Chef School 3: Acting the part
The pace is hard going for me but good practice! We all quickly learnt to not only be busy, but to look busy at all times or ‘Speed Demon’ would give you a hard time (and give you more to do!).
Apart from increasing my naturally relaxed pace in the kitchen, my other big fear was about being organised enough to be successful in a commercial kitchen. You know how those TV chefs make it all look so simple, with all their neatly weighed out ingredients (none missing, or mis-labelled, or out of date, and nothing running out just when they need it), their cooked dishes emerging right on cue so soon as they have mixed the ingredients and popped it in the oven – as if ‘before’ and ‘after’ are one and the same - and there is never any sign of a sinkful of washing up accumulating. It’s all very deceptive – with teams of assistants ordering and preparing the ingredients and equipment, and ensuring the oven is at exactly the right temperature, before moving on seamlessly to deal with the washing up and stowing of equipment.
‘Mise-en-place’ is probably the single most critical skill for a chef. While the direct translation from French is deceptively simple – to ‘put in place’ – in a commercial kitchen it is a multi-faceted skill, which includes pretty much everything except the actual cooking!:
- establishing and advance-ordering of all food-stuffs you need for your recipes or dishes
- maximising your time through efficient workflow planning
- the physical collection, organisation, storage, and labelling of all your cookery equipment and ingredients before you even start to cook
- the preparation and chopping, slicing, dicing (etc.) of the raw ingredients and garnishes you will need for your dishes – everything from trimming cuts of meat to filleting fish, from preparing tomato concassée to segmenting oranges, from finely chopping herbs to setting up crumbing stations (flour, egg wash, breadcrumbs).
- and last, but definitely not least, cleaning up as you go along (never one of my strong points…)
Trainee chefs with excellent natural ‘mise’ always stand out from the crowd in class – their work station is invariably clean and tidy, they will have all ingredients they need to hand, in appropriate quantities and clearly labelled, at all times, and will look almost serenely calm while a sea of chaos gradually envelops the workstations of other trainee chefs. It quickly became clear that I was a magnet for chaos and would have to work hard at developing my ‘mise’.
As an added incentive to develop our ‘mise’ there were rarely enough of the ingredients and/or equipment for the whole class, so unless you got in quickly you then wasted more time going down to the stores or searching the other training kitchens to collect the rest of what you needed.
Eight tips for improving your ‘mise’: –
- Spoons - buy a set of measuring spoons that give exact teaspoon, tablespoon measures – but beware – while a teaspoon is 5ml the world over, British, American and Australian tablespoons are all different (British = 15ml, American = 14ml and Australian = 20ml). If your measuring spoons were made in China, then check which country they were made for.
- Cups vs Scales - a set of cup measures can be useful for liquids, but weighing dry ingredients is much more accurate than measuring their volume – so make sure you have accurate scales, and if you buy measuring cups be sure to choose ones that match your recipes – an American cup is 240ml, while British and Australian cups are 250ml.
- Dishes - buy a set of little dishes for measuring out ingredients before starting to cook – it creates a bit more washing up, but it makes it so seamless when you start the cooking – that’s why they do it like that on TV.
- Containers - Tupperware containers are so handy for storing dry goods with less mess than in their original packaging – like plain or self-raising flour, cornflour, caster sugar, icing sugar, cocoa. For those you use most often, get big containers which fit 2 bags, and a small plastc scoop you can leave inside.
- Leftovers - Plastic takeaway containers are great for storing leftovers in the fridge or freezer, or for leftovers from bags that are hard to re-seal and stack on a shelf once opened.
- Labelling - Masking tape and a big marker pen make it easy to record what’s in each container and the date. Less permanent than stickers or writing on the container.
- Knives – keep them sharp by using a sharpening steel each time you cook – so they are all ready for next time.
- Recipe - Last but definitely not least – read the recipe right through, so you know what ingredients and equipment you will need and how long it will take – there is nothing worse than getting half way through and discovering a 2 hour ‘resting’ time, the need for a mandolin to slice thinly, or an unusual spice that your corner shop doesn’t sell…
First formal chef school assessment...
A month in we had our first formal practical assessment, which covered various methods of cookery as well as our ‘mise-en-place’. We were given exactly 90 minutes to prepare and present a roast chicken breast with a herb stuffing, roasted pumpkin, sauté potatoes, green beans and a red wine jus. We were given the recipe in advance, so I practiced at home and quickly realised that 90 minutes was actually too long. So unusually for a commercial kitchen environment, I had time to kill during the assessment. My natural tendency towards a relaxed pace worked well that day, apart from the final sprint to the finish - five minutes of flurry to get it all beautifully arranged on the plate while still hot.
The assessor was pleased – my chicken was cooked right, my red wine jus was commended for its sweetness and clarity, and the green beans were perfectly al dente. BUT – like so many others in the class, I had not thought to wipe my fingerprints from the big rim of the wide bowls we had been given to serve our dish on. Overall a clear pass – but an important lesson learnt about presenting plates as well as food in a restaurant environment. Four out of 14 of us in Group B failed that morning, mainly for rushing and then serving the assessor bowls of food that had gone cold or had been over-cooked in an attempt to keep the food hot until the end of the 90 minutes.
Three of my favourite flavourful recipes, that will help you develop and flex your ‘mise’ muscles: