Recommended Reading: Work Clean


When I went through school, opportunities to discuss how work gets done, and how to set up the conditions for maximum work success, were few and far between. I learned more about how to adapt to a fast-paced, dynamic work environment doing word processing for a bank (we wrote a LOT of letters!) and crafting lean-manufacturing videos for an aluminum-extrusion manufacturer than I ever did in my journalism classes. Talking about HOW we do what we do comes naturally to some professionals, but seems to vex others.


Luckily, it turns out that there is at least one profession in which thinking through one’s workflow is just a “nice to have” item, but a critical requirement for survival: the culinary arts. Chefs who work for restaurants and serve menu items to hundreds or thousands of customers per day cannot leave planning to chance, nor can the line cooks who work under them. Cooking is a multifaceted task that demands rapid execution across time and space, and professional chefs have developed a discipline that helps them prepare for busy meal service times: the mise-en-place. French for “put in place,” the text book of the Culinary Institute of America defines it this way: “The preparation and assembly of ingredients, pans, utensils, plates or serving pieces needed for a particular dish or serving period.”


Business writer Dan Charnas, who is NOT a professional chef, has translated the concept of mise-en-place for everyday working people. In “Work Clean,” he is able to break down the workflow secrets of great chefs and help readers interpret them in a way that makes sense in a modern office environment.


Mixing tales of how chefs in the field organize their work with instruction on how to translate their lessons into rules useful in an office cubicle, Charnas is at his most articulate when he explains the difference between “immersive time” (hands-on projects that depend largely on our direct effort to accomplish) and “process time” (hands-off projects that require waiting on an outside process by something or someone to be completed).


He writes,

“Great chefs maintain a constant if unconscious awareness of the dual nature of work time: hands-on and hands-off … Chefs know the importance of making time to immerse themselves in creative work. But they also understand that some small and tedious tasks have the potential to launch powerful processes - unleashing huge amounts of time, energy, and resources - as long as they start those tasks first. Chefs perpetually make first moves on those two levels.”


Another useful chapter focuses on how chefs arrange their cooking and prep space. Charnas gives a detailed (and illustrated) view of how chefs organize tasks such as chopping ingredients and sequence their physical moves while cooking so that dishes come out on time, expertly prepared, and tasting good.


I was initially skeptical (given my slap-dash approach to cooking at home) that I would get something out of “Work Clean,” but the book doesn’t the mistake of trying to sell a famous chef’s patented “system” (although a phone app related to the book is available) or of being too literal with the translation of productivity principles between the kitchen and the office. Part of the reason the book works on this level is no doubt due to who is writing it -- because Charnas is a journalist, he’s had to absorb and integrate these principles without a culinary school certificate, so greater care seems to be taken to ensure the reader is able to understand what’s being presented.


Anyone looking for a fresh approach to organizing their space, time and assignments can benefit from reading “Work Clean.” And if you’re the type of person who enjoys reading about great food as much as you enjoy eating it, the stories of the culinarians in this volume will be icing on the proverbial cake.


~ Liz Massey, Managing Editor, ASU Alumni Association