In My Place
The French have a term they use called mise en place, which loosely translates to “put in place”. It’s one of the first things I learned when entering culinary school. Your mise en place is your ingredients portioned out, everything set and ready prior to cooking. They say a good mise en place makes you a better cook, gives you a stronger foundation to the final piece de resistance, as my chef would say.
I’ll never forget the first time I stuck my hands in the garbage pail sized barrel of flour at school, the wheat ground so finely it was almost intangible. The way it would sit stoic, all 50 plus pounds of it like cool silk as you ran your fingers through it.
We learned that the marriage of water and flour creates gluten. The structure of gluten expands and holds gas, contributing to flavor in your breads final dough. In the kitchen we’d weigh out 1,000 grams of flour and 720 grams of water, pouring the water over the flour and watching as it turned milky white on the surface and ran off in rivulets. We’d work the mixture with our hands, watching as it clung to our fingers like a web, turning them into catchers’ mitts. We’d sprinkle yeast over the surface and divide the slack mass of dough in half, turning it over onto itself to envelope and feed the yeast, giving the dough its strength and structure.
We’d knead – knead so much I’d feel the motion in my shoulders when I’d lay in bed at night, like the oceans tide pulling you in and out after a long day at the beach.
The dough would expand in its final proof session, doubling in size and stretching like a mothers womb. ‘Our bread babies,’ we’d call the dough, as they grew in their banneton proofing baskets.
Into 500 degrees they’d go, our buns in the oven. They’d return to us warm, the crust earthy brown and cracked like the lines on your palm. These were my favorite moments, eating the fruits of our daylong labors.
Now it’s the summer after my first year as a culinary student and I’m in the basement of Jedediah Hawkins Inn dismantling lobsters. It’s my first real culinary job, aside from scooping ice cream at Dari-Land Ice Cream Shoppe back in high school. I was a long way from home, Toto….
The pastry chef nearby was flour dusting his table like a winters first snowfall. I sopped up some sea water from my work surface and tried to look away, tried not to let the jealousy creep up and out through the collar of my chef coat.
Later in the day I’m sent to Wayside Market to pick up meat. The butcher hands me a small seeded roll, a gesture of gratitude for the amount I’ve just spent. The brown roll fits in my palm, the butchers’ appreciation seeming to be laced in the dough’s structure. I nibble it gratefully as I sit in my car in the parking lot sweating, my AC broken so my checkered black and white pants are clung tight to my thighs like a ski-bib.
It’s a Saturday, the throng of people outside headed every which way. Perhaps north down Boisseau Ave in direction towards the Sound, or further east on Main Road towards Greenport. Each person headed to be in a different place, a different spot in the mise en place of the North Fork.
There’s laughter outside my window, two mothers wander by pushing young babies in strollers, their bodies having once moved to the pull of nature’s tides giving them their own bread babies. I smile. The marriage of proteins, the strength and the structure of a life created.
I drive back towards Jamesport, passing Pellegrini Vineyard. There’s a wedding taking place, the unity of two threads forming one web on the sprawling green lawn.
I’m back in the basement of Jedediah’s where the pastry chef needs an extra hand dividing the dough into 2-ounce balls for the dinner service rolls (had he needed an extra hand, or had I stood around nearby waiting, hoping?) Either way, I was back in my place, hands in the bowl, shoulders swaying to the familiar motion of the dough’s pull. Back and forth. Left, then right.
I was moved off prep station. I heated oat grain rolls for dinner service, burning my fingertips on the crunchy exterior. I savored each sting, letting the heat reach my cheeks and warm my insides.
When I put my hands in a bowl full of flour, this is when I feel I am in my place. My mise en place. With bread in my tummy, I carry my place with me, with strength and with structure.