The kitchen of a busy restaurant can be a chaotic, frenetic environment. But the best chefs create a kind of personal eye in this storm, from which they can efficiently craft meal after meal without ever moving their feet. The system they use to do this is called mise-en-place — a French word that means “to put in place,” and signifies an entire lifestyle of readiness and engagement.
My guest today spent years interviewing over a hundred chefs and other culinary professionals about the mise-en-place philosophy and then translated it into a system that can be used outside the kitchen in a book called Everything in Its Place: The Power of Mise-En-Place to Organize Your Life, Work, and Mind. His name is Dan Charnas and we begin our conversation with how Dan, a writer, realized that mise-en-place was something that could be used by everyone, and the system’s three general principles and ten tools. We then unpack some of those tools, both in how they’re used by cooks in the kitchen, and how they can be applied by regular folks at home and the office. We begin with the importance of squaring your checklists with your calendar and the one organizing process Dan most recommends: something called the 30-minute “meeze.” We then discuss how to arrange your physical working space for greater efficiency and the importance of working clean. From there, Dan explains what he thinks Stephen Covey’s famous idea of putting first things first doesn’t take into consideration, and why it’s important to understand the difference between what Dan calls “process time” and “immersive time.” At the end of our conversation, we discuss the tension between perfection and delivery, the way the “call and call back” communication system used in kitchens creates teamwork and respect, and the fact that the success of any organizational system rests on daily commitment.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- What is mise-en-place? Is it a codified set of rules? An unspoken guideline?
- The 3 principles and 10 ingredients of mise-en-place
- How chefs plan their work shifts
- The importance of squaring your list with your calendar
- The 30-minute “meeze”
- Why are chefs always cleaning?
- The case for a clean desk
- Process time vs. immersive time
- What Stephen Covey gets wrong about “First Things First”
- How chefs process feedback
- What do chef shows get right and wrong about the cooking/restaurant process?
- How do chefs communicate in the kitchen?
- Why hierarchy is actually important
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- The Making of a Chef
- Kitchen Confidential
- A Place for Everything and Everything In Its Place
- How to Organize Your Garage
- The Power of Checklists
- Plans Are Useless, But . . .
- Why You Should Plan Your Weekends
- How to Plan Your Week
- Get More Done With the Rule of 3
- 6 Ways to Streamline Your Mornings
- Make Every Day a Good Day With This Morning Routine
- How to Declutter Every Aspect of Your Work Life
- Decluttering Your Digital Life
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
- Put First Things First
Connect With Dan
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Read the Transcript
If you appreciate the full text transcript, please consider donating to AoM. It will help cover the costs of transcription and allow other to enjoy it. Thank you!
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. The kitchen of a busy restaurant can be a chaotic, frantic environment, but the best chefs create a kind of personal eye in the storm from which they can efficiently craft meal after meal without ever moving their feet. The system they use to do this is called mise en place, french word that means to put in place and signifies an entire lifestyle of readiness and engagement. My guest today spent years interviewing over a 100 chefs and other culinary professionals about the mise en place philosophy, and then translated it into a system that can be used outside of the kitchen in a book called Everything in Its Place: The Power of mise en place to Organize your Life, Work, and Mind. His name is Dan Charnas, and we begin our conversation with how Dan a writer realized that mise en place was something that could be used by everyone, the system’s three general principles and 10 tools. We then unpack some of those tools, both and how they’re used by cooks in the kitchen and how they can be applied by regular folks at home and in the office. We begin with the importance of squaring your checklist with your calendar and the one organizing process Dan most recommends, something called the 30-minute meeze.
We then discuss how to arrange your physical working space for greater efficiency and the importance of working clean, from there Dan explains, what he thinks Stephen Covey’s famous idea of putting first things first doesn’t take into consideration and why it’s important to understand the difference between what Dan calls process time and immersive time. At the end of our conversation, we discuss the tension between perfection and delivery, the way call and callback communication system used in kitchens creates teamwork and respect, and the fact that the success of any organization system rests on a daily commitment. After the show is over, check out our show notes at aom.is/workclean.
Alright, Dan Charnas, welcome to the show.
Dan Charnas: Thank you.
Brett McKay: So you have a new book out, Everything in its Place: The power of… Let me see if I get this right, mise en place.
Dan Charnas: That’s right.
Brett McKay: To organize your life, work and mind. So mise en place is this concept we’re gonna dig deep into it, but it’s a concept from the world of cooking from chefs. How did you make the connection that mise en place it’s a philosophy of work that chefs have, how did you make the connection that, “Hey maybe regular people can take something from this to learn how to be more productive and organized?”
