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In his new book, Work Clean, author Dan Charnas argues that chefs are the ultimate productivity gurus.

May 02, 2016

The world's best chefs are known not just for skill and artistry, but for efficiency. High-end kitchens run like clockwork, and in his new book, Work Clean: The Life-Changing Power of Mise-En-Place to Organize Your Life, Work, and Mind, author Dan Charnas argues that the secrets to a well-organized life can be found in the work habits of luminaries like Thomas Keller, Wylie Dufresne and Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

Charnas is a full-time professor at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at NYU and the author of The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop (a nonfiction book that has served as the basis to VH1's fictional movie and forthcoming series The Breaks). How did he become so fascinated with chefs and their work? We caught up with him to ask.

You're known as a music and culture writer, so how did you come to write a book about mise en place?

Dan Charnas: I was interested in mise en place and wanted to read a book about it. Nobody had ever written a book about it, dedicated to it, so I decided to write one. That's the short story.

The longer story is, I became a record executive at the age of 24. I was flown out to Los Angeles to work across the street from Warner Bros Records by Rick Rubin. I worked for him for seven years. I rose to become vice president before age 30 and I knew a lot about music and I knew a lot about the culture that we were in, and I knew a lot about making records but I didn't know much about how to manage work, how to manage a staff, how to manage my own personal tasks and be productive—and that only got worse as I aged.

I came back to New York after 13 years in LA and started to look for tech and media companies and I started to manage whole teams of people, whether it was making apps or editing websites. And after working for a record company it was more of a rude awakening working for the corporate world where you have layers of management and departments that have to work together. So I was always angling for some sort of improvement in that area.

I read the works of Stephanie Winston, who was one of the first personal organization gurus and then from her I graduated to Steven Covey and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and his book First Things First, where he introduced or re purposed the famous Eisenhour Matrix: we can do the urgent or the important, and the important are seldom urgent and the urgent are seldom important. And then after that I was interested in Davis Allen, so all of these things were solutions I tried for an education that I never got in college and when I ended up going to journalism school I didn't get that workflow education there.

Where I got that education from was reading the books of Michael Ruhlman and Anthony Bourdain. The idea of there being this code of ethics about productivity was, on the one hand, very romantic to me but, on the other hand, it made a hell of a lot of sense, even spiritually. The idea that by cleaning your station, that sets the table for excellence in every part of your life.

I think many people look at the idea of mise en place as just being something where you prep your carrots and celery and have it off to the side—and not something that has wider applications?

Oh my God, it's so elegant, this system. It's not just about organizing space, it's actually about how you relate to space, how you relate to time, how you relate to motions within that space, how you relate to managing resources, how you relate to managing people, how you relate to managing your personal energies, all of that. For whatever ironic reason, those spiritual wisdoms have fallen to the chefs. It sounds bizarre, but the fact of the matter is the reason that chefs have done it and lawyers have not, or that chefs have done it and medical doctors have not, is that the chef has a particular set of restraints and circumstances that make it impossible for him to succeed without doing this kind of planning of time, space, motion, resources and people.

What are some of the most basic ways people can apply this philosophy to each day?

We waste a lot of money, we waste a lot of time, we waste so much time in meetings, we don't do simple things that will make every day for us easier. Dwayne LiPuma in the book talks about on his way to work at the River Cafe in New York, every morning he would see the same people rushing to the same train and how ridiculous that whole drama is. Every day you're going to wake up knowing that you're going to be late? Every day you wake up knowing that you are going to make it difficult for yourself. Why not wake up earlier? Why not be honest with yourself about time? That's where it all starts.

Mise en place is not about making things tidy, it's not about things looking clean. It's about being able to work clean, which implies motion. The system has to be returned to order. So it's not just about creating order, like, "Oh, look how I arranged my desk," it really is about, "I'm going to move through all these projects, but I've also made the commitment to myself that when I'm done with this project I'm going to wrap it up." I'm either going to deliver it or I'm going to put myself in a position where when I resume it, everything is in a place for me to pick it up. Because that's going to save me 20 minutes, I can use that 20 minutes to do other kinds of work or I can use that 20 minutes to be with my kid and read him a story. I think being a parent, that also affected my venture into this because that time really means something to me.

In the course of researching Work Clean, did you find that chefs were aware of the greater potential of mise en place? Did they use it in their non-cooking lives as well?

I was so surprised that most of them hadn't and I'm not so surprised anymore because I realized the reason that chefs don't think of the outside application of this stuff is that most of them haven't even been in that world; they stay in the kitchen. I would mention to them certain applications, ideas of ways you can work these principles outside the kitchen and sometimes they would say "Oh, yeah, I guess that's right, I never thought about it that way." Other chefs do apply the stuff at home all the time. There are some chefs who are so busy in the kitchen that they don't apply mise en place to the rest of their lives because they need a break. And that's one of the ideas in the conclusion of the book: we all need clean space and dirty space, chefs do, we do. You can't just inhale and never exhale. With every squeeze there must be a release. One of the reasons chefs party so hard is that they are so controlled and so disciplined for most of the day that it makes sense that they would want to let loose later on.

Have you found it easy to adopt these mise en place tenets into your own life?

These principles do not come easy so that's why at the beginning of the book I say, "It is not easy to do this, it actually takes work." There's no quick way around maintaining a system. It's a commitment; you have to do it every day. You can't maintain a system, like, put the stapler back today and not put it back tomorrow. You have to maintain it—it's work! And chefs work their entire careers to get these habits down. So you're not going to get it just by reading a book—you have to read the book and then apply the principles in a regular way. Which is why I really bring it down to [a daily] 30 minute planning session. We spend much more time grooming than planning, we spend more time watching TV than planning and a little planning can eliminate mistakes. It can make the difference between being tired or fired, can make the difference between you disappointing your loved one and supporting them—just a little bit of planning.

Do you see parallels between the order and creativity of cooking and music?

I do, I think a lot of it is still unfolding for me, a lot of it has to do with the code. Musicians, especially in hip-hop, we have a code. We talk about game. Ice T talks about it all the time. There are rules to this game and you want to be well versed in the rules and the code of ethics and hip-hop has a very strong one. The kitchen has a very strong one, too.