Alexander and the Art of Vegetable Prep

My friend Ben commented the other day on one of my posts, “I would love to know how you would prep vegetables in the Alexander way.” It got me to thinking.

One way to Alexanderize vegetable prep is to look at the relationship of the cook’s head, neck and back during the actions of cooking. A kitchen is a challenging environment to move around in. It’s not just the sharp knives and the heat of the stove. It’s the height of the counter and the fact that you’re looking down towards the food much of the time. Everyone develops different habits in the kitchen. Ben is in Brazil, so I can’t elaborate on his habits in the kitchen right now. But an Alexander approach to cooking would look at his habits in the kitchen and then help him find ease in his head, neck and back while he’s wielding his knife.

But Alexander is also about process—the thinking that enables our freedom in movement. Something you should know about Ben is that he’s a great cook—he’s been to culinary school and everything. So as I was thinking of what to say in response to his comment, I realized—wait a second, he already knows how to Alexanderize vegetable prep because he knows about mise en place.

One of the best discussions of mise en place that I’ve read recently is from Michael Ruhlman’s cookbook, Ruhlman’s Twenty. I pulled it out tonight and the discussion is so Alexandrian that I thought I would quote a lot of it:

Cooking is an infinitely nuanced series of actions, the outcome of which is dependent on countless variables… Because all the variables in cooking can never be accounted for, whether you’re cooking from a book or cooking by instinct, it stands to reason that the most important first step in the kitchen is simply to think, even if all you’re making is buttered toast...

Before you begin. Stand still. Think.

It’s an incredibly powerful tool… When you’re cooking, imagine what is about to happen. Imagine what you expect to happen. Imagine what you expect something to look like. A piece of meat in a sauté pan—how seared should it look? What should the oil look like before you put the meat in the pan? If it doesn’t match up with the image in your head, ask yourself why… Think about what you’re cooking. Stay ahead of it.

Organize and prepare. These are the two critical acts in the kitchen, and they happen by thinking first. Begin any task with these two acts—organize and prepare—and you’re on your way. Ignore them and you’ve put yourself at risk even before you’ve begin. Ninety-five percent of kitchen failures can be traced back to a failure to organize and prepare at the outset.

Restaurant kitchens have a French term for organization and preparation—and it’s every bit as useful in a home kitchen—mise en place.

Mise en place (MEEZ ohn plahs) translate literally to “put in place,” but what it really means is “organize and prepare.” It means everything in its place, on your countertop, beside your stove, on your stove, and, most critically, in your mind…

The importance of mise en place cannot be overstated. It doesn’t mean simply putting all your ingredients in ramekins on your cutting board or next to your stove (let alone, if you’re following a recipe, to have read the recipe all the way through). It’s ultimately about thinking. Organizing your mise en place forces you to think through your actions, to plan in your mind the course of your actions.

The second mandate in the ethos of mise en place, one that is rarely made explicit, is to recognize not only what you need in front of you, but also what does not belong, what should not be on your board, beside the stove, in your brain.

One of the keys to successful cooking is to remove the obstacles that may be in your path. Clear your way. If cooking is an unbroken series of actions, one motion leading to another leading to another, then it should be obvious that any obstacles that might trip up those actions ought to be removed before you begin. Clear your path, and you are less likely to stumble. This means having all your ingredients before you and having the mixing bowl out so that you don’t have to interrupt your cooking to hunt for it. It also means removing anything extraneous from your work area. Get rid of that shopping list, empty glass of milk, and car keys on your counter. Even if the objects are out of your way but still in your vision, remove them…

There are all kinds of home cooks—people who cook to unwind; people who cook as a hobby; people who cook because they want to feed their family healthful, tasty, economical meals; and people who cook because it’s the least objectionable option in fulfilling a daily need. Regardless of what kind of cook you are, the most basic rules apply. First and foremost is that cooking is easier, faster, more efficient, more successful, and more fun when you think first, when you prepare and organize, when you set up your mise en place.

There’s a lot of overlap between Alexander work and skillful cooking. I think that at a pretty basic level it’s because both are about skillful action guided by a perceiving mind. In the case of the cook, one who is watching, smelling, listening and tasting. But I also think there’s something about heat: once the food is on the burner, it’s hard to turn back. So the control you have is in the preparation.

And the same is true in movement. Skillful movement is prepared: not just in the broad sense of being prepared—like an actor knowing her lines or a musician knowing the music. It’s that control of the movement is in the preparation to the movement. To improve how you move, start with how you prepare to move. If there’s tension in the anticipation to move, let it go. Then the movement might even take care of itself.