Mise En Place

  • Sun Tzu, The Art of War
  • A Cook's Tour, Anthony Bourdain
  • How To Stay Alive In The Woods, Bradford Angier
  • Topicalizing The Patient’s Action In Psychoanalytic Interaction, Sanna Vehviläinen

The four pieces of writing listed above all resonate deeply with me and have something deeply in common, and while walking Monty outside before in my t-shirt and jeans (yes, you read that correctly, it is THAT warm here in Toronto), it occurred to me what that commonality was. The Mise en place.
The mise en place, literally translated from French, means "setting in place." The Culinary Institute of America describes the term as "Everything in place". When cooking, the term is used to describe preparation done before starting the actual cooking process. Included but not limited to flatware, cookware and sauces.

Recipes are reviewed, to check for necessary ingredients and equipment. Ingredients are measured out, washed, chopped and placed in individual bowls. Equipment such as spatulas and blenders are prepared for use, while ovens are preheated. Preparing the mise en place ahead of time allows the chef to cook without having to stop and assemble items, which is desirable in recipes with time constraints. Also refers to the preparation and layouts that are set up and used by line cooks at their stations in a commercial or restaurant kitchen.

The concept of having everything in its place as applied to the work in a kitchen likely became a staple around the time of Auguste Escoffier, who is well known for his development of the brigade system of running a kitchen.

Well, I don't know who Auguste Escoffier was or is, but that is one heck of a name, Monsieur Escoffier. Eh? Would you like a coffee, Monsieur Escoffier? Eh? Coffee?

Sorry - I'm tired and beginning to wonder if I will be able to wander through writing everything I want to regarding this concept. Bear with me please.

In that most wonderful of travelogue/cooking memoir that Anthony Bourdain wrote with such flourish and swearing, he mused about the essential truth or secret behind good cooking. It is the mise en place. If you prepare everything diligently, lovingly and all in the right place and order, you can swoop down and invoke the alchemical gods and bring out from this mix a dish that would result in a 4 star Michelin award (not the tires). It is in the measuring-out, the washing, the chopping, dicing, slicing, placement and preparation of all ingredient, cutlery, foil, plastic wrap and soaked shishkabob sticks, that the magic is prepared - luck favours the prepared as they say - and so preparing the final dish. If you cook a simple dish like a pot roast in this manner, carefully, precisely, you can make the most wonderful and memorable of meals, and never break a sweat.

It has been a while since I read Sun Tzu's The Art of War. This is not the Wesley Snipe movie, which incidentally was okay, if you have had a few beers and have nothing else to watch on TV the evening that Spike TV is showing it. But the most famous of his lessons (Sun Tzu, not Wesley Snipe) describes the deliberate infiltration of the enemy's ranks, the build-up, the preparation, the placement of forces in such an exact and stealthy manner, that upon breaking of dawn, and the rousing of the opponents' first sentries, your forces can clatter their armour, brandish their weapons inches from the necks of all the officers, affect a series of surgical arrests and thus win the war without striking a blow. This is the mise en place. Preparation, and strike.

In How To Stay Alive In The Woods, by Bradford Angier, that most classic of survival texts, written in a most classic and soothing cadence, he talks about lighting a fire with flint and steel. My experience has shown me the wisdom of his words. Let me explain how I did not prepare and strike years ago. It was January, and it was maybe 14 years ago. I had driven up to Algonquin Park in the depths of winter, and arrived late at a drive-in camping spot on Mew Lake by myself. Darkness had fallen, and all the firewood was buried in a foot of snow. Trying to light a fire, I went through 2 boxes of matches, several firelighting sticks (compressed fiber with paraffin), and a tube of firegel. It was literally my final match that got a pile of Globe and Mail newspapers, half a roll of toilet paper and a firelighting stick to ignite, and get the damp firewood to start afire. I am sure that I could have gotten the fire going with one match had I prepared the newspaper as tinder properly, along with twigs and kindling from the base of the pine trees scattered around the site, building up successively larger pieces of firewood until I had my mise en place - striking one match, the conflagration starting in one slow but steady blaze. This is how I set my last campfire. And it took only two strikes of my ferrocerium rod with my carbon steel knife to set fire to crumbled bark, carefully arranged tinder and kindling and firewood, with a spark of iron.

This relates in turn to a passionate, albeit less attended-to interest of mine - psychoanalytic writings. The paper Topicalizing The Patient’s Action In Psychoanalytic Interaction, by Sanna Vehviläinen is a recent but oft-repeated (at least within the sparse amount of literature I have covered) examination of instances where the psychoanalyst topicalizes the patient’s action in the here-and-now of the psychoanalytic hour - which existential psychoanalytic approaches stress most. Using conversation analysis, Vehviläinen looks into the sequential context and the interactional consequences of such topicalizations - bring them alive within the context of the therapeutic hour. The analyst also does particular preparatory work to create an interactional ‘slot’ for the interpretation and, thus, co-constructs the issue (or puzzle) with the patient within the meeting itself. The analyst problematizes some aspect in the patient’s talk, presenting it as noteworthy and contradictory (this I have seen referred to as 'tagging'). The analyst and patient then engage in psychoanalytic interpretations that follow and provide some clarification these puzzles. They provide explanations that draw on the materials the patient has provided, but add to them something new – something the patient ‘has not been aware of’, thus shepherding and drawing the patient along an unfamiliar but comfortable (i.e. less anxiety-ridden) path. The analyst may carefully bring up how the patient is currently presenting within the therapeutic hour, and focus on this dynamic. The intervention is then concluded (or 'primed') with the element of the patient's behaviour as revealing something of the patient's unconscious (or as Alfred Adler - a fascinating man - liked to put it, the 'unknown part of the goal').

It is 11:00 PM and I know I could probably write for another hour on this concept, and perhaps I will follow up another day. You can likely see by this point how relevant the Mise En Place is to many parts of our lives. But now I must prepare my pillow, and put Monty to bed (Spring is in dreamland currently), and turn off the lights and prepare to dream.


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