Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Culinary chaos: bringing organization to the table

"Organizing is what you do before you do something, so that when you do it, it’s not all mixed up." So said A.A. Milne, English author and creator of Winnie-the-Pooh.

Milne may as well have been a chef, for his words ring true in the kitchen. For while creativity may be the soul of culinary arts, its heart is organization.

Chef Dan Fluharty talks about "planning your work and working your plan" in Culinary Foundations II class when we prepare for the multiple tasks that must be done -- some seemingly four or five at a time -- to get a meal to plating in a restaurant kitchen.

The third brain of wonder at the spirituality of it all can't be stimulated without the left brain getting everything organized to allow the right brain to get creative.

To teach us, Chef Dan has stepped up the pace and the pressure each week to simulate the real situation in restaurant kitchens as much as possible. This week, we must prepare, cook and plate five dishes in two hours. It may sound simple, but it isn't, because each dish involves a half-dozen or more steps, and they must be done in the right sequence and done right, period, for the food to turn out.

I use a typed matrix grid for mise en place -- the gathering and preparation of the basics for all the dishes I will cook. This allows me to coordinate common items in different dishes. For example, four of this week's dishes call for whole butter in varying amounts. Rather than going to the reach-in fridge four times, I will go once and divvy the portions as indicated on my grid.

I also create a flow chart that tells me what to do first, second, etc. Items that need to cook the longest go first -- potatoes and rice, for example. I estimate the amount of time each step will take, thus allowing me to multi-task by putting one thing on to cook while prepping something else.

Thursday's vegetable and starch practical exam, in which we will make five dishes, will involve more than two dozen ingredients. My plan shows a 15-step process that is designed to get me to final plating on the last item at the 1-hour and 35-minute mark. That leaves margin for error, even redoing a whole dish if something goes wrong.

Tune in later in the week to find out how it has gone.

(Photo shows Chef Dan in full multi-tasking mode as he demos a dish for his Culinary Foundations II class.)

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