YAM explores how the mindful culinary practice of mise-en-place can bring order to life outside of the kitchen.
By Athena McKenzie
Kyst Hus — the ultra-organized one-bedroom A-frame on Union Bay that artist Christine Boyer shares with her husband and three children — was featured in The Modern A-Frame by photographer Ben Rahn (book shown below).
Ever have one of those mornings where you spend 15 minutes looking for your car keys? Or have your big weekend plans to redo the living room go off the rails when you discover you sold all of your paintbrushes in the last garage sale?
If so, you might find the phrase mise-en-place appealing. It could be the easy way it rolls off the tongue but it’s more likely its inherent promise of order. Translated from French it means “put in place” — words that are decidedly less elegant but still practical and gratifying in their own way — and it’s the name for the system that culinary professionals use to organize their kitchens. It literally means to gather and arrange the ingredients and tools needed for cooking. For many chefs it also goes much deeper. Mise-en-place transcends the kitchen and becomes a way of life.
In his recent book, Everything In Its Place: The Power of Mise-En-Place to Organize Your Life, Work and Mind, author Dan Charnas argues that the secrets to a well-organized life can be found by taking on some of the mise-en-place practices of chefs. And who doesn’t want to be more organized?
A System and a Philosophy
At its core, mise-en-place revolves around three central values: preparation, process and presence. As Charnas writes, these words may seem mundane, but when practiced they become profound. He puts forward mise-en place as a system and a philosophy — something that has commonalities with a spiritual tradition that can be used to create order and balance in one’s life.
For Island artist Christine Boyer, the principles of mise-en-place are at play in the home she shares with her husband and three children. To make their life functional and joyful in their one-bedroom A-frame, named Kyst Hus, on Union Bay, organization and a methodical approach are essential.
“For me, when my career intersected with the culinary school at the local college and its students, I formally came to understand the concept of mise-en-place,” Boyer says. “I could see how we use it in our own home naturally before we actually knew the term.”
From minimizing belongings to having lockers for the children’s stuff in the mudroom/laundry room to establishing a family-wide practice of regular “resets” through the day to return the home to its ideal state, Kyst Hus operates like a well-run kitchen.
Boyer credits her early life for instilling a natural appreciation for mise-en-place. Her grandfather ran a successful farm in Denmark and her father had his own meticulous shop.
“I was introduced to the concept at a very young age,” Boyer says. “That things ran efficiently when you kept your space clean and orderly.”
Greet the Day
It’s safe to say that many of us are under-planners. Especially when compared to successful chefs with orderly kitchens who understand that preparation is essential. Of course, they can’t wing it: if someone orders a meal off the menu, they have to deliver.
By doing simple things, we can make each day easier. (Think about the time we commit to grooming or watching television. A little of that time devoted to planning could eliminate mistakes and make our days flow so much better.)
A major recommendation from Charnas’s book is to create a daily meeze like a chef. While chefs use their meeze to plan a dinner service, anyone can use the practice to order their day.
“I absolutely use it in the everyday, and it’s not voluntary, it’s automatic,” says Victoria chef Gilbert Noussitou. “Personally, when I get up in the morning, if I jump into things my day is messed up. I need a few minutes to think about the day and what I am expecting to do. Now I have a mental list of the things I will do, and that’s my mise-en-place for the day.”
Charnas recommends a 30-minute-session at the end of the day to clean your physical and virtual spaces, clear your mind and plot your next day. While 30 minutes may seem daunting, you’ll be starting the day with your plan in hand, and you’ll save time — and earn peace of mind —by establishing a regular practice of planning and engaging with your goals.
All in the Details
An easy way to look at the philosophy of mise-en-place is that organization sets the stage for excellence. As chef Noussitou explains, the system is important to ensure that all of the essential ingredients are in place before the pressure of preparing and serving the meal begins.
“The challenging part of dealing with pressure is being ready for it,” he says. “So, we work up to it. Then when the time comes, it’s a piece of cake. If you’re not ready for it, then it’s just chaos.”
Noussitou also applies these principles to his role as a teacher at Camosun College’s Culinary School. From gathering his text to lesson planning to working out his presentations, he looks at it all as his mise-en-place.
