Free The Pizza says: Here's how to win the pizza-making mind game with a little mise en place and some useful psychobabble.
Don’t hate me because it’s French. Mise en place is a phrase that’s used in kitchens around the world. Mise en place can change your game in more ways than you imagine. And as a bonus, mise en place also refers to something you never expected. It involves psychology and is going to mess with your head in a good way. I promise.
If you don’t know mise en place, here’s a rough phonetic pronunciation that will probably get me into trouble with my high-school French teacher (she was an American chauvinist for France who had no sense of humor and always wore double-knit slacks): you say it “meez on plass.” Or, as the pros say in pro kitchen slang, “Meez.” Like, “How’s your mis?” Or, “Is your mis ready?” Contrary to popular myth, it has nothing to do with Les Mis-erables.
Mise en place literally translates to “setting in place.” It’s about preparing your kitchen work space. All your ingredients and tools must be easily reachable. That way, when you cook, the things you require are ready and waiting at your fingertips.
I started thinking about mis en place because I’ve been making endless batches of NY-style pizza dough for the NY Pizza Project. (That’s the working title for the next book, which is about making New York style pizza. And yes, it really is possible using your home oven.) The test dough requires tweaking and experimentation, and has been a fascinating process.
But my mise en place has not been what it should be. When I’m actually baking pizza for a group, I have all the dough and the dozen or so toppings all lined up for the four or five pizzas I’m making. Also, all the tools are ready (peels, ladle, serving trays, pizza cutter, etc). If this doesn’t happen, I’m screwed. This is preparation so rigorous, a Boy Scout should be humbled by it.
But lately, with my New York dough, I’ve been a slacker. I’ve been working too much on the fly. So I’ve been making stupid mistakes, like using too little of an ingredient or forgetting another.
Because of this knucklehead paradigm, I’ve gone back to lining up everything I need before beginning work on the dough. That includes having all tools ready, and all ingredients measured and in bowls. (The measured flour goes into a big bowl and the measured water into a smaller bowl. The small measures like yeast and salt and sugar go into pinch bowls, which is enormously helpful and makes you feel like a pro, getting ‘em all mise en place.)
Going back to mise en place has been great for my head. And this leads to the psychobabble portion of today’s proceedings: psychologists use the expression mise en place in a way that is surprising but relevant.
In psychology, mise en place is about setting the stage for thinking and taking action. It has been used in the context of learning environments. It could probably be applied to the workplace. I’m applying it to the kitchen.
And for someone who is making pizza, setting the stage is key. How you feel about a place affects how you feel about being able to work within that place.
I propose that physical mise en place prepares you for a psychological mise en place that lets you make a better pizza. The successes can range from something as simple as making pizza that’s actually round, to not making accidental calzones, to being able to sling half a dozen pies for friends in one evening in a strange kitchen without breaking a sweat.
Preparing the space physically is the first step to preparing your head mentally. When you own the kitchen psychologically, when you control it, you get to control how you perform within it. Having all your tools and ingredients where you need them gives you great liberty: it frees your mind to visualize how everything else is going to go.
I find that I usually start with a visualization of who’s coming to dinner. I see what they’re going to be eating and how I’m going to be serving it to them. Then I have a mental montage of the pizzas to come. And I can see myself making all those pizzas without having to think about it. They just come together quickly and easily.
One of the most common problems newbies describe is not being able to make a round pizza. I find that the most common problem with making a pizza round is overthinking it. Begin with the assumption that a pizza is going to be round. When you can visualize it, that goes a long way towards solving it.
After you stretch the dough and put it on the peel, it’s just not round. (Mine never are.) But all I do is rearrange the dough. Push it around until it forms a circle. Done! Yes, sometimes it’s rounder than others. It takes some practice. I still make the occasional amoeba. Usually, though, it’s a round pizza that’s slid into the oven with a bit too much energy. It gets a flat side after hitting up against the back wall. (Did that last night, in fact.) So what? You’re making pizza for people. It’s fresh, it’s tasty, it’s probably better than any pizza they’ve ever had, and even if it’s not, it’s better than any other pizza they could possibly get tonight. It’s FRESH!
Setting the stage with your tools and ingredients lets you set a stage for your head. And in a place like pizza, where your performance is everything, a place for everything and everything in its place is powerful.
Mis en place. It’s what’s for dinner—in your head.
If you want to get your head wrapped more around pizza mind, check out www.FreeThePizzaBook.com
Blaine Parker is the award-winning author of the bestselling, unusual and amusing how-to pizza book, Free The Pizza. Also known as The Pizza Geek and "Hey, Pizza Man!", Blaine is fanatical about the idea that true, pro-quality pizza can be made at home. His home. Your home. Anyone's home. After 20 years of honing his craft and making pizza in standard consumer ovens across the nation, he's sharing what he's learned with home cooks like you. Are you ready to pizza?
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