Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Lesson of Mise en Place

If you've ever prepped ingredients and organized your kitchen before tackling a recipe, then - whether you know it or not - you were probably doing a bit of mise en place. It's a French cooking term that literally means "putting in place," often translated into English as "everything in place." You know...mincing the garlic, dicing the onion, chopping vegetables, measuring spices. Each in its own bowl. Then, when it's time to make a recipe, everything is ready to go and you can simply "plug and chug," as one of my high school math teachers used to say.

The idea of mise en place has all sorts of applications to other parts of our lives. As a writer, I do mise en place when working on a feature story for a magazine. For me, the process of writing is part intuitive and part deliberate action. Usually, the overarching arc of a feature's narrative falls into place in my head, largely without effort. Often while I'm out on a long run. This is the intuitive part. I drop that overarching narrative arc into a Word doc as a rough outline. It helps to organize my thoughts, so that I know how the story weaves together.

Then comes the mise en place, the deliberate effort. Feature stories are complex, requiring multiple interviews and myriad sources of information. Keeping them all in my head, at the ready, as I work my way through an outline, fleshing out a story, is a difficult task. A current feature I'm writing today is a perfect case in point - it involves extended interviews with at least 6 different people, plus more than a dozen additional sources of information. And so, I do mise en place. I take each interview, each source of information, and drop the relevant quotes and info into my master outline where they belong. By the time I've added my last source to the document, my general outline has become a detailed one. I have a recipe (the outline) and the ingredients prepped (the quotes and sources). Mise en place. All that's left is to do the cooking (the writing) plug and chug through my detailed outline and turn that mass of information into a compelling narrative (hopefully, tasty food for the reader).

Living a happy, healthy gluten-free life requires a bit of mise en place, too. You need a positive diagnosis, or at the very least, not a mis-diagnosis. You need the support of family and friends. You need to understand the gluten-free diet, and avoid cross-contamination or overlooked sources of gluten. If any of these components is not in place, it increases the likelihood of failure or bumps in the road.

Another way to think about mise en place is as a foundation. Take the time to build a strong one, put in the initial effort, and what follows gets infinitely easier.

- Pete


Susie Riley said...

Nice article! As a writer (and cook), I'm also a fan of mise en place. It creates the balance: the flow of the story is refined once the backbone of fact is embedded, and having all that ready when needed makes the process somewhat seamless. There are always moments during the intuitive stages where the writing leads to a place into which a few more fragments of fact-checking are required, but having most of it up front sure does make it easier!

peterbronski said...

Hi Susie... I'm glad a fellow writer and cook can relate!

Cheers, Pete