Friday, January 20, 2006

Mise-en-place, or Meez

Who uses it: Cooks
What it means: The carefully prepared setup of spices, cooking oil, softened butter, rough-cracked pepper and other essentials laid out by a cook before a shift.
How to use it: As a proxy for the readiness and attitude of an individual at work (on anything).

In Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain compares the state of a chef’s meez to his state of mind. “The universe is in order when your station is set up the way you like it: you know where to find everything with your eyes closed, everything you need during the shift is at the ready at arm’s length, your defenses are deployed. If you let your mise-en-place run down, get dirty and disorganized, you’ll quickly find yourself spinning in place and calling for backup.”

Two things call this passage to mind. First of all, my own sorry mise of a desk. While I think that the state of my desk and the pace of my productivity are to a degree inversely proportional, over the long term the only way to get things done is to have an ordered environment. Never mind the fact that writing this post required me to dig through piles of books, set aside piles of paper, and topple other neatly-ordered oblelisks of crap atop my desk. Soon I shall find order.

The other reminder of Bourdain’s great book comes from my current new reading love, The Perfectionist: Life and Death in Haute Cuisine, by Rudolph Chelminski. The kitchen thing that is. This great book lovingly recounts the story of Bernard Loiseau, an ambitious and exceedingly talented French chef who earned the fabled three stars from Michelin for his country restaurant, and then committed suicide when confronted with the pressures and the threat of negative press that may have lost a star. This book is a perfect blend of story-telling and reporting. Chelminski uses his deep knowledge of French cuisine (not to mention his personal relationships with many of the main figures) to share a great biography of Loiseau; and in so doing he shares amazing details about the role and power of the Michelin guide in France, the culture of a traditional French kitchen, and above all the rigor necessary to produce French cuisine of the highest quality. I’d be through with this book if my daughter Lucy wouldn’t keep taking it from me to read.

Bourdain, by the way, describes the chaos of a chef in trouble as “being in the merde.” My next book (which I completed by the way) is all about the merde, and literally. The Great Stink by Clare Clark is without doubt the best murder mystery set in the sewer system of 19th century London. Okay seriously…it is set in the sewers under the city, but in a good way. Clark brilliantly depicts the life of the sewers under the city—the way they are built, the role they played in spreading cholera, the way that crumbling brick decayed along wall and subchambers, the smell of the wild and varied elements that made their way there. The book is propelled by a gripping narrative involving characters who, for different reasons, cannot stay from the sewers. Yet the star is the sewer system, which functions as both an evocative setting and a moving metaphor. “In the tunnels moral judgments were suspended,” writes Clare. A terrific and thoughtful first novel.

Finally, I’ve been laughing out loud from John Hodgman’s The Areas of My Expertise. There’s simply no point in explaining this book, an extraordinarily detailed—and accurate—almanac of facts that the author has entirely made up. Much has been made of his 700 hobo names. Much should be made of his 700 hobo names. Iowa Noam Chomsky. Constantly Sobbing Forester. Magnetized James. There’s funny, and there’s funny, but this guy is, um, really really funny.

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