You may have heard your grandmother say, “A place for everything, and everything in its place.” She probably stole it from Julia Child, but she had a point: Life is much easier when everything you need to be productive is laid out in front of you. Americans are notoriously disorganized, and a recent survey conducted by OfficeMax found that nine in ten Americans admit that disorganization at home or work has a negative impact on their lives. How much more productive could we be as a culture with better organization? Schools and colleges don’t often focus on teaching these skills, but culinary schools have their own special sauce for teaching organization.
The French phrase mise-en-place, “put in place”, comes from kitchen traditions and practices among French chefs. Before the dinner shift begins, all ingredients are chopped, measured, and prepared for the evening’s dishes. When the orders start pouring in, the chef knows exactly where every ingredient and tool is, shaving precious minutes off the time it takes for an order to be delivered. The mise-en-place principle of culinary organization is essential for an orderly and productive kitchen, especially for French cooking, which can require up to six hours of prep work. Mise-en-place extends beyond the kitchen, however; for many chefs, it’s a mantra that dictates every aspect of their life in and out of the restaurant.
Senior Melissa Gray, a student at the Culinary Institute of America, says she knows people who have the phrase tattooed on their body. “It really is a way of life … it’s a way of concentrating your mind to only focus on the aspects that you need to be working on at that moment, to kind of rid yourself of distractions.”
Derived from military discipline, mise-en-place allows the chef to spend less time thinking about where things are and more time thinking about how to use them. Before beginning work, chefs take the time to evaluate the needs of their shift, and put everything in place at their station. Cooking becomes an extension of their body, repetitive tasks can be set on autopilot, and instinct tells them where to reach for the salt. Without the tediousness of searching through the spice rack for that elusive cumin, the flow of work can focus on the end product rather than the means of creating it.
Try applying mise-en-place to your own workflow in the office. Instead of arriving at your desk and allowing voicemails and emails determine the course of your morning, take a moment to collect your thoughts and consider what you’d like to get done. When you leave for the day, what do you want to have accomplished? By starting the day with a goal, your workflow can have a specific direction and purpose, rather than feeling like a marathon catch-up session. Ask yourself: What tools do you need in order to accomplish the goal for today?
By taking the time for an intellectual mise-en-place, you can get yourself in order and evaluate your task list. Prioritize items accordingly, and be sure you have the materials or information you need for a project before starting. The ten minutes you spent planning will save 30 minutes later in the day when you don’t have to spend the time shuffling through the papers on your desk, looking for that one thing you misplaced.
Think like a chef: Put everything in its place today, and watch your workflow speed up to five-star quality.