Wednesday, April 28, 2010

MISE EN PLACE (or so they say)

MISE EN PLACE (or so they say)

Mise en Place

'A French term that literally means, "setting in place." It's used in cooking to describe all the prep and gathering of ingredients before starting the actual cooking process."

I took this definition off the internet and there are several definitions available there if one wishes to do the search.

Mise en place is a French phrase that gets bandied around quite a bit in cooking circles. It has become a newly hip phrase on TV cooking shows and I often hear it used by people attempting to show their kitchen savvy, if not their savoir faire. Essentially it means to have everything you need ready before you start. To cook, to bake, to clean, to write, to do almost anything. I have also seen it defined as "all things in place".

It seems like a simple enough concept. Why wouldn't you have everything ready before you start? Why would you subject yourself to the stress, distraction and lack of focus that having to stop and start, stop and start repeatedly create during your cooking process? Shouldn't one have a list? Shouldn't one be able to create "mise en place" simply from a recipe? Shouldn't this be easy? And what kind of a kitchen geek do I take you for, anyway?

Oddly enough, in my coast to coast travels, and in the many, many restaurants in which I have manned the stoves (I won't bore you with how many; but it's somewhere over 55) it has never ceased to astonish me how many professional cooks don't understand "mise en place". I have seen scores of fresh culinary grads struggling through what may be one of the most horrible parts of a kitchen job, prepping on the fly while orders are already coming in. For some cooks simply being "in the weeds" with too many orders is hellish, but to me, the worst, the most horrible nightmare come true, is trying to make sauces and set up your station while orders are coming in that require ingredients you have not yet made. It gives me shivers and the willies just thinking about it now.

When I worked at the Harvest in Cambridge, MA, our kitchen motto was "Mise en place is God" and while it may be a bit extreme for someone cooking in their home, it isn't far from the truth for any cook in any kitchen. Mise en place is certainly about ingredients and having things at your fingertips. It is about having your pots and pans at the ready; the pasta water boiling; your cutting board firmly anchored and your knives steeled. It is about all those little bins of herbs, your special oils, your pre-made sauces and your portioned fish and meat. But mise en place is also a state of mind and if you don't mind my going all zen on you, a state of being; a state of being ready and knowing it.

For a restaurant cook, this means knowing and understanding your movements from the time the first order comes in. The ingredients most used are closest to where they will be used. The sauces or stocks are lined up so the ladles won't get too hot to grab, but are still close enough to the fire and the pans. The meat or fish are kept cool, but close enough to the grill to be able to oil and season before going onto the heat. Fresh herbs, chopped vegetable garnishes, garlic and other ingredients for assembling pan sauces are within an arms reach and protected so that liquids, oils and flying kitchen debris will stay out of them for the time they are out. And lastly, there is the confidence that twenty, or ten, or even two minutes before the doors open, that these things are ready; they are right and perhaps most importantly, there is enough of each of them.

So yes, professional cooks need all those things, set up just so, because in a professional kitchen we all live and (hopefully not) die several times a night in restaurant that "turns 'em and burns 'em". But this kind of preparation and this kind of awareness are just as useful and as important if one is cooking at home. A simple understanding of the steps you are about to take makes dinner for guests, family or even yourself so much less stressful. I certainly don't know that much about you, but even when I cook for myself, or perhaps particularly when I cook for myself, I like things to proceed smoothly and easily. I may be a bit of an adrenaline junkie, but not when it involves frustration, stress and self abasement. "Aaargh, you moron, you forgot to chop the garlic, or even peel it!".

So get yourself a plan. Think about what you really want to do and how you want it to proceed. And this by no means is an effort to halt the creative process or to squelch your spontaneity. But make it easy on yourself; think about the pots you need, the ingredients you may or perhaps, may not, need. Consider your timing, your distances from table to stove and get yourself focused. Food is art and art is pain, but Picasso knew where all his colors were and how he wanted to apply them. Miles Davis may have improvised, but he knew exactly where he wanted to go. You in your kitchen; professional or home, need to have your own vision of what you wish to do and how to go about it. And remember, "Mise en place is God".

Friday, April 9, 2010


This is my article for the May issue of Dominical Days...


(Or, Power to the Produce)

It used to be, in the olden days of restaurants, that our main course was composed of a giant hunk of protein, a few pedestrian vegetables, a baked potato in tin foil or a scattering of what was called rice pilaf. And that was what you got. It was all about the protein product and not necessarily about your health or piquing your palate. There was, and in some cases, still is not, a consideration to the Plate as a whole.

