Posted on Forbes.com APR 27, 2016 , By: Shawn Setaro
Dan Charnas is best known for his work around hip-hop. His 2011 book The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop traced the story of the genre’s rise from park jams and discos to a business worth billions. He then adapted that real-life story into a TV movie (soon to be a series) called The Breaks.
For his latest book, Charnas took a turn from the recording studio to the kitchen, where he discovered that there are lessons in how chefs work that can help us all. The book is Work Clean: The Life-Changing Power Of Mise-En-Place To Organize Your Life, Work And Mind. It follows great chefs – including, since there’s no way hip-hop could be left out entirely, Jarobi White of A Tribe Called Quest – and applies the lessons of their discipline of mise-en-place (literally, “putting in place,” but used to refer to an overarching approach to organization and workflow in the kitchen) to workplaces far from a restaurant kitchen. To accompany the book, there’s also a Work Clean iPhone app, to help readers apply the book’s principles of organization and prioritization to their own lives.
I called Dan to find out what chefs can teach us about organization, how the guy from Tribe ended up cooking, where the vaunted “Eisenhower matrix” falls short, and a lot more. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Shawn Setaro: This book started from an NPR story about mise-en-place you did a couple of years ago. Was that your idea, or did they pitch it to you?
Dan Charnas: The idea for the book was first. When you do a book proposal, not only do you need to outline the book, but you need a sample chapter. I had to go into kitchens to do this because there wasn’t a book to read about mise-en-place. There were books that talked about it a lot, like Michael Ruhlman’s books and Anthony Bourdain. But nowhere had I seen it really spelled out into its component parts.
Since I’m going into these kitchens and reporting, I thought, well, why don’t I take a mic and see if Tom Cole at NPR would like the story? So the book and the radio story grew up together. Around the time that the story came out, I sold the book to Rodale.
S: How did you first get an idea of what mise-en-place is?
DC: I became an executive at the age of 24. I rose to become Vice President at a Warner Brothers label owned by Rick Rubin. I had to be a one-man department. It was tough. There was a lot of stuff to manage. You’re recording albums, you’re marketing, you’re taking meetings.
Self-improvement is in my nature, so I became a follower of Steven Covey, and then David Allen. I went through all the systems, but I never really felt that I got it right. I was in tech for a while, and I was in media for a while. In both of these places, I’m managing staffs of people and really beginning to fathom how difficult it is to manage people and manage priorities, and realizing that I never had a formal education in it. So that’s my personal background.
Set against of all this is, I loved reading books about chefly life. I loved chef books like Bill Buford’s Heat and Michael Ruhlman’s The Making of a Chef and Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential and Jason Sheehan’s Cooking Dirty. I was a fan of these books in some way for the same reasons The Godfather and Goodfellas are my favorite movies. It’s that a mob movie is such an incredible mixture of audacity and discipline. These guys are swashbuckling – they go around killing people and acting bad, but they have this code beneath it all. The way that chefs wrote about mise-en-place was kind of the same thing. They’re wild and crazy, but they talk about this incredible discipline, mise-en-place, and they have an incredible sense of order and loyalty.
Then I began to think about mise-en-place as a metaphor for work, and that’s where those principles started coming together for me. What I realized also is that since we’re in the age of digital media, we’ve lost this mentorship that is an endemic part of the kitchen. We don’t have that in our workspaces. But the chefly world is different. It’s not just about doing work for your chef. It’s also about the chef doing work for her cooks, and being dedicated to the learning process.
Also, since Rick Rubin initiated me into the world of meditation and alternative medicine, I’ve been a yoga teacher, a teacher of a spiritual discipline, for two decades. Mise-en-place seemed to me like a spiritual discipline, and a lot of people call it their religion. So the NPR story and the book were me going into the kitchen to try and find those answers, and coming out of the kitchen with ten principles of mise-en-place.
S: I was fascinated by this idea that chefs continue to use mise-en-place as they move up the corporate ladder, stop cooking, and start managing. Can you talk about chefs applying these principles to workplaces?
DC: Once you’re in the kitchen, it’s hard to slough off that discipline. Corporate America was built in many ways in the 1950s, off of military principles, because so many people came out of the service into the corporate world that the corporate world became this very hierarchical thing.
Who created the first personal organization action? Who served the first volley of that? Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the forces during World War II. He was the person who put forth what became the Eisenhower Matrix, trying to determine a difference between the urgent and the important. So when chefs leave the kitchen, just like when Eisenhower left the military, you take that load of thinking with you.
Thomas Keller, one of the greatest chefs in the world, talks about really confronting people who work for Thomas Keller Restaurant Group who do things the normal, corporate way – you come in at 9, you go home at 6, and you call meetings, and the meetings are long, and you generate these forms, and you have your employees fill out the forms because it helps you in what you’re doing. Thomas Keller just put his hand up and said, “No. You have a kid who’s busting his ass in the kitchen, working ‘til 1 A.M., while you’re asleep. Don’t do anything to make his job harder. You fill out the form.” It’s that kind of attitude that a lot of chefs take when they become executives, and more and more of them are becoming executives.
S: There’s this whole industry that’s built up around efficiency experts. What relationship, if any, does that have to what you’re trying to do?
DC: There’s a big difference between efficiency and productivity. Efficiency is, how can we take this organization, improve our processes, strip away people, to make it cheaper, better, faster? And who cares about the human cost? That is what “efficiency” means. There are people who apply that to their own lives, and have similar results. So a person who only cares about efficiency, what they’ll do is they will fill every available moment with work, and try and do it better, and get more out of each moment. Then at the end of the day or end of the week or end of the year or career, they will find their lives denuded. Their family is in shambles, their health is in shambles. That’s what efficiency does.
