If you are like me and spend way too much time watching cooking shows, then you have probably heard the phrase "mise en place" before. Mise en place is French for "put in place", but this short phrase encompasses an entire philosophy of organization and preparation that allows chefs to put out consistent, quality meals hour after hour and night after night.
How does mise en place work? Well, that's where the cognitive science comes in. You see, when you mise en place, you allow yourself to focus. You read your recipe. You get out all your ingredients. You prepare (chop/dice/grate, et cetera) those ingredients. You measure them. You combine those that will be added together into their own separate bowls, feeling like the host of your very own cooking show (or is that just me?). Then you begin to cook.
The reason this technique is so successful is that it plays to the strengths of our attentional system, which tends to only focus on one thing at a time (there are a lot of models with ideas about how this is implemented; to read about one example, click the figure at right).
Consequently, if we try to multi-task by say, cooking the onions for a recipe when there are still other ingredients left to chop, what we are really doing is task-switching. That is, even though we think we are doing two things at one, we are really doing one task for a little while, then switching to the other in the equivalent of a mental tennis match. And like tennis, task-switching is tiring. For example, if you do the same task by itself, versus when you alternate between that task and another based on a cue, your responses to that same task will be slower when you are alternating compared to when you do it alone.
This is because task-switching--which is associated with its own network of brain activation, see the figure at left--diverts the same resources that we need to accomplish each individual task to its own network. So instead of doing each task, we are wasting our energy monitoring the other, which tends to result in burned onions more often than it does getting dinner on the table 5 minutes early (this has definitely never happened to me....nope).
Of course, there are some exceptions. Pre-heating your oven while you prepare your ingredients is fine because pre-heating your oven requires no attention on your part. If one task is automatic, then you can do two without any adverse effects. Otherwise, stick to doing one thing at a time. Cooking is about to become waaaay easier.
To give an example, let's talk through a simple twist on a grilled cheese sandwich that I made this week, slightly adapting happyolks' recipe to fit my pantry. I'll give the recipe below, then discuss how mise en place can affect even a simple dish like this:
1 bunch rainbow carrots, greens attached
3/4 cup gruyere cheese, grated (I actually used a mix of gruyere and mozzarella, but didn't find that the mozzarella added much, aside from allowing me to use up leftovers)
1/4-1/2 cup olive oil (the original recipe called for 1/4, but I found I needed more)
juice of 1- 1.5 lemons (the original called for 1)
2-3 cloves garlic (I used 3)
salt/pepper to taste
4-6 1/2″ slices of sourdough boule
Butter, ghee, or olive oil for the pan/bread
Preheat the oven to 450. Remove the greens from the carrots and reserve for later use. Place on a heavy baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil and a sprinkle of salt and pepper. Cook for 20 minutes until they just begin to brown and blister. For the carrot top pesto, place washed greens in the basin of a food processor with the blade attachment. Combine olive oil, garlic, and the lemon juice. Blitz until smooth and taste. I found that I needed a lot more olive oil, lemon juice and garlic than Kelsey called for, so don't be afraid to up those if your pesto is tasting a little bland. Also, salt and pepper are your friend when making this and any pesto. Always. Finally, grate the cheese and set aside.
Warm a shallow, heavy pan over medium heat while you prepare the sandwiches. Butter (or oil) one side of each slice of bread. Lay flat and layer with pesto, cheese, then 4-5 grilled carrots. It’s okay if the stems stick out. Finish with another layer of cheese --because life is short--and the other slice of bread. Place in the pan and grill on each side for 2-4 minutes until browned as you prefer. Enjoy.
You may notice here that Kelsey has structured her recipe so that you end up mise-en-placing without even realizing it. The entire first paragraph is all prep work, and only after your carrots and pesto and cheese are ready does she have you touch a burner.
The other thing that is important is the order. It may seem obvious to put your carrots in the oven before starting on the pesto, but forgetting little things like that--and then having your dinner timeline be put off by 20 minutes--can be really frustrating. In contrast, making your pesto while the carrots cook gives you 20 minutes to make sure you taste and adjust your pesto so you really get it right, plus time afterwards (remember, one thing at a time) to prepare your cheese so that all your sandwich components will be ready to join into funky-sweet-crunchy harmony.
I hope this mini mise-en-place tutorial has been helpful!
Until next week,