There is a mantra in the food service industry – “work clean.” Put simply, it means that the chef should always work in a clean space – both physically and mentally. But really, it means more than that. In his cookbook “Ruhlman’s Twenty,” Chef and writer Michael Ruhlman starts his book (which I will talk about in a later post, because it’s awesome) talking about “thinking” in the kitchen. He talks about the value of “mise en place” – everything in its place. These are, I have come to discover, words to live by when you’re in the kitchen.
I have to come clean by acknowledging that Jenn and I are not exceptionally clean people. Yes, we shower regularly, but we have always lived in a house that had some level of clutter, and we are not obsessive cleaners. Before we sold our first house, we would always say that one of the things we loved about hosting a family event or shindig with a bunch of friends was that it forced us to clean. This attitude followed me into the kitchen. In the past it was not unusual for me to have a counter piled full of stuff, trying to juggle pans and cutting boards among the clutter while I worked. In hindsight, cooking like this is very stressful. For our first years of competitive barbecue, at the end of the competition there would be grease and meat and scud all over everything – a perfect representation of how disorganized and sloppy we were.
Ruhlman’s main point about having your mise en place is that having a cluttered work station leads to cluttered thinking. “Clear your path,” he says “and you are less likely to stumble.” Over the past several years, I’ve realized that this is the truth of it. So, I’m really trying to break my old habits of messy work stations, in favor of working clean. For the past few years of barbecue, I’ve introduced methods of working that really cut down on what needs to be washed (disposable cutting boards, creative use of aluminum foil, etc.), and it has helped greatly with our ability to focus on our work. At home, in part because our current residence is very easy to clean, we’re trying to live that life as well. A few days ago, I came home from work to start dinner and the counter was a mess. About two minutes into my preparation and I was frustrated and feeling harried. So I stopped and completely cleaned my workstation. I was amazed at how much better I felt, how much more focused I was, after taking that simple step.
So part of this year of cooking involves redefining how I work in the kitchen. Sure, I’m a bit of a slob, so it won’t always be easy to get myself to keep the kitchen neat and clean. But when I settle into the kitchen for more than just cooking some toast and grabbing some coffee, I’ll always take that moment to get my shit together, clean up and get organized. And as I work, I’m going to try to clear my way. That way, I’ll have more time for thinking in the kitchen.
Thanks for reading,