Monday, August 12, 2013

Project Planning in the Kitchen

The roast is filling the kitchen with tantalizing aromas.  You take a sip of wine and smile.  While you and your best friend are peeling potatoes you tell her about your recent trip to Tuscany.  It was magical.  Next year you should rent a villa and do it together.  The kids are reading quietly on the sofa in the living room.  Your husband is making lobster rolls.  Everyone is happy.

Time to wake up.  If this rosy picture never happened before in your household, you are not alone.  This has never happened in mine either.  Where does this beautiful dinner party happen?  In cooking magazines and on Food TV.

Many of you have asked me to teach meal planning and coordination both on my blog and in class.  I'd be happy to do that, but it's not a cooking class.  It's a project management class.  I haven't wrapped my head around a class like that yet, but a blog post is a good place to start.  A few warnings before we get started.   I can teach you how to serve a tasty meal without losing your sanity.  I can't teach you how to socialize, drink wine, and cook 5 things you've never made before.  That, my friends, is a pipe dream.  My menu suggests might not match your ambitions, and my techniques might make a dinner party seem like a software project.  If that idea doesn't make you cringe, then read on.

Project plan
Project plan should not live in your head.  It should live on your computer in a file.  Write down your menu.  Determine the dependencies.  Then write down what needs to happen in gory detail.  If kale needs to be washed and dried, it should be in your project plan.  If the roast needs to be salted 2 days before cooking, that should be in your project plan.  If the bathroom needs to be cleaned, that should be in your project plan too.  Here is a snippet from one of my project plans:
11am unload groceries
11:30am wash leafy greens (kale, swiss chard, parsley)
12:00pm chop kale and start braising (10 inch all-clad skillet)
12:15pm salt the roast

The benefits of this are so numerous, I don't know where to begin.
  • Identify weak points.  Are you creating an unnecessarily stressful situation by choosing dishes with 10 dependencies?  Are two of your dishes competing for the same pan (note that I mention which pan I plan to use for that kale).   Do you need the oven at 400F and 250F at the same time?  Are you dealing with a huge unknown -- how long does a 10 Lb roast take at 250F?  This will help you revise your menu and make it more manageable.
  • Free your brain during cooking.  Once I have a detailed project plan, I can relax, listen to music, and just zone out.  It's very zen like.  As soon as I am done with a task, I check the schedule, check the time to make sure I am on track, and do whatever the schedule says.  At least that's how it works during prep work (washing, chopping, etc).  Once I am on to the end game, no more zoning out, chatting, drinking, or listening to music.  It's time to concentrate!
  • Collect data you can use.  Comparing your project plan to reality will make your next project plan so much more accurate.  Say you thought that washing kale would take you 5 minutes.  But it actually took 20.  Now you know this for next time.  If you are putting a task on your project plan that you've never done before, say trim 5 artichokes, think of how long it could possibly take.  15 minutes?  20?  I suggest you double that and make it 40.  If you are done early, well, good for you.  It's always more encouraging to be ahead of schedule than behind.
  • Make realistic predictions.  Predicting big things is hard.  Predicting little things is easy.  How long does a meal for 10 take that includes a salad, home-made pasta, seared scallops, and chocolate mousse?  I don't know.  3-6 hours?  To tell you the truth, I really couldn't tell you without writing it all out.  How long does pasta dough take?  That's easy.  10 minutes to measure ingredients and mix together, plus 10 minutes of kneading.  That's 20 minutes.  
  • Improvise successfully.  You'd think that such careful planning would eliminate all improvisation and lock you into particular ingredients instead of choosing what's best at the market.  Not at all!  Say you were going to roast cauliflower and found beautiful beets instead.  They require about the same time and the same equipment, so you can swap them right in.  You were planning to sear scallops, but striped bass looked delightful.  No problem.  Why not sear that instead.  A quick glance at your plan will make you realize that you'll need a different type of pan (non-stick instead of stainless).  Is it available?  By thinking about things ahead, you can solve problems before they happen.
Know your abilities
The number one problem of both home cooks and many restaurants is cooking above their ability.  A dinner party is not the time to try something new.  I can't tell you how many e-mails I get before Christmas asking for help with Lobster aioli, 10 Lb prime rib, pasta dough, and artichoke peeling.  The right time to learn to do these things is a quiet weekend, and the right audience is your immediate family, not a party of 12.

