Book Summary: The productivity secret of top chefs.

Everything in Its Place: The Power of Mise-En-Place to Organize Your Life, Work, and Mind

by Dan Charnas

In this book, journalist Dan Charnas explains how we can manage our work more effectively using the principles found in most professional kitchens around the world. A philosophy and approach to work called “mise en place” (pronounced “MEEZ ahn plahs”).

Early in our careers, we often struggle to handle all the work at the office because we haven’t been trained on how to do it. College and professional school don’t prepare us for this major aspect of life–how to manage projects, set priorities, and create order. Work and workplace organizing skills are necessities in the modern world, yet, we are given minimal guidance and support, then expected to navigate the chaos of the world of work.

Charnas spent over two years researching for the book, including over 100 interviews with culinary professionals in their restaurants and at leading culinary schools. “Working clean” is a term that Charnas uses to describe an approach to work using the various aspects of mise en place.

The book is organized into three “courses.” The first discusses the world of work with and without mise en place. The second covers the ten “ingredients” of working clean. The last course offers suggestions about putting these ideas to work in your life.

The book is organized into three “courses.” The first discusses the world of work with and without mise en place. The second covers the ten “ingredients” of working clean. The last course offers suggestions about putting these ideas to work in your life.

“Mise-en-place is not about focus, but rather negotiating focus and chaos.”

— Dan Charnas

This summary reflects my takeaways from a useful book I recommend to others. Reading a summary isn’t a substitute for reading the book. There’s much more than I can cover here. Plus, this is my interpretation. If these ideas resonate with you, I encourage you to get a copy of the book from your favorite bookseller. Here are the Amazon links: eBook | Audiobook | Print


The professional kitchen and the office share some striking similarities. Both workplaces experience deadline pressures, resource challenges, and tasks that come in waves. Workers in both environments face a stream of assignments and requests, seeming not to have enough time to process them and multiple tasks requiring their attention simultaneously.

Professional kitchens have a near-universal system for managing the work. It’s a system for getting ahead of that onslaught, managing the busy times with some calm, and delivering an excellent product in the face of whatever the day throws at them. That system is called “mise en place.”

“Mise en place,” loosely translated, is French for “in its place” or “to put in place.” Professional chefs use it to stay organized. More than steps in a recipe, it’s a way to manage your time, tools, resources, and yourself.

Mise en place is a philosophy, system, and professional code with three fundamental values: preparation, process, and presence.

  • Preparation — It’s about planning the work from the macro (e.g., kitchen layout and menu design) down to the micro (e.g., the precise placement of each ingredient on each plate) and everything in between. Advanced preparation of the ingredients and setting them up at each workstation. Gathering the tools and utensils for each dish and arranging them to ensure quality, speed, and efficiency. Preparation is fundamental; it’s not an add-on or an afterthought.
  • Process — It’s about arranging space, organizing, and sequencing the work. Starting and finishing on schedule. Using precise movements that economize effort and minimize waste.
  • Presence — It’s a mindset and set of principles and practices. Being present in what you are doing and the workflow and your interactions with and handoffs to your teammates. Awareness that is both internal and external.

It’s a system of thinking, organizing, and conduct that’s followed with almost religious fervor in the culinary world. You’ll find mise en place employed in professional kitchens around the globe, even where the term is not part of the language.

Its values and behaviors are not about cooking but about achieving excellence. The goal of mise en place is excellence, which Charnas suggests is “quality delivered.”

Georges-Auguste Escoffier, a late 19th- early 20th-century chef, is credited with the concept. Besides elevating French cuisine to global prominence, he turned restaurant cooking into culinary art.

Both chefs and office professionals deal with immersive time and process time.

  • Immersive time involves tasks that require you to be hands-on, engaged in completing the task at hand, giving it your full attention, and mostly without the involvement of other people or external processes.
  • Process time involves tasks that are more hands-off and dependent on other contributors. You might start the process — or contribute to it along the way — then something or somebody takes over from you, freeing your attention for other things.

Process time is often more valuablethan immersive time because it leverages something or somebody else’s energy and efforts. Tasks we perform under process time unlock the work of others.

Checklists are the chef’s “external brain.” Checklists do three things: First, they help plan our actions. Second, guide the implementation of those actions. Third, help us identify what worked and change what didn’t.

Cleaning is more than hygiene. It’s a ritual for clearing one’s mind. And it’s a way of transitioning between tasks and preparing for what’s next. In a larger sense, cleaning is a visual and visceral reminder that you are an organized person. It’s cleaning for cleanliness and as a spiritual practice — the foundation for excellence. Cleaning helps maintain the mise-en-place organization system, especially when things get hectic.

