Mise en Place and the outdoors

At the tender age of fourteen, Mom and Dad announced that as a responsible young man, I needed to get a part-time job.

As with many people with a similar background, I grew up in an environment where instilling a “work ethic” (or rather, a particular form of this work ethic)  bordered almost on a religion.  An article of faith that if you showed up on time, worked hard at the job, and didn’t try to goldbrick, you would be noticed and rewarded.  And an additional tenet of this faith is that if your daughters and sons worked hard in their adolescence, then as a parent, you did an excellent job of raising your kids. And that the kids will be OK in life.

The current political climate readily shows the doubts in this religious faith by a particular voting block. And working in a corporate environment for twenty-years shows that while working hard is important, networking efficiently, being able to code switch with communication styles, and working hard in a focused and particular manner are skill sets needed as well. But that’s another story better told by others.

In any case, I did the set expectations and started a part-time job.

And the first job I worked ended up being a dishwasher. Mom talked to Uncle David, a career cook, and I started my job in a busy line cook version of the brigade-style kitchen where Uncle David (and my cousin, too!) worked part-time.

The specific work ethic I learned from my cultural upbringing, and various part-time jobs did serve me well in my outdoor endeavors in later years.

And, what I learned in performing kitchen work stuck with me in other ways.

In modern times, we associate cooking with the so-called celebrity chef culture that is glamorous.  But if you read the influential Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain, you might be familiar with the how the restaurant industry worked in the 1990s and still is to a certain extent. Meaning, a bit rough on the edges. And worked by people often without a college degree, look at the job as a craftspersons’ trade, and produce something amazing but are typically more profane (by far!) than the clients who appreciate their craft.

Swears at the height of the dinner rush, being yelled at to get nappy dishes NOW, and being referred to as a dago if I did not move quite fast enough, were just par for the course in the environment. An environment that would, no doubt, give an HR rep agida in future workplace environments. 🙂

Among the phrases heard among the cooks yelling at each other? “QUIT MESSIN’ WITH MY MIS!!!”

The cooks did not speak French. But they knew from oral tradition and experience what started with the French culinary tradition: Mise en place. Everything in its place.

A busy kitchen can only function correctly if everything is set up “just so” for a specific kitchen and cook. The flow has to work.

If something is out of place in a kitchen, the flow does not work. A minute here and there is lost and adds up. Orders become backed up, food is ruined, and customers complain. A business loses money. And fourteen-year-old dishwashers take note without realizing it.

When Joan and I moved into our current home, we did not have much space to work with overall. We had to make sure everything had its place. Everything had to flow.  Putting the shelves HERE vs. THERE made a difference in how we could work in our home. We paid to attention to our Mis.

The kitchen and panty seemed the obvious places to implement an appropriate mis.

The oils, sauces, and other condiments just above and over the stove for efficient and easier cooking.

And a pantry packed to ease our daily cooking and expediting quickly packing for our outdoor trips.

But we needed to pay attention to the mis on our accumulated gear.

About half of the gear room that also doubles as the guest room. Most of our friends don’t mind being surrounded by gear while sleeping on a blow-up bed!

When LB stayed with us recently, he remarked on the organization of our gear room. As two busy outdoor professionals, with forty years of accumulated gear between Joan and myself for all four season and different activities, we need to be organized and ready for trips. Everything has to fit well in a limited space.

As I mentioned before, being prepared and organized helps make judicious use of the time bank.

If everything flows and fits well, if you optimize your mis, you do not withdraw too heavily from the time bank. Trips are packed for quickly and you can spend more time looking at maps and getting out and on the trail.

And the concept of mis applies on the trail, too.

If you pack correctly, be it for backpacking, skiing, car camping, and even in your vehicle, the trips run smoothly. You spend less time on thinking where something is in the pack or in camp or in the trunk of your car.  You can quickly get in your miles, perhaps make the desert sunset, or something as simple as making a comfortable camp for a while.

In the outdoor community, we often talk about the tools instead of technique.  But while tools are important, I’d argue effective technique with your acquired tools is more important.  And learning the proper mis becomes a very important part of the method.

Learn to think of mis when storing gear, packing, and planning for a trip.  If your packs are stored in THAT bin, would it be easier to pack overall?  If you carry your maps in this pocket and your phone in that pocket, will your hiking flow better?  If I pack this way, will I fit everything in the car easier?

Don’t just throw everything in a room, pack, or even a car.  Think of the mis! Everything in its place.

Put everything in its place, and thinking about the placement itself,  and the logistics of the outdoors becomes an after-thought.  You spend more time planning your next big jaunt, walking,  taking photos, and enjoy your favorite hot beverage on an overlook.

Making some coffee in Canyonlands National Park in November.

So, thirty years later, I’ll turn what those cooks yelled out to each other: Go mess with your mis!  

Find where everything has its place be it at home, on the way to your trip, and in the field itself. Find the flow. And your outdoor time will be immensely better.

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