Mise en place, or “everything in its place.” It’s the first thing you learn as a chef; it’s the first thing every cookbook and recipe writer tells you to do. Get all of your ingredients out, measured and prepared before you start your recipe. I’ve done this for years, and as odd as this will sound, never truly appreciated the importance of mise en place until a few days ago.
This month, I find myself in a wonderful, but quite unusual place: that of being alone. Alone, as in, just me. No husband, no kids or dogs, no family, no schedules; nothing to tend to or care for other than a lovely home and myself. Then I realized that cooking for just myself – just one serving – was foreign territory for me. Sure, I was single; but I didn’t cook then like I do now. Back then I was content with take-out or frozen; salad bars and whatever came in a package that took less than 15 minutes on a stove-top.
Not wanting to return to my former “one-serving-and-done” habits, I took myself to the local market. It only got worse as I wandered through the aisles hoping to find inspiration. Everything was packaged in multiple serving size portions, and here I was looking to cook for just one. With my stay limited to just a few weeks, the thought of leftovers wasn’t appealing. I’m practical enough to know that I’d end up putting a lot of food down the garbage disposal. Freezing, too, was out. In three weeks’ time I’d be gone. I left the market daunted; it may have been a first for me.
When I returned to my fancy, albeit temporary, digs and was faced with the reality that I would, eventually, have to eat, I started exploring the kitchen that was at my disposal. It was impeccably stocked with just about everything I could have hoped to find. As I was opening cabinets and drawers (feeling so deliciously naughty for actually having permission to romp through someone else’s things!) something quite astonishing happened. I began to think of all the wonderful meals I was hungry for, the food that I might not typically prepare for my family and their “meat and potato” repertoire. Pots and pans and utensils incited cravings for everything from comfort food to elegant, fussy food; kitchen gadgets conjured up notions of preparing fresh fruits and vegetables, and then the iterations of those ingredients in all sorts of different soups, salads, sautés, and desserts. I quick made my list and returned to the grocery store.
I have a favorite line from a movie, where Diane Keaton plays a writer and at one point on the telephone she pronounces something like, “I’ll find my zen place: I’ll do a little cooking and a little writing….” And that’s exactly how I felt. I needed to find that “zen place” in this strange but wonderful kitchen. I turned on the music, and before putting any of my groceries away, I chopped, and prepped, and even did a little cooking. I mise en placed! Within an hour or so I had all sorts of ingredients at the ready and neatly stored in the refrigerator. I set up the counter tops with pinch bowls from my “survival kit” and realized that short of a run to a butcher, or fish market, anything I wanted to eat was probably only about 15 minutes of cooking time away.
As a professional I know that what TV chefs and cooks need you to buy into is that their wonderful meals are only a handful of minutes away. Truth is, they’ve had a team of talent mise en placing for them before the lights and camera ever got turned on. To stage that same set up for myself, it took but an hour of my time but was worth each second invested. I discovered the heart and soul of this kitchen, and let it lead me. I got to actually enjoy chopping through vegetables and grating a few different cheeses. I cooked up some fresh pasta and some sausages and savored the aromas filling the air. Now, in this corner of the world while I am one – at least for the next few weeks – I can prepare single serving meals, without feeling like I have to cook big or invest a lot of time and energy into it.
It’s not often food rattles me to the core, but in this case I needed to be taken out of my element to reconnect with everything wonderful about the experience of mise en place. And perhaps, when I return home, I’ll set aside a bit of time to rediscover that “zen” place in my own kitchen, even if it is just to snap out another ‘meat and potatoes’ kind of meal.
Copyright © 2012 Donna Marie Desfor and There’s a Chef in My Kitchen, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Copyright © 2012 WITF, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Published in In witfs Kitchen with Chef Donna Desfor
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