In these enlightened times, it gives me great joy to be able to put an equal amount of importance on all the things that go on the plates I serve at my restaurant. A dazzling array of beautiful vegetables and starches are available, not just to me, but to all of us. And I can’t help but want to include them and honor them with every meal I serve.

I feel that as a Chef, it is incumbent on me to make each part of the entrée plate as interesting as the other. The fish I serve, in its sauce; fresh from the ocean, should be balanced and complimented by the two, three or four additions to the plate. The vegetables should be seasoned and cooked with the same care as the fish. The starch accompaniment should be a logical and flavorful foil to the entrée that rests against, upon or next to it.

The idea of vegetable or starch sides should be cast aside. The are not “sides”, they are an integral part of an entire plate. We as Chefs owe it to our guests to place as much importance on every flavor that goes on our plates. The gorgeous organic produce available to us should be thought of and treated with the same level of respect that once was given solely to that giant hunk of protein.


When I compose a plate to serve in my restaurant, I try to take into consideration each of the flavors that I will be using and attempt to create a full palate where spicing and textures will be complimentary. I use a lot of local tropical fruits in my cooking and find that ginger, garlic and cilantro are flavors that don’t just stand out, but also act in concert with fruits like mango, pineapple and papaya, to heighten their flavors.

If I’m serving fish I like to use a lot of bright crisp green vegetables because I love their texture alongside the tenderness of the fish with a fruit salsa. Both the crunch of the just cooked bean and the bite of the garlic and ginger act as compliments to the dish. I use this method for cooking the local organic green beans. This method also works nicely with broccoli or bok choy. A cilantro accented green rice (recipe next month) would be great with this.


8 oz. (227 grams) fresh green beans, stem end cut off

4 cloves peeled and chopped garlic

1 piece of ginger the size of the first digit of your thumb, peeled and grated

sesame oil

soy sauce

cooking oil (canola)


Blanch green beans in boiling water for 3-5 minutes (depending on size) and immediately drain and shock in an ice bath.

Heat cooking oil in pan and add garlic, ginger and salt and pepper.Saute until garlic and ginger begin to give off a nice scent and add green beans, still wet from ice bath to the pan.

Toss beans with garlic and ginger and return to heat.Sprinkle a bit of sesame oil and soy over top of beans and heat through.

Remember that the sesame oil is not a cooking oil, but a flavoring oil and should not be added directly to the hot pan.

Monday, April 5, 2010



Semana Santa

It is the Monday after Easter and the first day following Semana Santa. All of us here on the coast are breathing a sigh of relief and listening gratefully to the sound of the door to the Caldera Highway as it slams shut, at least for a week or so. For those of you who have chosen not to live here in beautiful Costa Rica, let me explain Semana Santa to you.

Semana Santa is the Easter week and is the biggest in-country celebration of the year for the Ticos. The country pretty much grinds to a halt and a lot of businesses give their employees the week (or at least a major part of it) off to celebrate and recreate with family and friends. Traditionally, a good part of this celebrating and recreating takes the form of loading all of one's family and much of one's extended family into the vehicle and bringing them out to the beach. After all, Costa Rica is a narrow country and the beach is only a three to four hour drive, either East or West.

As the family will be at the beach for an indeterminate amount of time, but will not be staying anywhere in particular, a great many of the household belongings are brought along. It is not uncommon to see cars packed with bodies, careering down the Costanera (our coastal highway) with not one, but two or three mattresses piled on top and beach furniture lashed to the bumper and trunk. Cookware is brought along, as the family living at the beach will need to eat, and many of the household conveniences are brought along as well. Plastic plates and drinking cups are easily purchased and just as easily discarded on the beach, so those are never a problem. And as the ocean can so easily be used as a receptacle for liquid and solid waste, not much else is needed in the way of paper products.

The general theme of Semana Santa is good fun and I'm all for good fun. When I first arrived in Costa Rica five years ago, I had presumed it was a staunchly Catholic country and as such would celebrate the week of the Resurrection with great solemnity. Somewhat to my surprise I discovered that the Jesus part didn't seem to play a big part in the Semana Santa festivities and that instead they were more centered around the consumption of major quantities of cerveza, a lot of food cooked at the beach and a horrifyingly large amount of fried food eaten from bags.

Additionally, the visiting Ticos never seemed to think all that highly of their "country cousins" (which is how this part of Costa Rica is viewed by the Big City denizens) and their disdain was shown by bad manners in restaurants and stores and particularly and most frighteningly, on the roads. I have driven in Mexico City, I have driven in Paris and I have driven in San Francisco's Chinatown. The driving here during Semana Santa rivals any of them for the fear factor induced by those with whom one shares the road. It is recommended that one proceed cautiously and keep eyes and ears opened for unexpected approaches by those who are, perhaps, less vigilant than ourselves.