Dan Charnas: That’s a great question. It happened gradually as this sort of new breed of non-fiction started to come out in the late ’90s, early 2000s, the chef narrative, not a cookbook written by a chef, but literally stories about the lives of chefs, the personal and professional lives of chefs. So Michael Ruhlman, a journalist from Cleveland, wrote this amazing book about going to the Culinary Institute of America to become a chef called The Making of a Chef, he wrote that in the late ’90s, I believe, and that was followed by Anthony Bourdain’s, famous first non-fiction work Kitchen Confidential. And central to both of these incredible books was this idea of mise en place this code by which cooks and chefs lived. And what’s really interesting is that the lives of chefs and cooks can be pretty crazy, right? We’re talking about people who sort of view themselves as pirates, modern day outlaws and brigands toiling away in these really hot kitchens away from the prying eyes of the public. And yet in the midst of all of this revelry and sometimes inappropriate and drunken behavior, there’s this eye of the storm that’s super super calm, called mise en place, this code of behavior that enables these folks to do enormous amounts of work and create enormous amounts of product and be enormously efficient, all without moving their feet.
And so as I transitioned into some corporate jobs in the early 2000s and started to work in places that were much more stiff and rigid and corporate than I had ever worked before, I had become a Vice President at Warner Bros in my 20s and had to learn on the fly, doing this kinda stuff, I began to become a little jealous envious of that lifestyle, that idea that we have sort of a shared code, a shared idea of how to be efficient and not wasteful, because the one thing about working in corporate America is that although there are certainly talk of efficiency and productivity, there’s just enormous amounts of waste in corporate America, and so I began to look for ways myself, just personally, to incorporate some of those ideas into my life, and then a few years later… Well, much later, really after I published my first book, which was a Business History of Hip-Hop, I began to get the idea that maybe there wasn’t a book written on mise en place… Maybe I could write that book. That’s where this all started.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about mise en place, is it like a codified system of rules? Is it a philosophy? Is it both? What are the big picture principles of it?
Dan Charnas: Alright, well, to answer your question, it wasn’t codified, and that’s one of the reasons that I wrote the book, there were certain ideas that were floating around, but it had never been codified, so what I did over the course of two years going in and out of professional kitchens and culinary schools, talking to chefs and cooks, professional organizers and sort of restaurateurs, I came up with three general principles and 10 ingredients or tools that make up this system of mise en place. So the principles, first, they’re preparation, process and presence, so what mise en place which… Let’s talk about that term ’cause we haven’t… It’s a very strange term to us, if we don’t speak French mise en place literally means in French to put in place. If French folks here it just means to get ready… Like your state of readiness. What do you need to put in place in order to be successful? For a cook, that means gathering all your ingredients and tools in one place already prepared with a sense of organization that allow you to keep cooking.
These same dishes over and over and over again without moving your feet, and so that life of mise en place requires a commitment to planning every day a commitment to following process, that there are things that work to not rebel against process, things like checklists, very important, and it’s funny the people who really take their work seriously because lives are at stake, whether it’s making sure that food is clean or making sure that an airplane gets to its destination safely, or that a patient on the operating table makes it off of the operating table, doctors, chefs, airline pilots, all work from checklists, they all work with process, they don’t rebel from process, and then finally, this idea of being present you can’t phone it in.
So to speak, you always have to be aware, situation awareness is really part of the mise en place lifestyle, so those are the three general principles, planning, process and presence, but then I broke it down to 10 ingredients or strategies, things that cooks use over and over again to get through their day, the first is making a plan, literally making that checklist and also squaring it with the calendar, which we can talk about it, arranging their spaces and perfecting their movements is a second one. The third one is cleaning as you go, the fourth and the fifth are making first moves and finishing actions, how to start and how to finish, the sixth one is slowing down to speed up, this kind of counter-intuitive way of thinking about how you deal with your emotions, when things are really piling up on you, then the next couple are sort of about communications, open ears and eyes, call and call back, and inspecting and correcting the idea of learning how to edit and be edited, learning how to supervise and to be supervised, and then the final of the 10 ingredients is what chefs called total utilization, which is this idea that nothing be wasted, no resource, no moment, no ingredient. No person be wasted. No space, be wasted. That is the end goal of mise en place.
Brett McKay: And then when you understand what the kitchen business is like, the restaurant business is like, you understand why chef would have to develop this code ’cause you don’t have margin to waste, You don’t have… There’s a tight deadline, you have that night, you have to get as many meals out as possible, you can’t waste any ingredients, ’cause any wasted plate that’s money down the drain or down in the garbage can, so they have to… They have to be as efficient as possible.
