Mis-en-place

I’m getting bombarded with the concept of mis-en-place lately, and thought I’d start bringing together several of the ideas I’m thinking of, here. Mis-en-place is the concept, primarily used in the culinary world, of gathering all of the tools and ingredients you’ll need before you begin. It means, roughly, “everything in place.” It’s the sort of thing that ensures that you won’t get halfway through a recipe and realize you’re missing a critical ingredient, or that the tool you were going to use is unavailable.

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It’s a key concept—not brain surgery, but good, basic practices that we often short-cut. It’s one I don’t actually use in the kitchen as much (I fly by the seat of my pants, in there, and I like it that way.) But yesterday, I put together a piece of furniture, and because my father instructed me in such things, I’m a freak about mis-en-place when I do things like that. I count all the provided hardware, I check against the diagram, I do it exactly as I’m told, because I want to do it exactly once. The difference, for me, is that I know enough about improvising in the kitchen that the occasional ingredient/technique substitution doesn’t bother me. I don’t want to have to know tricks of the trade for master carpentry— I want my $10 clearance cart to look like it cost me at least the full price and never to have to think about how it goes together again.

I’m reading Gretchen Rubin’s Happier at Home, in which one of her rules is to “read the instructions.” To me, it’s very much a part of mis-en-place. It’s a good concept. I got a new phone yesterday, and I looked up the unfamiliar bells and whistles and figured them out. If you don’t know that they’re there, you can’t use them. If you can’t use them, you’ve paid for them for nothing. I suspect that if I were married, I’d delegate/close my eyes to some of this, but I have to know how to operate absolutely everything, while the men in my life are still just passing through. First guy who stays gets all the jobs in the crawl space, for his trouble (I keep that in the fine print, buried in legalese). On the other hand, I’ll whip him up something yummy while he’s down there, and have many fine qualities worthy of braving creepy crawling things.

I’m working on being better about mis-en-place in some areas. I now have a bag for almost every activity— a work bag, a gym bag, a bag for the class I teach, a crocheting bag, etc. I know to keep each bag stocked for its purpose, so I can grab it and go, secure in the knowledge that I have what I need. I have an embarrassing number of these bags, but it’s good. I could be better about what the HBR talks about— about taking a few minutes to set myself up in the morning to work on my most important work, but I’m pretty good about setting three big goals for the day (written or unwritten, home and work) and making sure those get accomplished or advanced, during the day. I do a lot of that thinking in the shower. Clarity and cleanliness— the killer combo.

When I think about it, the areas where I don’t formally mis-en-place are the areas where I can mostly mis-en-place mentally and know I can get them to come out. I glance at the recipe, run through a mental inventory of ingredients and tools, make note of anything critical or unusual, and forge ahead. If I’ve got a visual arts project, I’m not yet confident enough in that area to quickly run through a plan in my head, and my frustration when thwarted will result in abandoned projects, if I’m not careful. But I threw a pattern, a skein of yarn and an appropriately-sized crocheting hook in a large Ziploc bag for my vacation, secure that I could sort out the pattern I was working on with nothing more.

As I grow in wisdom, I’m realizing that the fact that I’m good under pressure doesn’t mean that living life under the pressure of otherwise manageable chaos is good for me. A little chaos is good— it promotes flexibility, which is also important. But a moment’s preparation before throwing myself headlong into things as a general rule— not a terrible reminder for a girl like me.

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