Any home cook can tell you that cooking well boils down to planning and prep, but world-class chefs take this obsession with thinking ahead to a whole new level.
"Mise en place is the religion of all good line cooks," Anthony Bourdain writes in his book Kitchen Confidential. "As a cook, your station, and its condition, its state of readiness, is an extension of your nervous system. The universe is in order when your station is set up the way you like it: You know where to find everything with your eyes closed. Everything you need during the course of the shift is at the ready at arm's reach. Your defenses are deployed."
That's helpful advice if you want to wow your dinner guests with a great meal, but it's also useful for non-culinary entrepreneurs. "Most of us do not work in kitchens. We do not interact with ingredients that need to be collected, prepped, or measured. And yet the value of applying a similar approach and deliberately taking time out to plan before we begin is arguably greater," consultant and author Ron Friedman recently argued on the HBR blogs.
What does employing the "meez," as it's known among chefs, look like in practice for business people, and what benefits can you expect from following Bourdain's lead? I reached out to a few entrepreneur devotees of the practice to learn about what mise en place does for them.
Reactive No Longer
The heart of the mise en place idea is preparedness. "Planning is universal. Show me a successful CEO and I'll show you someone who has a plan. For chefs, it comes down to each component of prep and service. For a business professional, it's looking critically at your day and understanding where your priorities lie," explained Anthony Russo--chef and CEO of Russo's Restaurants--who uses mise en place both in and out of the kitchen.
Among the bigger benefits of this sort of planning cited is the way thoughtfully readying your work at the start of each day keeps you from becoming reactive. With inbox notifications pinging, calls coming in, and the usual flurry of unexpected emergencies raining down, oftentimes we end up feeling our days get swallowed up by events outside our control.
Not with mise en place. "In today's business world, it is easy to become reactive," says Jeff Connally, CEO of CMIT Solutions. "The more we pause, the slower we move in the direction of meeting our strategic goals. My 'meez' helps me schedule time to respond to email, phone calls, and texts. It allows me to take control of my day and play an active role in achieving my goals."
"As a business owner, I am constantly being pulled in a hundred different directions, but careful planning makes it doable for me to keep my eye on my stores as well as at the home office and in corporate affairs," says Russo.
The Power of Being Present
Scrambling to deal with unplanned eventualities doesn't just sap your sense of control but also divides your attention (and, if it's really out of hand, can even bring on panic). Having everything you need within reach helps keep you calm and focused, according to Bill Redfern, CEO and founder of A Buyer's Choice Home Inspections.
"I'm much more present with my team. If you look at your day as one big project, it can get overwhelming. But once you break up each component into smaller items, it's easier to prioritize," he explained to Inc.com. That clear-headedness is good for Redfern and his work, but he insists it also helps him be a better leader and bring out the best in his people. "The role of the CEO is to utilize the talent around you--that's a critical part of mise en place," he says.
How Do I Get Started?
If you're convinced the idea might help you have less-frantic workdays, these mise en place enthusiasts have plenty of advice for newbies. "Start by making a list of everything you have to accomplish. Break down projects into individual tasks, and highlight the items that need to be completed first. Once you get a sense of what you have to do, you're able to spend your time smarter," offers Russo as an overview.
A comprehensive and carefully thought-out list at the start of the day is essential for Redfern as well: "Just as a chef has a list of ingredients for a dish, a business professional has a list of 'ingredients' that drive him or her as well. Whether I'm strategizing a new product launch, opening a new territory or meeting with members of my team, I've found that it's essential to make sure all the parts (ingredients) are in motion before we hit the trigger."
Connally makes it three by also endorsing lists. "I conduct a brief planning session before I begin my day. The session begins with developing a to-do list," he says, explaining that he breaks this down into high priority tasks and long-term goals so that he can check that the activities he's spending his time on really move him toward his top priorities. He recommends the books of Gino Wickman to those looking to emulate his system.
A Couple of Cautions
While this process of prep work sounds straightforward, the entrepreneurs I spoke to offered a couple of cautions. First, planning is great, but no amount of list-making can entirely eliminate the unexpected. "It's also important to leave yourself some time for flexibility. Things always come up that demand your attention, so save room for them and it won't throw off your whole plan," insists Redfern.
Second, "though the methodology is simple, disciplining oneself requires patience, practice, and dedication. It requires thinking about the end result at the very beginning," warns Connally.
Would you be up for trying to incorporate the idea of mise en place into your day?