Dan Charnas: Yeah, and it’s brilliant. It’s a great observation, and you imagine arriving to a restaurant for your 6 o’clock reservation and the hostess says I’m sorry, we’re just not ready to open yet chef is running a little behind. [chuckle] That might be fine for the doctor’s office and it’s fine, maybe if we’re expecting to launch our 2.0 software on October 1st, and it ends up getting pushed back to October 15th, but that doesn’t work in the restaurant business, and frankly, that’s why this stuff highly only exists in the oral tradition of restaurants of professional food service, because they’re ruled by the clock and we are not. We function more according to the calendar, things are more movable for us, and as a result, that is where we get lazy and wasteful, and I just have to say, I’m not a professional cook, nor have I ever cooked professionally at all, I approach this entire project simply as a journalist, interviewing essentially more than 100 people over the course of several years to try to figure out what this thing was and how we could take it out of the kitchen into the office, and what’s so amazing dude, is that even chefs didn’t think about it this way, most of the folks that I talk to, some of the chefs that I talk to have the messiest offices you’ve ever seen, the kitchen is spotless.
Would you go back to their work space and you can’t even find their computer keyboard, ’cause there’s just stuff all on top of it, so there was a lead that hadn’t been made that… Yeah, there were some things of value that we could take from the professional kitchen and move into the professional office.
Brett McKay: I think you made this point in the book, what’s unique about chefs and the culinary arts, they’re actually taught how to work. Office workers, you’re never taught like how to be efficient in the office. You’re taught some basic rudimentaries, but it’s up to you to figure out how to develop systems for your work, and I think it’s kinda weird when you think about it.
Dan Charnas: It’s amazing to me, but it’s also… Many of us enter relationships and marriages, and there’s very little education about how to be successful in a relationship. So it’s almost like the most basic things about living and survival aren’t really taught… It’s interesting though, that two places that this stuff really is taught at the military and the culinary, they have very much the idea of preparation and process and presence for everything, but no, when I went to journalism school, I was taught a little bit about how to report but I certainly wasn’t taught how to manage my work, how to manage my day, I didn’t know anything about squaring my list with the calendar, and as a result, we have a generation of… Generations of people running around making lists without understanding that a list is not how you actually get things done.
Brett McKay: Alright, so let’s dig into some of these ingredients, maybe we can change that a bit with this episode. Talk about that first ingredient which is the idea of planning. That’s the first thing that chefs are taught when they go to culinary school, they’re given a piece of paper and they’re told that, “You gotta make a timeline for the night,” so how do they go about planning, so again, we gotta think about what’s the problem that chef’s facing, they have a deadline, a tight deadline, they’ve gotta make lots of different meals for lots of different people, and there’s gonna be setbacks, how do they plan for all that?
Dan Charnas: Well, let’s think about this backwards… Let’s think about it from your perspective and my perspective, at the start of our day, if we consider ourselves industrious, we might make ourselves a list, a checklist, sometimes I’ll have 10, 15 items of things that I would like to do that day and want to get done, and maybe I’ll get three or four of them done. And I’ll end up feeling horrible about myself, “Oh my God, how much stuff I have to do,” and then that gets pushed to the next day and you make a list for the next day, and there’s now 20 things to do, and maybe you get four or five done, that’s no way to live. And the reason that we end up that way is that we never do the essential second step of squaring our lists or checklist with our calendar, because each one of those things takes time, and the times gotta come from somewhere. So I think of it also this way, the list is a function and a product of the mind, but the calendar is a tool that puts our body in a place in time, so squaring your list with the calender means you’re gonna take what you think you want to do and now you have to square it with your body in a place in time.
How much time do I need to actually write that email? You might be thinking you can do it in 10 minutes, but realistically, you probably need to give yourself some immersive time to write that very important email that you’ve been wanting to write, 30 minutes, you’re gonna have to block that out. I’m a college professor right now, and I teach college freshman coming in from high school. And one of the first things that I try to get them to do, and I have to say, I’m not always successful, but I try, I say, “Listen, there’s seven or eight hours of course work homework that you need to do every week, if you don’t block out that time on the calendar. It won’t get done.” Not doing that is essentially magical thinking, you have to block that time out on your calendar and show up for yourself like you would show up for a job interview or somebody important. That’s how we need to relate to squaring our tasks with the calendar, and that’s what chefs do every day at the Culinary Institute, they literally have a form where on the left side of the sheet of paper, there’s a list of things to do, and on the right side of the sheet of paper is a timeline, how much time do I need to chop those vegetables how much time do I need for that braise, and what can I be doing while the food is braising to put myself in a position to deliver at precisely 6 o’clock or whenever service is.
Brett McKay: So it sounds like if it’s not on the calendar, it’s not gonna happen.
