Anyone who's watched the Food Network knows all celebrity chefs, from Emeril Lagasse to Giada De Laurentiis, have one thing in common: they neatly arrange all their pre-chopped, pre-measured ingredients in little bowls before they ever start cooking.
This isn't just a quirk of culinary television. It's a technique—known as mise en place—employed by everyone in the food industry, from line cooks to Michelin-rated chefs.
Mise en place, which literally means "put in place" in French, requires measuring ingredients ahead of time, but that's not all it entails. Cooking with the technique means spending some time before diving into the recipe to plan out every step of the way, all but ensuring success.
Here's a beginner's guide to practicing your mise en place, and releasing your inner chef.
Step One: Read (and re-read) the recipe.
Before you even think about preheating the oven or chopping onions, read the recipe—then read it again. Accidentally measuring out too much or too little of just one ingredient could lead to a cooking disaster. Taking a little time to make sure you thoroughly understand the recipe is a crucial step most amateur cooks miss.
Step Two: Lay out the equipment.
Even if you're making a simple stir-fry, spend a few minutes setting up all the tools you'll need. Set a sauté pan on the stove, lay out a cutting board and knives, and prepare your workstation. After practicing mise en place for a while, you should be able to find every tool without even looking. Seasoned chefs know the layout of their workstations so well that they're constantly pivoting between knife and pan, slicing and stirring, without even thinking about where their tools are.
Step Three: Measure out your ingredients.
Avoid missteps by measuring out everything from salt to meat ahead of time. When you're rushing to add everything to the stock pot before it starts to simmer, mistakes happen—and suddenly that soup has a lot more cayenne pepper in it than you intended.
Step Four: Prep anything you need to prep ahead of time.
Now, you're finally ready to start preparing the dish. Chop the onions, mince the garlic, blanch the carrots—and do anything and everything else you can ahead of time. Then, when you start actually cooking, all you have to do grab each ingredient as you go.
Step Five: Visualize the perfect dish.
The last step seems the simplest, but in fact, it's the most important. Anthony Bourdain has observed the difference between physical mise en place and mental mise en place. Before getting started, spend a few minutes envisioning the absolute perfect execution of the dish. This not only helps you focus on your goal, but also encourages positive thinking. This principle—which most chefs call the central tenet of mise en place—can apply outside of the kitchen, too. Try going into a big meeting with this mindset, and see how your confidence changes.
Finally, you're ready to actually cook! But you're not done with mise en place—let the focused, organized way of thinking that you've just set for yourself carry you through as you cook. Work swiftly and without distractions and clean as you go to make the most of your time in the kitchen.
Photo credit: Alicia Cho