What we’re after is less of that corporate efficiency thing, where you’re talking about how I make a whole organization more efficient. That comes from top-down. Mise-en-place is a personal code of ethics, and a system that comes from inside out, that can only be taught, really, by a person who is practicing it fully, inside and out. It is a system of personal improvement, not about efficiency, but about excellence.
S: One of the through-lines of the book is Jarobi’s story. What is his role in the book?
DC: Jarobi’s one of those people in the industry who I was in a room with probably a million times, but never met and never became friendly with. I didn’t know him before this book. I had met [Tribe members] Q-Tip and Phife, and Ali [Shaheed Muhammad] is probably the person I’ve spoken to the most over the years. But never Jarobi. And like everybody else, I never really knew what the hell Jarobi was about. Where was he?
I happened to run into Jarobi because he was doing this event at Red Rooster, where Marcus [Samuelsson] interviewed him onstage. I found out that Jarobi was a serious cook. He’d worked for Josh Eden at August, which was a pretty serious restaurant in New York dining! And that in turn, Josh Eden was a student of Jean-Georges Vongerichten. I became fascinated by this. I mean, imagine this: the extra dude of A Tribe Called Quest can trace his culinary lineage all the way up to Fernand Point, who basically succeeded Escoffier as the pinnacle of French cuisine. Imagine that! I always thought that was so poetic.
So Jarobi kindly agreed to sit with me. Of course, me having the history I have, of course we knew all the same people. So I like to count him as a friend now. I think he’s an interesting dude, and I got a lot of background on his story about why he didn’t want to sign on the dotted line. The most important thing is, he decided that he wasn’t going to be fulfilled being just a member of A Tribe Called Quest. What was fulfilling, what he knew how to do, what he knew that he could do for the rest of his life, was cook. He just didn’t know all the stuff he didn’t know. The biggest thing he didn’t know was how to conserve his motion. So he takes one of the most important chapters of the book, “Arranging Spaces, Perfecting Movements.” It is the “place” of mise-en-place.
Jarobi learned to stay put. Jarobi learned to plant his feet, and to move smoothly. You’re not going to get through service in a fine dining restaurant by clobbering the food, clobbering the tools and stuff around you. You have to be smart, and make every move count.
With Jarobi, I love the hip-hop metaphor of making moves. When we meet him in the book, he’s standing in the kitchen of New York Tech, with everybody in the hip-hop world wondering, “Where the fuck is Jarobi?” And at the end, he’s now back in hip-hop, touring as a chef with Roy Choi and talking to Jon Favreau. I just love his story. He doesn’t have his own restaurant, but he does have this roving food concept, where he does Tribe Taco Tuesdays, and he can go to L.A. and do a special weekend that’s fun for everyone, and brings food and hip-hop together in a really, really organic way. So I think the guy is great.
S: A lot of chefs think of mise-en-place as a unified system. How difficult was that for you to break down into steps? Were you checking that against what chefs were saying about it?
DC: Here’s the thing: chefs didn’t really have it systematized for the most part. I took the risk and liberty of trying to start fresh and spell out a system that made sense to me as an author and would make sense to me as somebody who didn’t work in a kitchen. So I divined three values that underlie all the behaviors – values and behaviors, that’s what a system is.
The values are preparation, process, and presence. So preparation: obviously, chefs prepare for the plate. Process: chefs are dedicated to process. We feel like process is a drag – I don’t want to do it this way, I want to do it my own way. And presence, which is: stay in present time, stay present with your fellows. Those are the three things that are the most important. There are behaviors that stem from those values, and I lay them out in the book pretty extensively.
What I would do is, whenever I would meet with a chef, I would just run my system by them. After a while, I began to see that chefs thought it was pretty good. Thomas Keller said it best. He said, “You could have a little less, you could have a little more.” Dan Charnas is not a chef. But I feel like I’ve done my work as a journalist to do the best interpretation of this system that will hopefully help chefs think about this and write about it. Because it really is great.
I’ve devoted my life to writing about hip-hop and politics and race and culture. This is a huge left turn for me. But I love it. I think it’s beautiful and elegant, this system. And what’s so tragic is more people don’t teach you how to work, and manage work, and manage a work flow.
When I was in journalism school at Columbia, they taught me how to report and they taught me how to write. But they didn’t teach me how to handle a work flow. Business schools don’t teach you that. Law schools don’t teach you that. Medical school doesn’t teach you that. The only two places in our culture where they really teach process and planning in addition to the other skills you’re supposed to learn is the military and the culinary, and the culinary is more evolved in many ways than the military because they do it every day.
I just think chefs never thought, “Oh, how do I apply this outside?” Because when you’re swimming in water, it’s unremarkable to you. Mise-en-place is so remarkable to me. It’s so beautiful to me. And I wanted to sing about it. This is the way that I did it. I did it as a journalist.
S: With all the time you spent in restaurant kitchens while researching this book: if you had to jump into a professional kitchen right now, could you work the line?
DC: Oh, probably not, because I don’t have the skills. One of the most embarrassing moments for me was standing in the kitchen of the CIA [Culinary Institute of America] in a working student restaurant, trying to evaluate the skills of the students as the orders were coming in, and I was missing those orders left and right. You really have to develop that behavior of open eyes and ears. That’s something you can do if you practice.
So I am not a practiced chef. I am a practiced journalist. I will report anybody under the table, that’s for sure! [Laughs] But I have too much respect for the line and what people do to even say I would be any good at it.
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