Posts tagged Cooking
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.


Alexander & Cooking: Is Only the Exhaustive Truly Interesting?

It was winter term my third year at Oberlin when the cooking thing really took off. There were 8 of us that January who decided to forego the dorm meal plan and cook in a commandeered second floor kitchen of South dorm. We stored all of our cooking gear in a giant red suitcase that I’d inherited from my grandmother, dragging it clanging down the dorm’s psychedelic hallway carpeting each afternoon around 5:00. I’d grown up helping my parents cook, but that winter term was the first time that I’d got so involved in all aspects of cooking. An inherited copy of the San Francisco Junior League Cookbook proved especially popular: the shrimp in tomato sauce with basil and feta served over angel hair pasta; lasagna noodles cooked, spread with pesto, rolled up into pinwheels and baked. There were some misfires: we improvised the seasoning of a vegetable soup, tossing in a teaspoon or two of every spice we owned until the broth tasted like soap.

When I graduated and moved to Minneapolis I was on my own for the first time. It took me a couple months before I learned to scale down the recipes and not cook for a crowd. That Christmas my mom got me the new edition of The Joy of Cooking, my first real cookbook, and I followed family members around all vacation, reading to them about the differences between black, oolong, and green teas, and how the English say aubergine, not eggplant. Back in Minneapolis after the holiday, I made up for the loneliness of cooking solo with the ambition of trying something new—at least there was less embarrassment when you screwed up. I overcooked my first roast chicken. Burned rice to the bottom of the pan. Dried out a cake. Broke mayonnaise.

This was also when I first started studying the Alexander Technique and I think there were overlapping drives between my interest in studying Alexander and my cooking obsession: the pleasure of eating well and feeling good after an Alexander lesson; wanting to refine my palette and deepen my self-perception; the desire to really understand—whether it was how food came together or how I moved. These proclivities were reinforced by my violin teacher, Jorja Fleezanis, and her husband, Michael Steinberg. They constantly involved us students in their meals, whether casual dinners or holiday festivities. I tried to match their example, making dishes that I hoped would impress. I may have made my first pie—the first time without my mom, at least—in advance of having Thanksgiving at their house. At some point that year, Michael turned to me and in his droll lilt said, “Thomas Mann once wrote, ‘Only the exhaustive is truly interesting.'” Well, if all else fails, I remember thinking, at least Thomas Mann understands me.

When I left Minnesota for grad school and to train as an Alexander teacher in Urbana, my closest friendships were forged through food and cooking. It was also when I became aware of the wave of cooking educators: Alton Brown and Good Eats, Christopher Kimball and Cooks Illustrated, Michael Ruhlman’s Making of a Chef, and Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking. The point wasn’t just to follow a recipe: it was to understand the techniques and science behind it. At some point during my Alexander training I was browsing through the cooking section of a favorite bookstore and came across this quote in The Way to Cook by Julia Child, the patron saint of all cooking gurus:

Wherever possible [in this book], I have put things together by method—veal chops are with pork chops because they cook the same way. Chicken stew in red wine is with turkey-wing ragout and rabbit stew—if you can do one, you can do the others because they are assembled, simmered, and sauced the same way. It makes sense to me, also, that all braised meats be grouped together so that their similarities are clearly evident...The technique is what’s important here, and when you realize a stew is a stew is a stew, and a roast is a roast whether it be beef, lamb, pork, or chicken, cooking begins to make sense.

It was worth practicing a recipe to understand the technique behind it. When you understood the technique, you could cook any recipe that used that technique. You might even be able to write a recipe of your own!

At the time, we were reading Alexander’s fourth book, and I was struck by the similarity between Julia Child’s words and his “working to principle.”

Learning to “do” by this procedure is not learning to “do” exercises in a trial-and-error plan, but learning to work to a principle, not only in using the self but in the application of the technique outside the self. A person who learns to work to a principle in doing one exercise will have learned to do all exercises, but the person who learns just to “do an exercise” will most assuredly have to go on learning to “do exercises” ad infinitum.

In the Alexander Technique, the procedure is practiced to understand the principle involved: principles of efficient movement and principles of constructive learning. Once the principle is learned, it can be applied to any procedure.

In the Alexander Technique, the procedure is practiced to understand the principle involved: principles of efficient movement and principles of constructive learning. Once the principle is learned, it can be applied to any procedure.

What excited me most about this connection was a shift in attention. The time spent cooking was the same, but my mind was heightened to the connections between this dish and another. A simple breakfast of scrambled eggs taught me the process that also thickened the custard in my ice cream dessert. From kneading bread dough I learned how gluten forms, and why I should use a lighter touch with pie dough so that the crust was flaky, not tough. My Alexander insights were more complex. I was making connections between how I moved and how I learned through many disciplines: performing as a violinist and my novice attempts at teaching Alexander, swimming and biking, even the tilt of my head and swing of my arm when wielding a knife in my kitchen.

There’s a zeal to making connections and among my favorite cookbook authors, an edge of contempt for the mere follower of recipes. In his tome on baking, I’m Just Here for More Food, Alton Brown organizes his recipes by mixing method. Each method is described only once, at the beginning of the chapter—“which you will commit to memory,” he declares in the introduction.

Lots of recipe books basically repeat the same instructions over and over. They do this because it’s traditional and because they assume that you are not learning anything. I’m going to assume that you will.

Whether you thrill at this exhortation (as I do) or find it off-putting is largely a matter of intention. If your goal is to become the best possible cook, it can be incredibly exciting to be working in this way. If your goal is simply to put dinner on the table, it's a bit too much.

When I’m at home visiting my family, the discussions around what’s-for-dinner begin with, “Let’s keep it simple!” This is a preventive measure aimed at my historic tendency to deliver over-elaborate dinners three hours late when everyone is too limp with hunger to appreciate it. I have gradually acquired the pleasure of simple dinners, made with whatever’s in the fridge.

A similar shift has occurred in my Alexander teaching practice. When I finally certified as a teacher 11 years ago, I had been studying the Alexander Technique intensively for 4 ½ years. I could not identify with students who came to me who were only interested in 10 lessons, much less 6. While I still thrill at the students who become enthusiasts—studying three times a week for the first three months and then once a week for several years—I am just as engaged by students who are more tentative. Every bit of learning has value. Not only the exhaustive is interesting.