I place the asparagus spear on my cutting board so the curve lies flat against the board. With my chef’s knife, I cut about a centimeter from the end at the base of the spear. As I push the knife gently through the cylinder of flesh with a slight sawing motion, I try to feel for the individual fibers that run up and down the length of the spear. If my knife glides effortlessly through the flesh, I know that the whole spear will be tender when cooked. If I perceive the roughness of the fibers, I know that I need to cut a bit more off the end, or the end may still be stringy after cooking. One by one, each spear in the original pile is gently trimmed and stacked in a new pile.
After trimming, each spear is again placed on the board. This time, only the straight portion of the spear is supported by the flat surface of the cutting board. I gently cradle the curved portion in my left hand as I begin peeling most of the straight portion with a peeler held in my right hand. Working from left to right, I apply the peeler to the asparagus spear with just enough force so the sharp edge of the peeler catches a minimum amount of skin. Then, with a single motion, I continue to draw the peeler to the right so a narrow green ribbon of skin with a minimum amount of flesh attached to its underside passes between the two opposing blades of the peeler. A slim band of naked flesh appears from where the skin formally rested. I rotate the spear away from me a little bit so once again I can remove a strip of skin with my peeler as I draw it from left to right. As the second row of skin is peeled away from the underlying flesh, I observe what remains in its wake. Is there some skin left between the two rows already removed? Did I overlay my first pass and thus remove flesh that should have been left for my dinner? Did I push the peeler too hard against the skin, or not hard enough? As I continue to roll the shaft of the spear and remove successive ribbons of skin, I adjust the pressure of the peeler against the spear to remove an optimum amount of skin. Eventually, I make my way fully around the spear. Then I roll it through one more revolution to find any portions of skin that avoided the peeler the first time. The more conical the spear, the more islands of skin will remain to be peeled away. Finally, the spear is peeled and set aside, and my attention moves to the next spear in the pile.
For most people, thoughts of cooking usually inspire thoughts of a chef standing at a stove with ferocious flames engulfing some innocent piece of foodstuff in a frying pan. The dictionary even defines the word cook as “to prepare food for eating my means of heat.” But in reality, the entire process of preparing food for consumption is all part of cooking. The process starts with planning both a purchasing and a preparation schedule, and continues with making the actual purchases of the food to be cooked, preparing the food just purchased for its final transformation by heat or other means, and ending with the finished effort being presented in or on some convenient support vehicle to the beneficiary of the entire effort. The portion of this entire process that I find most fulfilling is the mise en place.
Mise en place is all the preparation work done between purchasing and the final cooking. Of all the various steps performed by the kitchen staff to food before it is presented to guests, mise en place makes up the largest portion of labor hours. In a restaurant, mise en place starts long before, sometimes days before, the various dishes are finally cooked, plated, and served. Mise en place starts with raw foodstuffs and transforms them to a stage where they are ready for their final transformations before serving. Even while meals are being cooked and served, there is usually someone in the restaurant beginning the mise en place for a future meal.
In the home, mise en place is that portion of the work that home cooks are more and more avoiding by buying meat ready-to-cook, salads ready-to-dress, and desserts ready-to-serve. It is the excuse that I’ve heard for years when someone asks for a recipe, but never tries it: “That recipe requires too much preparation — I don’t have the time. (But you can fix it for me anytime you want.)”
My love affair with mise en place started years ago when I was preparing 10-course Chinese dinners for friends. My original Chinese cooking teacher instilled in me the need for the size of ingredient pieces in a dish to be uniform, both for even cooking and better appearance in the final presentation. So as I cut each item, I concentrated on making each slice the same thickness as the previous slice and each chunk the same size. But since I was often preparing large quantities, I had to also develop the ability to produce these uniform pieces rapidly. With lots of practice, and a bit of guidance from various teachers, both uniformity and speed increased. When I transitioned to French cooking a few years back and started working in restaurants for fun, all my practice paid off. I found that peeling and chopping a sack of onions, or cleaning a crate of chanterelles, or cleaning and prepping a case of cuttlefish, were simple tasks that I could do as fast and as well as, or sometimes better than, the young professionals to my left and right. There was not a single task that the sous-chef could throw my way that I didn’t find pleasure in doing — even prepping a thousand pairs of frog legs. And it’s really a joy to have one these professionals apologize when they give me a task that they find unbearable or tedious. (They don’t know that I have a secret.)
One of my discoveries during those long preparation periods in my Chinese-food days was that there was a “Zen” aspect to mise en place. Just as it’s important during a Japanese tea ceremony to admire the teacup as well as taste the tea, when slicing an onion, I sense the way my knife goes through the individual layers of the onions as well as try to make each successive cut the same distance from its predecessor as that cut was from its predecessor. I observe the color of the onion, the translucency of its flesh, the moisture that forms on each cut surface as cells are interrupted, and the aroma that sometimes requests my full attention. Each item handled during mise en place has its own unique qualities and characteristics. Even though it’s obvious that an onion will be different from a piece of fish, each onion is also different from the next — sometimes in obvious ways, sometimes in subtle ways.