Dan Charnas: That’s exactly right. If it ain’t on the calendar, chances are it’s not getting done, and also squaring your list with the calendar forces you to make choices, and I think we run from choice on a daily basis like, “How can I… But I’ve gotta do that today.” So you just don’t plan and then your day makes the decision for you, right, the thing that doesn’t get done, you don’t control that, the calendar controls that now, because you didn’t put it down. There are things that I now make sure, because I do this every day, I have to say no to things every day, I have to be realistic about when I can deliver things, but on the other end, that makes me not less reliable, but more reliable because I have a sense of when I will be completing things and listen, I’m not perfect, nobody’s perfect. And there is a lot of wishful thinking that goes on in my life, especially as an author of very long books that have a lot of moving parts and I have to do lots of interviews for. But I will say that my mise en place, my personal mise en place, helps me stay sane, amid all of this, I just know that if I rely on my mise en place, everything else will fall into place.
Brett McKay: And then so, it sounds like what you can do is like just begin your day with a set… Like, we’re just gonna plan out your day, or it can be the night before and you have your list, but then you have to make sure everything on your list is on the calendar ’cause that keeps you honest.
Dan Charnas: Well, that is essentially at the core of the one process that I recommend to everybody who reads this book do, the book was originally called Work Clean when it came out in paperback, we changed the title to Everything In Its Place, but the ritual, the daily ritual is the 30-minute Meeze. M-E-E-Z-E. And this meeze consists of several steps, and the steps are essentially cleaning your tools, making sure that the stuff from the previous day is accounted for, and then really planning your day squaring your list with the calendar, and then getting your materials together for whatever you need, for the day preparation, things that you might need, tools that you might need for a meeting, files, things like that, so the book really goes deeply into how that daily meeze is done. And you keep it to a tight 30 minutes. That’s also important, because if you’re planning more than 30 minutes a day, you’re planning wrong, it’s not planning, it’s actually. You’re putting work into your planning cycle.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. Well, another part of the getting prepared for a chef does is actually like putting things in its place. Literally mise en place. They get an area in the kitchen and they’re never gonna leave that spot…
Dan Charnas: That’s right.
Brett McKay: For the Next something… And also, they’re very meticulous about how they arrange things in front of them so that they’re as efficient as possible, can you walk us through a general… What that might look like for a chef.
Dan Charnas: Ever for your desk, how many of us… For those of us who have landlines at our desk, where is your phone? Are you crossing your arm over your body to get to that phone and dial. Where are the things that you normally grab? If you write with your right hand, are your pens on the left side of the desk Just little things, just looking… Even your virtual areas on your computer, where are things that you use? Where they’re easy to use? You want… What chefs try to do, and I say chefs and cooks sort of synonymously. Chef is just… Means chief, it’s just a leader of cooks, the lead cook. They try to arrange spaces and perfect movements all to reduce friction, and when you reduce friction, you essentially speed things up, make them more efficient, reduce abrasion. And you can abrade your mood, if you’re just constantly doing something that is giving you some sort of distress, it even could be like, I don’t know, an air conditioner or a fan that’s blowing on you the entire time, maybe turn it a little bit so that you have less friction, less bumping up against things, and more of a… One of the chefs that I interviewed, he had this phrase, oil on glass, that’s how we want this to be. For us, this service, we want our work day to be like oil on glass, that smooth.
Brett McKay: Another idea, you mentioned earlier, the book was originally called Work Clean. But chefs, that’s another part of mise en place is they literally… Not only… Work Clean not only… It means making sure you set up your work so that you can be Frictionless, but it also… They literally… They’re cleaning all the time. What’s going… Why do they clean while they work.
Dan Charnas: We’ll approach it from the chef’s perspective, and then from our perspective. Right, so the reason that chefs keep clean always and have to keep things separate in their own little boxes and in the right place always, is that if they don’t, people can die. Simple as that, the whole restaurant can get shut down, a health inspector comes in there, you can’t cut chicken on a cutting board and then not sterilize that cutting board before you cut vegetables on raw vegetables on it. It’s not happening. So that’s why they clean. But another reason is for their mental space, there are great stories from chef narratives about… Michael Ruhlman in his book, The Making of a Chef, he talks about one of his fellow students who was just really, really falling behind in his ability to get the food out, and the term that chefs use is in the weeds or in French dans les mauvaises. And the chef instructor came by that student and he says, I’m gonna show you why you’re falling behind, and he put his palm down on the students cutting board, which was littered with onion skins and meat juices and scraps of vegetables and plastic, that was… Paper towels, and he picks his palm up and puts it in the student’s face with all of that detritus on His palm, and he says, Look at this, this is the inside of your brain, right now, work clean, take a moment to breathe and wipe your station down, literally wipe your cutting board down.
Get things organized. Once you do that, you’ll be able to think straight. And I know in our world, especially, there’s this… I don’t know, this sort of countervailing contrarian notion that, Oh, some of the most successful people have messy desks. Right. I don’t know what the Albert… Albert Einstein had a messy desk, Albert Einstein had a messy desk and look how brilliant he was, it didn’t affect him. And my… Of course jocular response to that is, “You ain’t Einstein.” For us, we do need clarity. Clarity helps in our physical spaces, so we can have clarity in our mental spaces.
Brett McKay: And how have you applied this principle to your own work life, how do you clean regularly on your office job?
Dan Charnas: I literally, like I said, it’s a commitment to process, you commit to doing it as part of my daily me’s, I clean my desk. In my own house, we have two desks, my wife has a desk and I have a desk, and whenever I turn around my wife is sitting at my desk. And not her desk. Why do you think that is?
Brett McKay: It’s clean.
Dan Charnas: Because every day, I make a commitment to cleaning that space, and when I come back over, sometimes I’m cleaning her stuff off my desk. [chuckle] I love my wife, she’s beautiful and brilliant, and she is Einstein in many ways, but… Do you know what I’m saying? It creates an environment in which you can create.
Brett McKay: And you also think about… You think about your digital spaces too, you can regularly clean those at like… Once a week, I clean up my computer, I go through, delete files I haven’t used anymore, I have… I do a back-up of my hard drive, and that’s a process I do once a week to keep that digital space clean for myself.
Dan Charnas: Because that’s where you do your best work and everybody has that one space, and I will say this, no human can possibly maintain an absolutely pristine environment everywhere at all times. That’s not what being human is, and that’s not what I’m advocating, and a lot of this minimalism… The minimalism fad that we’ve been going through, whether it’s kondo-ing or whatever, a lot of it, in many ways, pre-supposes that we’re doing this stuff all the time, we are human beings, we inhale and we exhale, we squeeze, and then we release, we’re active, and then we rest, we’re working and then we’re playing, and so you do have to understand yourself and the ways in which you compensate and de-compensate for the things that take a lot of energy. So if you have focused a lot of energy in cleaning your workspace, you might not focus a lot of energy, in, I don’t know, cleaning your kitchen, the opposite of what a chef does, that there have to be places where we do let ourselves go and that balance is different for everyone.
Brett McKay: That’s why chefs have messy offices, but pristine kitchens.
Dan Charnas: Some of them don’t.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Some of them don’t. Well one of the most powerful principles that I got from this book was a chapter on making first moves, there’s this distinction between process and immersive time, and it seems like this is something that I think you… Chefs were doing, but they didn’t know they were doing until you showed them that they were doing it.
Dan Charnas: Oh, my God, I’m so glad that you picked up on that because if you ask me what I learned from doing this book, from writing this book, that was the big takeaway for me, and it runs… Flies in the face of almost every personal organization book that I’ve ever read, Stephen Covey, in many ways, the guru of principled personal organization has this story about going in front of a bunch of students, and he has this big glass jar and then a box of rocks, and he takes each rock and he puts it in the glass jar ’til they’re poking out the top of the glass jar, and he asked the students, “Can I get in any more? Any more of these?” And they say, “No.” He says, “Is the jar full?” And they say, “Yes, it’s full.” And then he takes a box of Pebbles out from under the desk and then pours the pebbles in between the rocks till the pebbles come up to the top of the jar, and he says, “Okay, now is the jar full?” And the students say, “Yes” And then he takes a box of sand and he pours the sand and the sand goes in between the spaces between the rocks and the pebbles, and he says, “Okay. Now is it full?”
And the students say, “Yes, it’s full.” And then he takes a jug of water and he pours the water in the sand in between the pebbles and the rocks, and… So when he’s done with his exercise, he says, “Okay, what was the point? What was the point of that?” And one student raises her hand and says, “The point is, you can always fit more in.” And he says, “No, no. The point is, if I didn’t put the big rocks in first, how was I gonna get the rest of this stuff in?” Oh, so that is the big realization that Covey brought to personal organization is that the big things, the most important things, the things that take the most time, those are the things you should be doing first. He even wrote a book called First Things First. But my friend, chefs don’t work like that, they can’t because what that ideal of first things first, big rocks first, doesn’t take into account is how time actually works and how work actually works in time, that there are two different kinds of work. The work that you do with your hands-on, which I’d call immersive work, stuff that needs your hands, your eyes, your senses. And then hands off work, which I’ll call process work.
