Hey all, Ernie here with a fresh piece from Andrew Egan, who brings his knowledge of restaurants to a fresh Tedium piece. Read it in order.
Today in Tedium: In the absence of ordinary things, how little we understand them becomes much more apparent. Technology is a great example. The average person would be hard pressed to explain how a computer or smartphone actually works in any meaningful way, despite using them on a near daily basis. But technology’s change of pace yields a sense of wonder that makes us at least question how it basically works. When something ordinary has largely been static for several generations, almost no one questions them anymore, even if the consequences are damning. Today’s Tedium is taking a look at mise en place, an organizational method so ubiquitous that nearly every restaurant in the world uses it. — Andrew @ Tedium
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“Food history is as important as a baroque church. Governments should recognize cultural heritage and protect traditional foods. A cheese is as worthy of preserving as a sixteenth-century building.”
— A quote attributed to Carlo Petrini, an Italian editor known as one of the most influential food writers in modern times. Like many elements of food history, this quote is apocryphal. Attributed but not confirmed, the sentiment has become a part of haute food culture.
The history of food is more story than history
In many ways, the history of humanity is the history of food. And much like the history of humanity, we know astoundingly little about the history of food.
To be sure, modern creations are well documented. The cesar salad is a recent invention by a Tijuana, Mexico restaurant owner and Italian immigrant named Cesar Cardini. You can still get an original cesar salad today (yes, even during the pandemic but please adhere to responsible travel guidelines). However, if you go back just a little further, stories about common foods become a little hazier. One the one hand, you have the well-documented creation of the chocolate chip cookie at the Toll House Inn by Ruth Graves Wakefield in 1938. Then there is the largely apocryphal story from the late 19th century about the creation of the potato chip at a restaurant in upper New York state.
Origins of common foods and recipes before the mid-19th century are often qualified with words like “probably” or “most likely”, as in “Ratatouille most likely originated in southern France, near Nice, as a peasant dish during the summer months when various vegetables were readily available.”
This raises a lot of questions about what we actually know about our foods and the history behind serving them. We at Tedium have taken a few looks at various elements of food service and its history. The history behind restaurants is actually far more convoluted than we previously thought. Case in point, this brief history of the “brigade technique” that is usually used in fine dining restaurants around the world. Dedicated, world-class chefs tend to know about the history of their industry in terms of oral history passed down during baking sessions in culinary school or downtime while prepping for the dinner rush. The Culinary Institute of America doesn’t require, or even offer, classes in the history of restaurants or food. Strangely, they do offer a class on the American constitution.
The “brigade technique” originates in 19th century France from famed chef Georges-Auguste Escoffier, a former military cook who had apprenticed in famed eateries before being drafted. After his service, Escoffier returned to Parisian kitchens armed with a military influenced organizational method that emphasized hierarchy, preparation, and cleanliness. As international chefs flocked to France to learn from their now famous masters, the “brigade technique” went global. Executive chef and sous chefs, followed by individual stations has become the norm pretty much everywhere. Even in chain restaurants.
But if you know anything about higher end commercial restaurants (I’m sure there are dozens of you that read Tedium) you might be wondering what place mise en place has in all of this.
“Women who can survive and prosper in such a high-testosterone universe are all too rare.”
— A quote from Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, the debut memoir that launched the chef turned media personality into a star. In a 20th anniversary retrospective on the book, a Ringer writer noted the problematic depiction of women in the industry in Bourdain’s now classic but ultimately placed the blame more on a sense of “damaged manhood” that is prevalent in “restaurant culture”. Or, just in general I guess.
What we are really talking about when talk about mise en place
With the rise of celebrity chefs and the introduction of cameras into commercial kitchens, the wider audience quickly learned these people and these jobs often suck. Restaurants can be nasty places, not necessarily in the hygienic sense but definitely that too, staffed with people forged in a fire of pettiness and grease. Some people love it, others flee.
