The magic of mise en place
Four chefs share their theory on ‘The Meez’ – the most effective way to cook a dish, and the secret to a functional kitchen.
It’s the fingerprint of any chef; see their mise en place and you see their culinary DNA. The arrangement of ‘The Meez’ can make or break a service – do it right and do it well, and your service shouldn’t go wrong at the ingredient level. Do it messily, and it’s a surefire fail.
So what is The Meez and why does it matter? Of course it’s a phrase straight out of France where classical cooking was born, so cannot be ignored. It simply means to “put in place”; laying out all of your ingredients so that the power to oil, season, garnish and dress is all in easy reach at the chef’s station. Simply put, “It needs to be fresh, carefully prepared, and there should be plenty of it,” according to Paul Hood, Chef Patron at Social Eating House.
“It needs to be laid out simply and with great attention to cleanliness and the freshness of the ingredients,” says Robert Ortiz, Head Chef of Peruvian restaurant LIMA. “There shouldn’t be too much of anything – just enough for the morning or evening shift. The freshness, the distinctive colours of the sauces, fresh herbs, edible flowers and cresses all show our overall aims – simplicity and care for the product.”
Every kitchen is different – some chefs might like to fly by the seat of their chequered pants while others will see it as an opportunity to nurture their inner OCD. “Some chefs do a lot ‘a la minute’; others prefer to do a lot of things before hand,” says Jesse Dunford Wood, Chef/Proprietor of Parlour Restaurant. “I am one for the latter, leaving less stress for service and doing more prep. Service is where things go wrong with tickets, sometimes coming in without control, and the pressure builds. I prefer the legwork to be done in our own time and the finishing off to be done to order. Makes all sorts of sense.”
Over in Michael Wignall’s kitchen at two Michelin-starred The Latymer, chefs make lists every evening for next day’s service – the secret, Michael says, to a functional mise en place. “Fail to prepare, prepare to fail. That way, they know what workload they have, which tasks will take the longest, what they need to order and what they can delegate. It helps them to plan their whole day.”
Depending on what’s on order that day will dictate any chef’s setup, but there are some essentials that are forever included in a chef’s repertoire. Michael Wignall says: “Each team member has their own way of setting up, that is specific to their section and menu at the time. It really is very personal. For me, it’s butter, lemon juice, Spanish moon salt, Malden sea salt and whole white peppercorns in a mill. A good extra virgin olive oil, virgin English rapeseed oil and virgin pomace oil are also essential.”
At Parlour, “Salt, pepper and acid is what it’s all about,” says Jesse Dunford Wood. “I always have black and white pepper, Malden sea salt and table salt, lemons for squeezing, and bottles of veg oil, water, olive oil, balsamic vinegar and white wine vinegar, all for seasoning.”
For Robert Ortiz, spice is key. “As a Peruvian restaurant we always have fresh limes and a selection of chillies – red (rocoto), yellow, green and even purple (aji charapita from the Amazon). The mise en place is arranged according to the set up of the menu, for example what we need for the starters – the ceviches and tiraditos – is always at the front.”
Organisation is the main ingredient here, and one that can make a dish fail if it’s omitted. “It’s the same as being a clean and tidy cook,” says Paul Hood. “I say to my chefs that if your station’s clean, your mind is clean and tidy, so you cook more professionally. It means you’re all in order when it’s cheques away and have just four minutes to get a dish out. That way every day operates the same way and one chef can take over from another if we need them to.”
“Good mise en place says that you’re organised, thorough, effective and focused,” says Michael Wignall. “Everything should be knowingly at hand in order to use your time most effectively. Without good mise en place you will not be able to deliver a good product to the customer. If you prepare well throughout the day and check all your ingredients, you will have more time in service to focus on serving.”
It sets the context of the kitchen and for the meal ahead, of the chef that’s cooking it, and the plate of food you’ll end up with. And while there’ll always be kitchen rules and techniques chefs won’t agree on, mise en place doesn’t seem to be one of them.