Years ago, when I was just a lad, I would watch my dad assemble birthday presents, grills, lawn mowers, and whatever else was not assembled at the factory for customers. He always followed the same organized procedure, which I still use today:
- Read the instructions all the way through before beginning.
- Lay out each part in a tidy row, ensuring that all required pieces are available.
- Identify and locate all of the necessary hardware and/or tools.
- Find little containers to hold tiny screws, bolts, and other bits that had the potential of getting lost.
- Lastly, make sure there’s enough room to spread out and work.
Only after satisfying all five steps would he begin working. It’s how I do things today, and how I recommend working on anything that has “some assembly required.”
I’ve taken this same approach and applied it in the kitchen, through a modified mise en place. When I’m getting ready to cook from a recipe, I:
- Read the recipe all the way through. Just like when you’re assembling a bicycle, you don’t want any surprises once you’ve started. Reading the recipe thoroughly before beginning will identify all the techniques, hardware, and ingredients you’re going to need.
- Find and prepare all of the hardware. This step is where you’ll find and locate what I think of as hardware: pots, pans, spatulas, whisks, measuring cups and spoons — all of the tools you’ll need during the preparation and cooking process. It’s no fun to read “stir constantly” or “with a slotted spoon” to find you don’t have a spatula or a spoon.
- Find all the ingredients. Locate everything your recipe calls for and get it ready.
- Practice mise en place. This is a French culinary term that means “putting in place.” It’s the practice of preparing and arranging ingredients that the chef will need to prepare the day’s meals. But you needn’t be a pro to benefit from this practice. If your recipe calls for 1 Tbsp of butter, a cup of milk, or a diced onion, get exactly those amounts ready before you begin. It’s so nice to not have to stop and measure something as you go. Just grab it and toss it in.
- Know where you’re going to place hot items. This step is easy to overlook and not usually included in mise en place, but extremely important. I remember my mother saying to me when I was first learning to cook, “Before you take that out of the oven, think: where are you going to put it?” Put out trivets if you like, clear a spot on the table or what-have-you. It’s all better than scanning the kitchen with a hot pot or dish in your hands.
- Can you clean as you go? I’ll admit that I’m not very good at this one. Professional kitchens have a dedicated dishwasher, but most home cooks are not that lucky. If you can clean as you go, do it. If not, designate a spot for dirty hardware ahead of time.
- What’s needed to set the table? When I cook for the family, the deal is the cook doesn’t have to set the table. I recommend you work this deal, too.
There you have it: kitchen lessons learned while watching my dad assemble bikes, grills, and more. I hope it makes you a more organized and successful cook.