Things that you might need to start, but you don’t need to be around, while they happen, your hands don’t need to be on it. The great example that I love to use from the professional kitchen… Actually from the learning kitchens of the CIA, the Culinary Institute is the student who’s thinking, “Oh I’ve gotta do the most difficult thing, do the worst first, right? So let me do all these vegetable cuts, and it’s gonna take me hours to do these vegetable cuts.” And then the student turns around and realizes that they didn’t turn the oven on, and the oven is not warm, and so they can’t cook the food. They’re gonna run behind. ‘Cause what they should have done, instead of doing the worst first is they should have seen what process items they can take care of very quickly, or start… What things they can start, so that then they can turn their attention to the more immersive tasks. And so there’s literally two kinds of time for a chef, there’s hands-on time and hands-off time, and those things are always happening together, process time and immersive time, so when we are in our offices and we are immersed… Just even me getting booked on your podcast right.
I’m in a very immersive time in my own career, so I took a long time answering emails because I wasn’t popping up for process time because I’m on a book deadline, and that’s a choice I make, but the choice you make when you do that is you create delays for other people. So one of the things we can do before we start that long email or a report we need to write, we can just pop up for a few minutes and say, “Okay, who’s waiting on me? Who needs a yes or a no for me, a quick thing for me, in order that the other work that I don’t have to put my hands on can get done, or their work can get done.” And that’s often where a lot of waste comes in, in corporate America, because you have assistance and middle managers waiting on upper level managers to give them a yes or a no, or to read an email or something, so they can get going, and so things just wait and wait and wait and wait, and that’s where corporate waste really comes in, and that also is a big difference between corporate managers and chefs.
I find that there is a certain level of respect that a chef has for his cooks or her cooks that in many ways, does not exist in corporate America, where we treat a hierarchy and job titles as an entitlement rather than looking at ourselves as responsible for the efficiency and the success of the people who work beneath us.
Brett McKay: One of the thing that’s tricky though, is figuring out what is the difference between process and immersive. ‘Cause some people might be like, “Well, this could be process or no, actually, this is immersive.” What are some examples of some process work, would it be just be like answering quick emails, that just require yes, no.
Dan Charnas: Yes.
Brett McKay: Okay.
Dan Charnas: Yes, yes or no answers, quick responses, quick readings of things, making a phone call to book an appointment or something like that, and you can’t get all… If you strung a whole bunch of little process things together, it does become an immersive time, so what I do is I schedule buckets of process work in between my Immersive time.
So, as a professor, I have a syllabus to write, but before I do that, I’m gonna call the plumber and I’m going to ask my wife this question that I needed to ask her, and then I’m gonna go in… And I’m gonna try to stay as much as I can in that document that I’m writing and not check Twitter too much, [chuckle] and I know afterwards that even though all these emails are coming in, I know that there’s a place for them. Think about this, I’m less likely to be distracted by incoming communications if I know that in one hour I’m gonna have a chance to take care of them. Does that make sense?
Brett McKay: That makes sense. So again, you’re gonna put this on the calendar, You might have block off 30 minutes at the beginning of your day for… I don’t know, you can call it admin. Check your email…
Dan Charnas: Yeah. I call process, right?
Brett McKay: Right, you call it process? Right, yeah.
Dan Charnas: Yeah, yeah.
Brett McKay: Okay. And another principle I thought was really incisive too, that I didn’t think about, but chefs had to figure out, and think about, is figuring out what… Prioritizing tasks on based on what can get finished or not. What does that look like, and why do chefs have to think about that?
Dan Charnas: Well, it’s all about cultivating a delivery mentality, there is a great tension between perfection and delivery, and I know that you’ve experienced times and projects in your life where it’s just not there yet, and yet the deadline is bearing down, and so it really becomes a trade-off of how much can I put into this before I really have to let it go? The story that I like to tell, really, it’s more a quote from Lorne Michaels, the founder of… And the producer of Saturday Night Live going on upwards to 50 years now, he says, “We don’t go on… We don’t go live because we’re ready, we go live because it’s 11:30.”
There’s a certain point where the discussion has to stop and we have to think about delivering, and the greatest chefs know, like Thomas Keller, the greatest chefs know is that you need deadlines and you need to deliver so that you can get the feedback to make whatever you’re doing better. So, you know, there are many artists types… Especially I teach in an art school, where people would just hold on to stuff, it’s not ready, it’s not ready, it’s not ready, and then they never deliver, and then that becomes a legacy of failure because they’re afraid of criticism they’re afraid of feedback. And what I try to get my students to do is to create with a sense of urgency, every day you’re gonna start writing a song, and every day you’re gonna finish writing a song. That… It’s a habit to get into.
We have to start… There’s a sense that chefs are artists, we cultivate that in our media, but really a true chef is a crafts person first, and so a chef practices her craft, and the art comes from the religious relentless practice… Efficient practice of that craft, that is the space where true artistry is born. It’s not born in a moment of inspiration that just compels you to dive into your work and you come out five hours later or five days later with something brilliant. No, it happens in the drudgery and the monotony of the everyday practice of the craft.
