Being organized – as we say in our kitchen, working clean – is a skill to develop. We call it mise-en-place , French for, literally, ‘put in place.’ The term can be very specific, referring to ingredients needed to complete a recipe, measured out and ready to use, or it can be more general: are you organized, do you have everything you need to accomplish the task at hand?
Good organization is all about setting yourself up to succeed. It means getting rid of anything that would interfere with the process of making a recipe or preparing an entire meal. If you are in the middle of preparation, you don’t want to stop and find the proper pot, or dig around in the cupboard for an ingredient: that opens you up to distractions and errors. When I’m getting ready to make a dish, I make sure everything I need for the entire process is there.
When I peel an onion, I get rid of all the onion skin before I begin slicing it. In our kitchens, we keep bowls or pans out for trimmings; everything is contained. When the cooks peel carrots, they do it over parchment paper so that they can then crumple up the paper with all the peelings and discard it (or use the peelings for compost). I recommend you do the same—use a sheet of newspaper. It saves you time and keeps your work space clean. When you finish with a pot, wash it. (Notice that in the instructions for the mashed potatoes in page 2, one of the steps is to wash the pot you used for cooking the potatoes so that you can then finish them in the same pot). Clean as you go to avoid clutter ; clutter interferes with the cooking process. Things get in your way when you’re not organized. Clear your path.
Be organised in your mind too. Think ahead, and think one step at a time. Take sixty seconds to write down a list of the tasks you need to accomplish so that you don’t waste trying to remember what you were going to do next. As you’re finishing one task, think about what your next step will be. When preparing a meal, try to set yourself up from beginning to end so that the food that takes the longest is done when the shorter-cooking items are ready. I visualize each step of the way, almost as if I were taking a picture of it in my mind: how much oil should be in the pan as I sauté, how much liquid should be in the pot when I’m cooking potatoes, what simmer looks like—anything, everything. Try to visualize what you except to see as you move through a recipe. Then, if what you see differs from that expectation, try to understand why and adjust if possible.
Being organized is the first and most important part of cooking.