Mise en place might be one of the most widely translated French phrases in the culinary lexicon, despite which, it remains one of the least understood.
"Everything in its place!" is what any culinary student and cooking enthusiast will dutifully recite when asked what mise en place means. And yes, that's a literal translation of the French words. But translation is about more than just substituting words. It's about conveying the idea behind the words. And the idea of mise en place is all about being prepared.
But prepared for what? The term mise en place (pronounced "MEEZ-on-plahs") arose from the environment of restaurant kitchens. And cooking in a restaurant is a very different situation than cooking at home. So it stands to reason that the type of preparation needed for each situation will likewise be different.
What is Mise en Place?
In a restaurant, cooks are assigned to various stations, each with its own specific function. A line cook may spend their whole shift sauteeing vegetables, or grilling steaks, or making salads, over and over again. Each cook is focused on one component of a given dish, not the whole thing.
As such, their focus is laser sharp. For them, mise en place is about setting up their station, ensuring all the ingredients and tools they need are within easy reach, to minimize wasted movement and extra steps. Containers of chopped herbs, diced onions, minced garlic, squeeze bottles of oil, not to mention tongs, spatulas, whisks and spoons, are all laid out within easy reach.
Mise en Place in Restaurant Kitchens
In a restaurant, the kitchen staff is organized into what's called a "brigade," and the military connotation is intentional. Because restaurant cooks love to imagine that they're going into battle every night.
Beyond the specialization of tasks, restaurant kitchens also have people called porters, who swoop in and gather up used mixing bowls, dirty pans and so on and take them way, so that the cook's station stays tidy. And then there are dishwashers, whose job is to wash all those dirty pots, pans and utensils.
Moreover, restaurants also have prep cooks, whose job it is to do all the peeling, trimming, slicing, mincing, chopping and whatever other work is required to make the various ingredients in a dish ready to go into the dish.
The actual cook doesn't need to shop for ingredients, read a recipe, or even plan the menu. All they have to do is stand there and cook the food. And get this: There's a whole bunch of separate people whose job is just making dessert! Compared with what you have to do to prepare a meal at home, cooking in a restaurant is a downright breeze.
Not surprisingly, mise en place means something quite different for someone like that than it does for a home cook.
Mise en Place in Home Kitchens
Just as translating a phrase or sentence from one language to another is about more than simply translating the individual words, applying the restaurant concept of mise en place in a home kitchen is not a simple 1:1 substitution. But that doesn't mean it can't be useful.
For a home cook, mise en place is about saving time, yes, but the end goal is so that you can finish the cooking and sit down and enjoy the meal. You're not going into "battle."
And while it does make sense for a restaurant cook to have all their tools, ingredients and utensils within reach at all times, it's not because that necessarily makes you a better cook, or a better person.
It's because restaurant kitchens are tiny, cramped spaces, where cooks work shoulder to shoulder with each other, and there's simply no way all those people can be wandering around the kitchen grabbing things. Not to mention, they're in the kitchen for eight hours. So if their squeeze bottle of chili oil is located three steps away, that means three steps over and three steps back, over and over. That's a lot of steps over an eight hour shift.
At home, it really doesn't matter if you have to walk three steps to get your squeeze bottle. You're not repeating that step hundreds of times per night. You're probably using that chili oil once, maybe twice. Rearranging your whole kitchen so that everything you need for that night's meal is within arm's reach is simply not a worthwhile goal.
Because unlike restaurant cooks, at home you have to be ready to cook, well, anything. One day you might be baking a cake, and the next day you're making an omelet. Then you're grilling steaks outside, or simmering a big pot of chili. It's obvious that someone who does nothing but cook eggs all day, every day, has a much simpler mise en place than someone like you who is, culinarily speaking, all over the place.
So yes, if you're making a stir fry, it's imperative to chop up all the ingredients and have them ready to go before you start cooking. By all means ensure that you have all the pots, pans and utensils you need, and that they're all clean and easy to find. Does it necessarily mean lining up every single tool on your countertop before you start cooking? Not at all. It just means being prepared, having read the recipe, knowing what it calls for, and familiarizing yourself with the steps.
Mise en Place: An Example
Let's say you're making salad dressing, and it calls for, among other things, a tablespoon of honey and a tablespoon of mustard. You could measure a tablespoon of honey into a small bowl, then clean your measuring spoon and measure a tablespoon of mustard into yet another small bowl. Now you're ready to add them to your mixing bowl. But does this really save time?
Spooning the honey into the mixing bowl is a single step. Spooning the honey into a tiny bowl and then later pouring/scraping that honey into your mixing bowl is two steps. Cleaning all those tiny bowls is yet another. At a restaurant, someone else does the dishes, so the cook doesn't care. But at home? Different story.
So instead of focusing on portioning out every quantity of each ingredient a recipe calls for in advance, think about what you actually need to do. Do that, and no more (and no less). Because after all, the biggest advantage you have over a restaurant cook is that instead of standing there cooking all day or all night, sending the plate after plate of food to be eaten by strangers without ever getting to taste a bite of it yourself, when you prepare a meal at home, you then get to sit down and enjoy it with your family or guests.