While chefs may be aiming for the perfect meal service, organization in everyday life can also lead to an ideal outcome, whatever that means for you. It’s something that interior designer and professional organizer Jaclynn Soet of The Happy Nest witnesses all the time in her practice.
“Something I’ve noticed working with people is that as we determine what matters most to them with their belongings, they start to see themselves with more clarity,” she says. “I’ve noticed big changes in people. Their social life expands, they take on new jobs, new roles and new exciting activities. It stems from getting their homes in order.”
Cleaning as You Go
Another central tenet of mise-en-place is the practice of working clean. It’s not enough for items to find the right place; chefs must keep their system of organization no matter what develops. As Charnas writes, even the most refined systems become useless unless maintained. For cooks, this can mean cleaning as you go.
While working clean is imperative in the chef’s kitchen, where a dirty station can be a health hazard, outside of the culinary world, working clean is often a choice.
When Soet helps a client organize their home, she also builds in systems that make it easier to keep things in their place.
“That could mean measuring spaces and finding the perfect fit for items and then putting everything away so it’s neatly sorted, tracked and labeled,” she explains. “It’s beautiful because it helps people maintain the organization.”
The way Boyer sets up her studio is another great example of taking mise-en-place out of the kitchen and also illustrates that mental clarity that many chefs point to as an argument for working clean.
“All my tabletops are covered with a white cloth that I replace periodically, so I feel that my surfaces are clear and I can see my tools,” she says. “By the time your surfaces are covered in paint, it’s difficult to see your chalks and your paints. When everything is white I can look down and find my tools. I work in many different styles, so when it’s time to transition from something with fluorescents to a landscape piece using natural tones and hues, I really have to reset the studio back to a clean palette. At least once a week, I’m repainting the studio floor white, so I’m not distracted by the bright colours or steering a painting towards a hue it shouldn’t be in.”
The Mindfulness of Mise-en-Place
Distilled to its most basic form, mise-en-place means that resources, space and, most importantly, time are precious. By using them wisely and with mindfulness, we’re better set to deal with whatever comes our way.
“I think everyone should practice mise-en-place,” chef Noussitou says. “It takes a little bit of training but it makes such a difference on the outcome of a shift or a day or wherever your mise-en-place is applied.”
Create Your Daily Meeze
The core practice of mise-en-place is the 30-minute daily meeze, a four-part planning session. It can be most beneficial to undertake your daily meeze in the evening.
Clean Your Station: This part takes the most time. From clearing out your workbag to emptying your inbox to decluttering your desk, everything before your eyes should look clear
Sharpen Your Tools: Get your planning tools in order. Adjust your calendar and action list. Check off completed tasks and reschedule the missed tasks and appointments. Assign priorities to any action items.
Plan Your Day: Make a list of the day’s actions from the calendar, along with any you want to add. Create a timeline, if that appeals. Don’t overschedule.
Gather Your Resources: Do whatever you can to give yourself as little as possible to do the next morning. This could mean packing your workbag, gathering ingredients for breakfast or even laying out your clothes.
Adapted from Everything In Its Place by Dan Charnas.
8 Mise-en-place Practices to Use Outside the Kitchen
1. Plan daily
Commit to being honest with time. Planning should be the first thought, not an afterthought. Schedule your tasks, respecting both abilities and limitations. By planning, one knows where to start and will save time later.
2. Work clean
This means more than making things look pretty. Commit to optimizing your space in terms of organization and mobility. An organized space can help organize one’s mind.
3. Clean as you go
All systems are useless unless they are maintained. Plan for regular resets to return your space to its optimal conditions. Working clean helps you get things done faster and better.
4. Start now
Set your priorities and don’t put off what can be done now. Commit to using time to your benefit.
5. Finish the job
Orphaned tasks create more work. Commit to delivering.
6. Slow down to speed up
Also known as haste makes waste. Commit to doing a task smoothly and steadily.
7. Waste nothing
Commit to valuing space, time, energy, resources and people.
8. Evaluate yourself
According to the principles of mise-en-place, mastery is never achieved; it is a constant state of evaluation and refinement.
Adapted from Everything In Its Place by Dan Charnas.
Editor’s note: The original version of this story stated that Jacqueline Marinus is an interior designer and professional organizer of The Happy Nest. It is actually Jaclynn Soet. This online version of the story has been updated to reflect this correction.
This article is from the July/August 2018 issue of YAM.