But today is Monday. The aisles of the stores are empty, and while they are not fully stocked (particularly lacking in the chip department), the shopping is as close to pleasurable as it gets. The roads are clear and while one still looks to the left and right, one needn't worry so much about vehicles entering from unexpected angles. The shopkeepers look relieved and we are all in agreement that is so much nicer when Semana Santa is over.

Wednesday May 13, 2009 La Cusinga and Me

This words below are from our website describing La Cusinga.  The story, however is much deeper and much richer than these introductory words can describe.  La Cusinga represents a noble and successful effort to preserve this section of unspoiled coast and to keep it alive as a model of what true ecology can accomplish.  The dreams and visions of John Tresemer, the owner of La Cusinga and the Finca Tres Hermanas that surrounds it, have been realized here in what is a true example for all who would preserve and protect what remains of this, or any natural wonder. 

La Cusinga 
La Cusinga Lodge is a coastal rainforest eco lodge dedicated to marine and terrestrial conservation and environmental education. Its location on the southern Pacific coast provides guests with sweeping ocean views and a relaxing beach vacation. In addition La Cusinga is part of a private nature reserve that supplies the visitor with an unparalleled look at Costa Rican wildlife and rainforest. The reserve consists primarily of 250 hectares of virgin rainforest that borders thousands of more acres of privately protected forest. On Costa Rica’s still wild south-western Pacific coast, La Cusinga Lodge borders Ballena Marine National Park which was developed to protect the humpback whales that frequent the coast. La Cusinga Lodge was established in order to share the unique site with Costa Ricans as well as international visitors. Besides getting exposure to rural Costa Rican culture and beautiful vistas, visitors have access to highly prolific areas of primary tropical rainforest and unspoiled coast, all conveniently accessible. 

i returned to La Cusinga this past January, 2009, with a dream in mind.  I wanted to create a cuisine for our guests that would bridge the gap between what La Cusinga offered physically and spiritually, and what they were putting in their bodies when they ate here.  I knew from having previously lived in Costa Rica for over two years that there were organic farmers and that sustainable agriculture was being practiced, but at that time it had been limited in its scope as well as its distribution.  

My first steps upon returning were toward the local Feria to seek out and communicate my ideas with the growers and vendors who could provide me with a local, organic and sustainable product.  The fertile valleys of San Isidro that lie over the coastal mountains and to the Northeast of our Pacific location are rich and productive but are only now exploring the potential that they hold.  

I had in mind a vision that would support local farmers, fishermen and food artisans and one that would recreate (or perhaps, create) a new cuisine of Coastal Costa Rica.  I visit the markets each week to talk with growers and to develop the  relationships that I believe will be mutually beneficial as Costa Rica experiences its rapid growth on an international level
Organic farming is a new and not heavily supported concept in our part of Costa Rica.  It is a brave step for farmers to make, as local communities of both growers and consumers have never placed, or not known to place, an importance on farming organically and sustainably.  I feel a responsibility as a Chef here to be at the forefront of those encouraging and supporting these pioneers  

I came to La Cusinga almost three years ago not knowing what to expect.  My first time through here was characterized by a lack of understanding and appreciation on my part as well as an inability to recognize or connect with the local "flavor" that would make for a coherent package for out guests.  I now feel as if I have made a "connect" with the property and the vision.  I am not completely satisfied and hopefully, never will be, until we are able to produce, right here at La Cusinga, the greater share of the produce we serve.  However, the groundwork has been laid with local farmers and the availability and quality of organic produce is impressive.

Now at La Cusinga I serve a variety of organic lettuces and braising greens.  My salads include wedges or slices of rich red tomatoes as well as sweet !00 and yellow pear cherry tomatoes.  I roast organic beets and marinate them in balsamic vinegar to be served alongside the lettuces and topped with a locally made organic goat cheese.

My soups are made from roasted and steamed local organic vegetables and tiny organic yellow creamer potatoes have found their way onto my plates, nestled against filets of locally caught fish.
I am now using a local organic cocoa powder that still contains the nuggets of cocoa butter unlike the fined cocoa powder in the markets.

And better still, I am able to use palmito (hearts of palm), ginger, cilantro and its sawtooth leafed cousin culantro coyote, mangoes, hot and sweet chiles, mandarina limes and yucca root from our own Finca Tres Hermanas to serve in my dining room at La Cusinga.   The connection from jungle and farm to table is evolving.  May it continue to grow.