When I slice an ingredient, how the slices fall off the knife blade is almost as important as to how the slices are themselves. You have a choice: the slices can end up in a messy pile or the slices can end up in a neat arrangement — usually organized similar to how they were before they were cut. The final flavor of the finished dish will be the same either way, but for the cook, there is calming in the ordered arrangement — just like in the tea ceremony. I find that often mise en place puts my mind in a meditative state.
Another discovery I’ve made about mise en place occurred on April 29, 2000. I was given a quart of small peas to peel. They had already been shucked and blanched. The cook that passed the task to me apologized profusely for his actions, but he was happy not to do it himself. It’s not a difficult process. A small nick is made in the skin of each pea with a knife — a bird’s beak knife worked well — and the skin comes off by squeezing the pea slightly. The contents without the skin taste much sweeter than the whole pea with the skin. Your fingers become increasingly gummy and slippery as the starch from the peas coats them, and frequent rinsing only seems to help a little. The main problem is that it takes about two hours to peel a quart of peas. The task can be quite tedious. For some reason, it wasn’t tedious for me. Maybe because I ignored the overall goal of completing the job and instead concentrated on each individual pea. It became important for me to do the best job I could on each individual pea — to get the skin to “pop” with the smallest possible nick of the knife — to get the skin to release its contents gently into the basin the skinned peas were destined for and not to shoot them across the room. As I completed the peeling of each pea, I observed quickly the results of the process and attempted to make minor adjustments so the next pea would be peeled a little better. When I had completed peeling the whole quart, I was actually disappointed to be done. The chef mentioned that I seemed to be very calm.
What I discovered that day was that the process may be more important, while it is happening, than the end product. Yes, it’s important to finish the task and to finish it well, but how you reach the end is important, too. Since then, I’ve come to realize that this concept has been important in other aspects of my life, not just in cooking. I find, for example, when I program code, the process of writing, testing, correcting, and re-testing a few lines of code is much more rewarding than completing the entire project.
So while completing mise en place for a meal, I’m able to derive great pleasure from the individual aspects of it. When I work in restaurant kitchens, the ingredients I’m preparing are being prepared often with no knowledge of the final dish they’ll be used in — and it doesn’t matter to me. When preparing a meal at home, I often find the most pleasure while doing mise en place, not when I’m doing the final cooking — not even when I sit down to eat.
With the tip of my thumb in the indentation on the surface of the tomato where it once was connected to its stem, or resting next to the stem if a piece of it is still there, I plunge the sharp tip of my knife through the skin. The knife is at an angle so the tip sits on the central axis of the tomato. The blade cuts a small conical piece from the tomato as I gently rotate the tomato so its flesh pushes against the blade of the knife. Once the hard flesh near the stem is removed, a small X is cut through the skin on the flower end of the tomato — not through the flesh, just through the skin. Each tomato to be peeled is prepared in the same manner.
Next, when I drop the tomatoes into boiling water, I have no idea as to how long it will take for the skin on each to loosen. Some skins will split almost immediately and others will require the full minute I’m willing to give them. As the tomatoes float in the bubbling water, I gently roll each one over with my skimmer to look for the first sign of a crack. And when a crack in the skin appears, I lift the tomato from the boiling water and drop it into a bowl filled with water and ice.
The tomatoes are given ample time to cool completely. As I reach through the ice floating on the surface to remove the tomatoes hiding below, I can feel the surface temperature of my hands rapidly approaching that of the tomatoes I’m retrieving. The tomatoes are allowed to drain briefly in a bowl before I start the next step.
Using the same small knife I used to remove the stem from each tomato, I now remove the peel. The knife is held so that only a centimeter or two of blade peaks out from my right hand. The tip of the blade and my thumb form a pincer with which I carefully lift each piece of skin off the flesh just below it. I work between two bowls and my cutting board. The tomatoes to be peeled sit in one bowl. The refuse ends up in the second bowl. And the peeled tomatoes end up in a row on the board.
When the first bowl is empty and the naked tomatoes sit shivering on the board, I use my chef’s knife to cut each lengthwise into four quarters. The quarters end up resting back in the first bowl. When all the tomatoes have been quartered, each quarter is placed on the board so its flesh is gently flattened against the board’s surface. I then use my knife with the blade parallel to the board to cut the core and most of the seeds away from the flesh — the former ending up in the bowl with the skins. Any seeds clinging to the flesh is coaxed from its grasp with the tip of the knife and allowed to fall into the bowl with the other seeds. Each peeled and seeded quarter of tomato is lined up neatly with its siblings on the board.
The tomato pieces may be used as is or cut further into shreds or dice. My favorite outcome is to shred the tomatoes into neat pieces that are equal in thickness and length and cut on a slight diagonal with respect to the longest axis of the piece. Rather than stacking a number of pieces to make the cutting faster, but not as even or neat, each tomato quarter is quickly cut individually, with the resulting pieces pushed to the right on the board so they all remain parallel to each other.
By the time I’ve peeled, seeded, and shredded a few pounds of tomatoes, my cuticles have taken on a distinct orange tone and I’m acutely aware of any nicks on my fingers, which are now stinging from the acid in the tomatoes.
©2003, 2014 Peter Hertzmann. All rights reserved.