Working clean is about the pursuit of excellence. And excellence comes from pursuing better processes, constantly asking, “how can I do this better, or easier, or with less waste?” Excellence also comes from working on ourselves. Not just improving our ability to execute these processes but improving who we are and who we aspire to be.

Cleanliness and order aren’t the only aspects of working clean. It involves having clear values and practicing them. Holding yourself to high standards. Making sure your habits are conducive to success. And maintaining good habits amid a world that tempts you to abandon them.

Early actions count more. Actions taken earlier often have more impact than those taken later because the results of early actions have more time to come to fruition.

Chefs can teach us about cutting waste. The tolerance for waste—time, space, talent, personal energy, and resources—is much higher in the office environment than in the professional kitchen.

Use placeholders to keep track of actions and priorities. During hectic times, it’s hard to keep track of all the “dishes” we need to cook. Chefs use markers, such as a pan on a back burner or something else in their visual field, as reminders of the dishes in the queue (action) and what needs to be cooked next (priority). Similarly, we can use placeholders — a checklist entry or a physical object sitting in view — to keep track of our next actions and reduce the friction of figuring out what’s next.

Develop a finishing mindset. Only when the plate is delivered to the customer is its value realized. The operative question in starting anything is when and how will I finish? What does successful completion look like?

Avoid orphaned tasks, which are partially completed tasks. And especially partially completed tasks for which you haven’t left yourself a clear marker about where to resume the work when you can get back to it. As unfinished tasks accumulate, they clutter the mind and make it difficult to focus. Don’t start what you cannot finish. But if you cannot finish, to minimize the mental effort required to resume, leave your “future self” a clear marker for where to begin and what’s next.

Dealing with perfectionism. Perfectionism and striving for perfection are different things. Perfectionists and strivers aspire toward the same ideal of excellence — something of the highest quality. Strivers focus on the delivery of quality. Perfectionists get hung up on its creation.

Slow down to speed up. Faced with a flurry of work or a looming deadline, the human tendency is to rush or panic. This causes sloppy movements, lost focus, and forgetting things. When this happens in the kitchen, cooks take a moment to wipe down their stations. It gets them to breathe, calms the mind, steadies the body, and refocuses their attention on what needs to be done.

Confirm what you heard and affirm what you’ll do. The professional kitchen uses a system of “call and call back.” The chef or the expediter will call out the orders to the line cooks. The line cooks then confirm what they heard and their action. How many critical conversations are you having without confirming what you heard and affirming what you plan to do?

Inspect and correct. There are multiple layers of quality control in a high-end professional kitchen, from the line cook preparing the ingredients to the expediter or chef who reviews the plate before it’s sent to the dining room. This not only spots problems with individual plates but more significant problems such as a line cook who misunderstood the directions or something happening within the team. These real-time reviews provide intelligence that the chef can use. How much is quality control built into your systems?

Spaces are arranged to maximize efficiency and minimize the physical movements the chef must make.

Prioritize then sequence. When faced with overwhelming work, conventional wisdom says to prioritize, then focus on the important thing first. But sequencing is how that important thing gets accomplished – how the work gets done. Priority signals importance. Sequence organizes action. Both are critical to getting the “right thing” done.

Come to terms with time. Chefs sequence the actions and square that sequence against the clock. They create timelines so they know precisely how long it will take to prepare a dish, identify things that require longer lead times, and prepare those in advance. It’s not just about getting the right things done, but getting them done on time. That requires an honest relationship with time – with what can and cannot be accomplished.

Those who over plan battle with time while those who underplan surrender to it. It makes no sense to fight or surrender to time, which, like gravity, must be embraced. The key to an honest relationship with time is determining the necessary actions, sequencing them, and scheduling or timelining them.

Begin planning with “the plate.” Think like a chef for planning complex projects. Start at the end – the plates on the table. Think about the delivery moment for your project, and then work your way backward.

You have one front burner. A project can have only ONE front burner at a time, but as many back burners as there are follow-on tasks.

“By being organized, you will be more efficient. By being more efficient, you will have more time in your day. By having more time in your day, you will be more relaxed in your day; you will be able to accomplish the task at hand in a clear, concise, fluid motion. Like oil on glass.”

— Dwayne LiPuma, Culinary Institute of America

About the book and where to buy it:

Buy the book on Amazon: Ebook | Audiobook | Print*
Amazon rating: 4.4 of 5 stars
Goodreads rating: 4.1 of 5 stars
Page count: 306 pages
Publication date: Dec. 26, 2017
Author website:
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