evenings leading up to the event I split up the prep work into what can be done days in advance and what can’t. Generally these are the things that work well with flavour development like a smoked butter or creme fraiche. I find if I do a couple of things each evening leading up to the event it really relieves the pressure. With the prep that is left I set-out a basic timetable starting first thing in the morning with the things that need to set or cook the longest (say a tart or ice cream or a jus). While those things cook or set I carry on with whatever other prep is required; all the while crossing the items off my list.
I wash the dishes and clean the down the surfaces regularly a) because my kitchen is small and b) because it keeps my head clear. Once everything is done, I pack (if I am cooking away from home). I pack by course to make sure I don’t forget anything and sometimes I pack the ingredients for each dish in a separate bag or box if I know I’m getting help with prep at the venue.
Once unpacked I start to cut and chop the things that I can while maintaining their freshness; I prepare the meat (scoring or whatever it needs), mixing things that need mixing, storing them in containers, bowls or ramekins and placing them together, arranged by course near to where I will be cooking and/or plating. I finalise my timing ie: first course served at 19:30, therefore put the starter in the oven at 19:00 etc. I set out the dishes ready for plating, place a tea towel under my chopping board, make sure my knife is at hand, that there is a sink-ful of warm soapy water, throw a tea towel over my shoulder, find myself a spoon to tuck into my apron pocket, tighten my apron and then I am good to go.
So yes, mise en place is about little bowls of pre-measured ingredients but it’s more overly an ethos, advanced thinking, clever menu choices and a structured approach to the kitchen.
Courtesy Pascale, food blogger