We hear a lot about “working clean” today – in other words working with efficiency and quality. Dan Charnas has written a new book about the life-changing power of “working clean” organizing your space and work using the culinary mise-en-place (setting into place) method. A system coopted from the culture of cooking that he believes will allow us to work better in life. Taught to all elementary chefs mise-en-place refers to having your ingredient list prepped and ready to go before you start cooking. Charnas thinks that his could be a worthy metaphor for life and that the principles of mise-en-place can help you manage not only your cooking but your own personal space, resources and work habits.
A sense of order that eliminates clutter. Having all your ducks in a roll equals working clean equals “clean” productive work.
If some of you think this has a monastic ring to it with a orderly sensibility it does. I experienced this first hand both in the realm of cooking and in lessons on life by Sister John Vianni during my sophomore year in high school. Working clean was the mantra of her Home Economics class which at that time (mid 1960’s) was run with a iron spoon. We were taught to prepare in advance and that there is a place for everything and everything has its place and God forbid anything should be out of place. A worthy habit for personal organization both in and out of the kitchen. Chefs from Thomas Keller to Jamie Oliver extol the virtues of a well-placed kitchen. Cooking and prepping at the same time generally leads to chaos in the kitchen. A great example of Italian-style mise-en-place can be seen in this recipe for Penne Puttanesca from a Williams-Sonoma article on The Secret to Cooking Like a Professional.
To approach the recipe in an organized fashion, pull out all the pots and pans you’ll need, a large pot for boiling the pasta and a saucepan for cooking the sauce. Set a colander next to the sink for draining the pasta. Organize your ingredients and tools, such as a cutting board, knives and measuring cups, on the countertop with small bowls for holding ingredients as they’re chopped. Be sure to set a large serving bowl nearby. Although the first step in this recipe says to warm the olive oil in the saucepan, don’t turn on the stove just yet. There’s some prep work to be done. For example, the list of ingredients specifies that the onion should be minced, the garlic sliced, and the tomatoes seeded and diced. After you’ve washed, chopped and measured out the ingredients, line them up next to the stove in the order they’ll be used: olive oil, onion, garlic, tomatoes and so forth. You’ll also want to start heating water for cooking the pasta. Now you’re ready to warm the olive oil and prepare the sauce.
You can take this one step further by having your sink filled with warm, soapy water to clean up the bowls etc as you go and wipe the counters. Then when you finish the dish and set the table the kitchen will be less cluttered and you can sit down to better enjoy your meal. Prepared, measured and organized. A mind-set that is a prelude to life. Sister John Vianni would be pleased.