Brett McKay: So when people watch these chef shows, it looks like it’s crazy in there, and as you said, it might look crazy, but there’s… As you… They got the… The chefs have the mise en place in place, so there’s a eye of the storm. It’s like, you make this case that chefs actually slow down so they can speed up, but why does it look like they’re running around, there’s Gordon Ramsay yelling at people. Is mise en place going on there? That we just don’t know it?
Dan Charnas: Well, I think there… You’re describing a whole bunch of different kinds of situations, so let’s take… Let’s take a Chopped, where you have four contestants all competing with each other and running against the clock, often you find a lot of the mistakes happen when cooks do not slow down to speed up, they’re doing things, they’re getting panicked, they’re forgetting things, working slowly and deliberately is always going to trump working super fast and thoughtlessly and messily, so watch Chopped with that eye, with an eye towards who has good mise en place, who doesn’t. And often it’s the mise en place that goes hand-in-hand with the craft and the skill, because those skills are developed hand-in-hand. Then when we’re talking about a Robert Irvine or a Gordon Ramsay, the chefs who come in and seem to be yelling, I think a lot of… First of all, yelling culture in kitchens has definitely subsided over the past few decades as the window towards that world has been exposed, but I also think that there is something about the environment of the kitchen that it may sometimes requires the raised voice, which is not always an angry voice, but it also requires I suppose, I had somebody who used to call it the Saturn teacher, the teacher who teaches through difficulty.
And that cooks sometimes teach through a bit of sarcasm, a bit of, “What are you doing?” Like, “What are you doing? Think about what you’re doing. Stop.” How is that going to work? How is deviating from the process I gave you… It’s very simple. How is deviating from that process gonna help you and help me? You’re killing our service right now. [chuckle] So I think that chefs can be very tough teachers but I also think that they teach toughness and that sometimes the price for being able to learn toughness is to have a tough teacher. Does that make sense?
Brett McKay: Yeah. That makes sense. Well, let’s kind of continue this idea of communication, because in the corporate world, that’s where a lot of inefficiencies are emails, okay someone’s on Slack, did you get my phone call, did you get the memo? Do people still fax maybe. There’s multiple streams of communication going on. You can’t have that in the Kitchen. Everyone’s gotta be in the same stream, so how do chefs manage communication in the kitchen so that everyone knows what’s going on?
Dan Charnas: Well, the system is called call and call back. You’ve heard it, if you’ve never seen a movie or a clip of a professional kitchen. The chef will act as, in many ways, as expeditor, meaning the person who calls out the orders as they come in, and the chef actually is the traffic cop. He directs the flow of work in the kitchen. So an order will come in from the dining room and the chef will call out to the line cooks, the people who actually make the food, “Two lamb medium rare, two salads and one fillet.” And so the grill person will have to call back, “Yes, chef. Two lamb medium rare, one fillet.” And then the garde manger will say, “Yes, chef. Two salads.”
And there are two parts of that communication. The first is the call back, letting the chef know that they’ve received that information, and it also puts it in their own mind ’cause they have to remember that stuff, but also Yes, chef. Right, and that isn’t just about subordinating yourself to someone, it’s actually about what the chef owes you. Because what the chef is going to do that your corporate boss won’t always do, and I’ll give you a good example of this, is protect you from too much work. The chef is not gonna let the grill get flooded, swamped or slammed. They’re gonna pace the orders so that the cooks can do their job and deliver.
And what I have found in many bad companies or poorly run companies in which I have worked, is that you will have a senior manager who goes into a meeting with the president of the company, and there’s some new directive that comes down for a good reason or maybe it’s just a thought that the CEO had. And then the senior manager goes to the middle manager and says, “Okay, well, everybody needs to drop what they’re doing and do this.” And you say to your boss, “You wanted me to finish this thing, but now you want me to drop it and do this. I can’t deliver both of these in time.” Well, nope, sorry, gotta do it. We all gotta hunker down around here, we all gotta put in more hours around here. You see the insanity of that is that there is a certain…
In good managers, both in the kitchen and in the professional office, there is a sense of responsibility downward, that you do have to protect and respect the things that make the people who work for you efficient and inefficient. And in corporations, a lot of that time it’s about whim and whimsy, and doing things because the boss just told you to do them and there’s no push back on it, it’s just like the employees are just this endless well into which management can dip and it’s infuriating. And I didn’t really see another way until I saw the professional kitchen, because a chef can’t play magical thinking with her own time, and so she can’t do that with her cooks either, because she knows. She knows that time doesn’t work like that. It’s not a bottomless pit. It’s not an endless well in which there is no bottom. There is gonna be a bottom, and I think that’s one of the great hidden things, hidden blessings of mise en place.