The “brigade technique” is often used to justify the verbal, and often physical and worse, abuse that takes place in high pressure kitchens. While the “brigade technique” is supposed to refer to the larger organizational operations that make a restaurant successful, mise en place is how chefs actually get the work done.
To put it simply, it’s kitchen prep. Before you start cooking, even preheating you have your ingredients prepared or at least ready for their inclusion. You organize before you prepare. In a commercial kitchen, this looks like a line station. A place where whatever you need, diced onion, etc, is there waiting for you to use. At home, this looks like a series of bowls. If this seems obvious, well, sure. However, the French took a simple idea and elevated it to an artform worthy of its own elegant phrase.
An NPR article on chefs’ devotion to the practice found that, “… for many culinary professionals, the phrase connotes something deeper. Some cooks call it their religion. It helps them coordinate vast amounts of labor and material, and transforms the lives of its practitioners through focus and self-discipline.”
The article found some chefs with mise en place tattoos and many following the practice in their personal lives. A student at the Culinary Institute of America went so far as to say, “You mise-en-place your life. You set up your books for class, you set up your chef whites, your shoes are shined, you know everything that you need every step of the day.”
This does lead to a bit of a chicken and the egg scenario between the “brigade system” and mise en place. In noting the similarities between the two, NPR found, “Some chefs say that mise-en-place is nothing more than a kitchen version of good old-fashioned military discipline. After all, the rigid culinary hierarchy codified in the 19th century by Georges-Auguste Escoffier is called the “brigade system.”
And this is the problem. The only real source of information about the history of restaurants and kitchen techniques ultimately rely on hearsay from the only people who seem to know. Scholarly work on the history of food, especially restaurants, is almost nonexistent. In the absence of that authority, the closest thing we have gets to write history as it sees fit.
It’s no wonder that restaurant chefs would trace their history to militaries rather than the mothers that likely cooked for them. There is no shortage of articles detailing the difficulties women have in modern kitchens, fine dining or otherwise. The level of abuse anyone faces walking into a kitchen is stunning, but it tends to become especially vicious when directed at female staff. The abuse directed toward men tends to question intelligence or sexuality. I’ve seen otherwise inarticulate men turn into Winston Churchill when yelling at their female counterparts.
The “brigade system/technique” and mise en place are but two of the mechanisms that have been used to justify the lack of women in kitchens. The first internationally renowned restaurants were established in a time when women were excluded from most work except a few token fields. The work involved in both systems means routinely having to haul 30 to 50 pounds of prepared meat or vegetables across a busy kitchen packed with people that hate you. Men decided for women that this was no environment for a woman.
Over time, the famed techniques of French kitchens became commonplace everywhere. Even McDonald’s famed “Speedee” system is basically mise en place and the “brigade technique” on steroids. These practices are so revered that changing them is often considered heresy. What is so disingenuous about professional chefs’ claim to military heritage is how terrible military food is, regardless of time or culture. Instances of aristocratic officers eating well are numerous but military food is almost universally, historically, comically terrible.
But more fascinating is watching ratatouille being made. If you haven’t before:
Even a super simplified version of that, like the kind made by “peasants” 60 years before mainstream restaurants developed, would involve a pretty elaborate understanding of mise en place. Though the “peasants” may not have had a phrase for how they made dinner.
If you’re wondering why I wasted your time talking about the history of food and the role French cooking techniques play in abusive environments, well, the answer is simple. My girlfriend recently got a Disney+ account and I saw Ratatouille for the first time. (Wow, that end monologue hits!) The subsequent rabbit hole led to some reflections on my own time in the hospitality industry. It also made me realize that even the most basic restaurant experience is at best endangered if not a thing of the past entirely, which is probably for the best.
We get to create a different model, one that is more welcoming and not based on adrenaline, fear, and abuse. Motivation is a good thing but when it comes from a whip, literal or otherwise, it helps no one.
In the meantime, many restaurants will close and a lot of people will lose their jobs. Some percent will leave the field entirely. Some will remain and rebuild the industry.
Hopefully, new models and techniques rise to the forefront.
Thanks again to Andrew for another excellent piece.