Understand your social needs and obligations
Shaping nigiri, roasting a leg of lamb, or making a cheese souffle is something that I only cook for my immediate family.  They know to leave me alone, and take care of setting the table so that I can concentrate on cooking.  They also understand that dinner is ready when it's ready.  There is no whining about when are we going to eat, and there is no procrastination when I call everyone to the table.  My family understands very clearly that food is time sensitive.  Don't make souffles for people who can't get their ass to the table in 20 seconds.

When I cook for company, it's a whole other story.  Are your friends coming over that you haven't seen for 6 months?  They'll want to chat.  They'll want to drink.  They'll also want to pester you with "Can I help you with anything?"  
  • Be prepared to give people tasks, but don't count on this making your life easier.  A friend of mine jokes that when her father-in-law volunteers to pour orange juice, it takes more of her time than if she did it herself.  "Can you show me where your glasses are? Oh and where is ice?  How much should I pour?  Sorry I spilled, where are your towels.''  If you are going to ask them to slice bread, have it sitting on a cutting board with a knife and a basket nearby.  Try to anticipate what they'll need and have it ready.  
  • Plan menus that require minimum last minute attention and can be done completely ahead -- a spread of cold appetizers, a braise, a stew, duck confit, or a soup.  If something requires last minute attention, make it short -- sear scallops, or fish, or duck breasts.  Choose sides that can either be served cold (grain or bean salad) or can stay warm in the oven for a good long time (mashed parsnips or celery root) or zapped in a microwave.  Vegetable purees are perfect for that.
Prep first, cook next
It's hard to divide your attention between the sink, the counter, and the stove. Do all your chopping tasks together and all your cooking tasks together.  Of course, you might have something low maintenance happening on the stove, like onions sweating, while you are chopping other vegetables.  But don't try to sear fish and chop at the same time.

Optimize your equipment
I try to get as much mileage as I can out of each board.  I chop all the non sticky vegetables first, then onions, then garlic, and only then proteins (fish, meat, etc).  Then I can wash my board once.  If you reverse this order, you'll need to wash your board 3 times.  Think ahead.  If you need a sprinkle of parsley at the end, chop if before you contaminate your board with your protein.

Clean up as you go
Yeah, yeah.  Everyone knows that.  Why doesn't everyone do it?  Because it's not on their project plan.  If I see lots of dish dirtying activities on my project plan, I add a clean up activity.  I also create plenty of drying space.  It's hard to wash dishes if there is nowhere to put clean dishes.  I set up a few dish towels with cooling racks (some people call them cookie racks) on my counter, so that I can spread my clean dishes, and let them dry quickly.  Piling a mountain of dishes into your dish rack doesn't promote drying.

Plusses and Deltas
When I worked at the MathWorks, I picked up an amazing technique called "plusses and deltas."  I believe they learned it from Toyota.  After each project, you sit down and write down what went well (plusses) and what you want to change in the future (deltas).  Thinking about it, and beating yourself up doesn't help.  By next Thanksgiving you'll forget it all.  I do this after each cooking class, until it runs completely smoothly.  Whenever I introduce a new class, it normally takes 5 iterations of "plusses and deltas" before I get it just right.  So be patient.  Practice (particularly smart practice) makes perfect.

And on this note, I leave all my project plans and shopping lists behind because tomorrow I am heading to San Sebastian.  I will be cooking and eating, but once a year even I like leaving the planning to someone else.


Anonymous said...

This is very helpful, thank you! I do write out a list and do many of the things you suggested, but it's great to have all the information in one place. :-)

Edith Scheie said...

This is absolutely brilliant! Everyone just seems to assume that everybody knows just what to do to get a fabulous dinner for two or ten on the table, but no, we don't! This explains so much, thank you for posting it! I usually do meal planning for a month ahead (I do my main grocery shopping once a month), but I've gotten out of the habit over the summer. But this shows that it's a valuable skill to practice all year-round.

Project planning, who knew? Thanks so much!

Shirley said...

Project planning, its a perfect title.... You r a wise lady...Thanks a lot for this post. I was waiting for this sort of post.
I feel like reading it again n again.
Safe journey. Enjoy your trip. Take photographs n share with us. Will love to hear your experience.
After your last trip Sammy said," Daddy was cooking likr you". Let's see what would be their feedback this time.