In the last two decades, chefs have become synonymous with celebrity. But one aspect of the chef's daily life has remained a relative secret: the magic of the mise-en-place. A French phrase that means "put in place," mise-en-place has been taught informally in professional kitchens and culinary schools throughout the world.
For his new book, Work Clean: The Life-Changing Power Of Mise-en-Place to Organize Your Life, Work, and Mind, journalist Dan Charnas spent two years in kitchens observing cooks and interviewing chefs like Thomas Keller and Marcus Samuelsson to decipher the secrets of mise-en-place and translate them for executives, managers, students, and more.
"Chefs have an honest way of relating to time, space, energy, resources, and people," Charnas said. "They're compelled to be honest because dinner starts every day at six o'clock. They can't push it back. Their customers are hungry and their ingredients are perishable. Because of these constrictions, every second counts, every motion counts."
Here, Charnas shares his five favorite chef-inspired organizational insights:
1. Chefs spend more time planning than we do
For chefs, cooking isn't actually the most important thing they do all day. Planning is top priority for them--their success depends upon it--and therefore they make time for it. Whether you're planning a workday or a dinner service, Charnas recommends a structured, intense daily 30-minute planning session called a "Daily Meeze," based on the principles of mise-en-place. "Less than 30 minutes and it's not a very serious practice," Charnas said. "More than 30 minutes can intrude on your workday."
2. Chefs square their tasks with the clock
When we do take time to plan, many of us end up with impossibly long to-do lists. Chefs must be scrupulous about what they put on their daily task lists. They can't list 20 things and only get 10 things done. Chefs avoid this pitfall by squaring their tasks with the clock. In other words, they figure out how much time it will take to do the things they need to do, and only list the things they know they'll have time to do.
Take a look at your tasks against the open time on your calendar. Don't put anything on your schedule that won't fit, even if you hope it might. "Run your schedule," Charnas said, "or it will run you."
3. Chefs perfect their processes
Chefs understand that excellence is finding the right way to do something and then repeating that process. When something goes awry in a kitchen, chefs look for ways to fix it and enshrine that knowledge in a little list they call a "recipe." The goal both inside and outside the kitchen is to remove friction - to eliminate the places in our tasks where we get delayed or stuck. Do you frequently forget things before you leave the house? Make a checklist. Do you often miss important emails? Create a routine to check your communication channels.
4. Chefs know when to start and when to finish
In Work Clean, a culinary instructor scolds a student for seasoning his meat before heating up the pan because now he has to wait even longer for the pan to get hot. "Are you helping time or hurting time?" the teacher asks. Chefs know that the present moment has an incalculable value for certain tasks.
"How many of us have not responded to an email asking for input or approval only to discover that the project has languished for days because we haven't replied?" That, said Charnas, is days of work missed because we didn't start a process. On the other end of projects, chefs adopt a doctrine of finishing actions--doing everything possible to wrap things up now rather than leaving orphaned tasks for later.
5. Chefs stay present
One thing you'll rarely see in a kitchen is cooks checking their cellphones. Chefs can't "space out." Their job requires total focus--open eyes and ears. This kind of physical and mental presence makes excellence possible. Presence also requires a great deal of willpower, so chefs also know how to let go when work is done. For us, it's about being fully where we are, being either "on" or "off." To be a great executive or employee, immerse yourself in the work.