Provisions: Are Your Ducks In a Row?
The Practice of Mise en Place
“By failing to prepare you are preparing to fail”, attributed to Benjamin Franklin, is an admonition keenly appropriate to foodservice operations.
Lacking preparation in mindset and method in the kitchen and in the dining room can create a chaos that is painful to experience and uncomfortable to witness.
The old military training adage--Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance--also has tremendous relevance in food and beverage, and failing to heed this advice can be the quickest route to self-inflicted disaster.
Consistently preparing the food and beverage operation prior to service is not just about dicing vegetables and gathering equipment. The act of mise en place--the French term for “put in place”--so often repeated by chefs to their brigade, is not only vital to a successful service but a crucial standard operating procedure as well.
There is a proper way to set a table, open a bottle of wine, and present a check. Nowhere is this more true than in a private club setting. In cooking there are proper ways to execute a task; often the approach involves working backwards: if you are blanching asparagus for example, assemble the ice bath before you plunge the stalks into the boiling water instead of vice versa. Scurrying around collecting ice, a bowl, tongs, and the draining towel risks the precious stalks over-cooking, resulting in wasted time and product. Assemble and put in place the proper tools needed for the desired outcome before you even begin.
The practice of taking the time to put in place all that is required for service BEFORE it is needed is to prepare. Mise en place is an active endeavor commanding participation from the individual and the group. From managers to hosts, line cooks and servers, all involved complete their personal and collective “prep”. Managers and hosts review menus, wine lists, floor plans, and reservations. Servers and bartenders have wine keys, pens, and guest checks in-hand. Cooks have knives, spatulas, and ingredients within reach and side towels at the hip. The all-important pre-shift huddle has been performed. All involved have taken the time to put in place all that will be needed to proceed with service.
The nature of food and beverage is that “things happen”; those unscripted, unforeseen surprises and events which occur regardless of the most diligent plan. However, a little forethought and communication can help avoid a potential crisis. In BEO meetings for example, a discussion with the chef ahead of time about menu options for gluten-free requests during a banquet service will more effectively allow those requests to be met in a timely, informed manner. Similarly, identifying an alternate seating arrangement in case of inclement weather for an outdoor event can prepare staff to make quick predetermined changes to a floor plan.
Anything worth doing is worth doing right, and a poorly executed plan is usually the result of failing to plan at all. A server making multiple trips to the kitchen to inquire about ingredients or the preparation of a dish indicates poor pre-shift communication on someone’s part. A cook who is bolting off to the walk-in for overlooked key ingredients in the middle of service has not taken the time to perform his/her mis en place. Meanwhile completed food sits at the pass, likely not servable by the time the unprepared cook has managed to finish the wayward accompanying dish. Poor time management will lead to disappointing and costly results when customers are left stranded mid-order while a server leaves the dining room for information, and food that has been left sitting needs to be re-fired.
When all is “put in place” the performance can begin. The benefits of deliberate planning are evident at “go-time” when everything is readied for the first guests to be welcomed and the first ticket to spool out of the printer. The shared sentiment of the crew is anticipation for a strong, smooth service and all are prepped for operating at peak efficiency.
Does that sound like a wishful pie-in-the sky rosy scenario? While it is true that unexpected things can and often do happen (review "Prevents" above), you will be better equipped to handle them if you've done your proper planning. The “unknown” is always lurking, but it is truly liberating to take control of the “known”. Preparing to engage in a positive outcome puts the odds of consistent success on the plus side.
Time to get ready…
Chef Mary Howley is the culinary consultant to the RCS Hospitality Group and a former Executive Chef of her own catering company, several country clubs, and fine dining restaurants. She studied throughout Europe and honed her skills on the East Coast working with a myriad of culinary styles. She had the honor to serve as research and development chef for Food Unlimited, and held the position of Pastry Chef in two James Beard Dinner Events.