This post is stimulated by two items: First, I am reading a commercial book entitled "Modern Garde Manger" by Garlough and Campbell. Written for the aspiring chef, it's full of little historical tidbits such as the origin of the brigade system (dating back to Escouffier). The authors try to instill pride in the student... So different from a university textbook (an interesting topic perhaps for another day). The second inspiration is from a recent Times article concerning a recent cookbook by Sara Mouton. This chef has discovered that home cooks don't do mise en place - shock and amazement. So, now onto my take on this: when is mise en place appropriate?
Let me start with a bit of personal history: I really learned to cook during my junior year in college. I was living in an on campus apartment with four other guys. And, I was the only one who had a clue about how to shop and how to cook. My mother had sent me to Macy*s with the assignment to buy something for the school year. She had hoped I would buy some shirts or something. Instead I came back with "The Joy of Cooking". Far more useful, really. So, I spent most of that junior year shopping and cooking. And one of the most important lessons I learned was how to time the various dishes so they would come out at the same time. This is a critical skill in any cook. For complex meals, I actually work out a diagram that shows dependencies complete with timings. This is so I don't have to worry about losing track of what to do next and as a warning not to get involved with something that's not on the time critical path.
So, back to mise en place. There is no reason to do this for most meals. Frankly, half the fun of cooking is working several stations at once and then having it all come together at the end. I enjoy the multi-tasking that requires. However, for a complex meal at home (say, the French Laundry), then mise en place is essential. I find this particularly appropriate when you need to finish a dish while guests are at the table. There is no time to lose --- everything must be ready. Earlier in my cooking career I was often miss half the meal since I'd be at the stove. Now, I've figured it out. Mise en place must be totally complete --- don't wait until the last minute to chop those herbs, do it before you're out of time. Make half the dessert and then finish it as you need it (this is particularly effective with the molten chocolate cakes). The only downside is that the cleanup at the end is more because all of those little dishes are hanging around at the end.
As for Garde Manger, I am pleased to note that I already knew most of it. The recipe for haggis was new, but for the most part, I was competent although my skill in turning potatoes into rondelles is unknown. I've always fought against such fussiness. But when it comes to dice, I'm there.