Brett McKay: Well, it sounds like, yeah, chefs have squared the circle with… ‘Cause yeah, like you said a lot of people don’t realize when they’re managing like a chef, they have two people they are taking care of. They got the customer they gotta take care of, but the customer interest sometimes conflict with the workers interest, but the chefs have to figure out how to balance those two competing interests so that everyone has an enjoyable evening and work gets done.
Dan Charnas: Yeah, and that’s why the chef gets the big bucks. It’s not to just dump work on folks. You really do… The respect goes both ways, I often… One of the things, one of the conceits of the modern office that I find to be the most abhorrent is this idea that we’re all family. You’ll hear this in a lot of companies, We’re all family here. Please, call me Bob, right? Like, No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. Don’t pretend that it’s a family, don’t pretend that there’s not a hierarchy, don’t pretend that you’re one of us. You’re not. You’re actually a chef, and you have to act like one, and that not only means… Not only means that you have the responsibility to mete out work, but it also means you have the responsibility to protect the growth and the individual mise en place of your workers and to encourage that.
Brett McKay: And then also, as you said earlier, this idea of presence of mise en place. For the chef to be able to know whether the grill line is getting slammed, he has to be aware, but also he has to be aware, are we running out of ingredients, do we need to prep more stuff for that? So how do they… Is that just something that comes with practice, they develop that ability to know what’s going on in all parts of the kitchen?
Dan Charnas: You know, there’s a line from Bill Murray’s movie, Groundhog Day, where he said, Maybe God, maybe God isn’t omniscient. Maybe he’s just been around so long that he just knows everything. He’s learned everybody’s names and knows how everything works. A chef is just a cook who’s been around for a long, long time and has developed some sensory and sometimes extra sensory things. So yeah, there is a point where mastery sets in, and maybe that list is in your head because it’s just been in there day after day after day after day, but what gets you to that point are the good habits of mise en place. The good habits of the checklist in the calendar, the good habits of cleaning as you go, the good habits of starting immediately, the good habits of finishing, all of those things go into that mastery.
Brett McKay: Well, what’s amazing with, you’ve taken all this stuff and you do this at the end of the book, you’ve actually created an organizational system. You’ve become like a Stephen Covey or a David Allen, and you’ve created… And I found it really useful. I’ve already been using some of these principles, but big picture, what does it involve? Is it just sort of daily planning and just putting these things we’ve been talking about into practice?
Dan Charnas: Yeah, for me, it shakes out as an unshakable daily commitment, 30 minutes a day to cleaning my station, whether that station is my actual desktop or my computer or my phone. That things are gonna get taken care of. And actually just a little plug, one of the tools that I found really, really helpful lately for managing email is this new service called Hey, hey.com.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I saw your email and I was like, What is this? I checked it out. It was pretty cool.
Dan Charnas: Yeah, it comes the closest I’ve seen to getting you to a place of cleanliness with your inbox situation. It still takes maintenance, there’s no algorithm that’s gonna do it for you, that’s why a lot of these sort of calendar things like, Your calendar will schedule your lunch time for you. Like, Give me a break. AI is not going to do it, it’s just not. You have to do it, you are the one who has to clean every day. You have to clean your station, you have to plan your life. You have to make the choices, Do I do this today or do I not do this today? It doesn’t work any other way.
You can use tools, there are always tools that will help us do that, but ultimately you are the person who has to do it. So the way that it shows up for me is I sit down at my desk and I go through… I clean all my tools, take the receipts out of my wallet, put them in the Inbox, take stuff out of my bag that I have for the day, put it in the inbox so that I’m not looking for stuff all day long. Everything is in one place, and then I take the stuff out of my inbox and put it where it’s supposed to go.
I look at my calendar, I make sure that I don’t have too much to do that day, I make sure the things I wanna do are squared with my schedule, and everything that I feel like I can’t do today, I move to the next day or a few days after. Just because you gotta do it, otherwise, you’re gonna let your calendar make that choice for you.
Brett McKay: Well, Dan, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Dan Charnas: You can go to workclean.com, all one word. W-O-R-K-C-L-E-A-N dot com, or alternately, everything.place. And there’s more information about the book and the system there.
Brett McKay: Alright, well, Dan Charnas, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Dan Charnas: Oh, pleasure here.
Brett McKay: Like I said, it was Dan Charnas, he’s the author of the book, Everything In Its place, it’s available on Amazon.com and book stores everywhere. You can find out more information about his work at his website, workclean.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/workclean and you’ll find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM podcast. Check out our website at artofmanliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives as well as thousand of articles written over the years about pretty much anything you could think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code MANLINESS at check out for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up download the stitcher app on Android or iOS and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast. If you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcast or Stitcher, it helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or a family member who you think will get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time this is Brett McKay reminding you not only listen to AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.