Debate Like A Chef: The Philosophy of Mise-en-Place

Mise-en-place is the religion of all good line cooks. … As a cook, your station, and its condition, its state of readiness, is an extension of your nervous system. … The universe is in order when your station is set up the way you like it: you know where to find everything with your eyes closed, everything you need during the course of the shift is at the ready at arm’s reach, your defenses are employed. If you let your mise-en-place run down, get dirty and disorganized, you’ll quickly find yourself spinning in place and calling for back-up.

— Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential

A recent National Public Radio story by Dan Charnas (“For A More Ordered Life, Organize Like A Chef”) describes the process and philosophy of mise-en-place (or “put in place”), a French phrase that means “to gather and arrange the ingredients and tools needed for cooking.” Charnas suggests that “perhaps the principles of culinary organization can be extended to help even those of us who aren’t top chefs.”

For several years, I’ve used an analogy to mise-en-place to help communicate to students the importance of carefully preparing and organizing their debate materials. In the same way that an expert chef gathers and arranges the necessary ingredients before preparing a dish, an expert debater needs to gather and arrange the necessary materials before constructing a speech.

Ron Friedman, a business consultant with a Ph.D. in psychology, writes in a Harvard Business Review blog post that:

The “Meez,” as professionals call it, translates into “everything in its place.” In practice, it involves studying a recipe, thinking through the tools and equipment you will need, and assembling the ingredients in the right proportion before you begin. It is the planning phase of every meal—the moment when chefs evaluate the totality of what they are trying to achieve and create an action plan for the meal ahead.

Friedman, who advocates applying the concept to the business workplace, argues that “mise-en-place represents more than a quaint practice or a time-saving technique. It’s a state of mind.” Melissa Gray, a senior at the Culinary Institute of America who was interviewed by Charnas, agrees: “It’s a way of concentrating your mind to only focus on the aspects that you need to be working on at that moment, to kind of rid yourself of distractions.”

In the kitchen, mise-en-place ensures that chefs are prepared to make the best quality dish in the most efficient way possible despite intense pressure. Debaters have a similar goal: to prepare the best quality speech in the most efficient way possible despite limited prep time and the pressure of competition. Both situations require diligent preparation, careful organization, and disciplined adherence to a consistent process.

So what can students do to apply the concept of mise-en-place to debate?

First, files must be completed in advance to facilitate efficient in-round speech construction. All of the little things that go into a file — the tagging, underlining, highlighting, block-writing, etc. — need to be completed before the tournament. And they need to be completed well. Having to rely on unfinished materials makes it harder to construct a quality speech given the intense time constraints debaters face before and during a round. So does having to rely on materials that are “finished” but that are poor quality. A chef that waited to chop her carrots and onions until they were needed in a dish would throw a monkey wrench in an otherwise efficient preparation process. And it wouldn’t go much better for the chef that chopped her carrots and onions in advance but did so haphazardly; when it came time in the process to add them, she’d need to re-prep those ingredients or risk ruining the dish.

Common shortcomings in debate file preparation include:

  • Failing to intelligently tag evidence. Students often use one or two word “tags” or informal language that necessitates in-round modification (either during prep time or on the fly). This wastes prep time and makes mistakes more likely.
  • Failing to intelligently underline and highlight evidence. Students often leave evidence unhighlighted or do such a poor job that rehighlighting is needed before presenting the card in a debate. Highlighting evidence well requires diligence and effort; “painting” a patchwork of phrases or sentences without thinking about it doesn’t work.
  • Failing to transform evidence into blocks. Students often put several cards together under a block heading and call it a day. Unfortunately, these “blocks” of cards can’t be used in a debate without spending prep time to add analytical arguments and to re-sort the evidence.
  • Failing to craft well-written blocks. Students often take shortcuts during the block-writing process; language choices are careless, sentences are poorly constructed, labels are missing, etc. Bad writing is hard for debaters to read and hard for judges to understand.
  • Failing to thoroughly prepare the most important blocks. Students often spend the same amount of time on the “easy” blocks as they do on the hard ones. This doesn’t make sense. In every file, there are a few blocks that are most essential: they support the weakest part of the position and respond to the opponent’s best arguments against it. These essential blocks need to be thoughtfully written, rigorously scrutinized, and carefully rewritten.
  • Failing to include cross-examination materials. Students often forget about cross-ex when preparing debate files. This leaves them unprepared to effectively ask and answer questions. Files should include explicit cross-ex notes and “cards” that help support the threads that should be raised as well as notes and supporting materials to help debaters answer their opponents’ likely questions.
  • Failing to add explanatory notes. Students often neglect the final step of a debate project: documenting the file and ensuring that it will be as useful as possible to its end users. Even if a debater will be the only user of a file, including an explanation ensures that one can re-familiarize oneself with a file in the crucial moments before a debate. The process of preparing these notes also helps students identify things they have missed or areas of weakness in their file while there is still time to remedy them.

Debaters that fail to prepare their materials in advance — or who prepare their materials poorly — are making their lives needlessly difficult. The goal should be to never waste precious pre-round and in-round preparation time on tasks that could have been completed in advance of the tournament. The more basic prep work that needs to be done in the crucial moments before and during a debate, the less time and mental energy a student can spend on high-level strategic tasks. Chefs know this lesson well.

Second, individual files must be well-designed to facilitate efficient speech construction. It’s not enough to have quality evidence and well-written blocks; those materials need to be organized in a way that makes them useful. Preparation time before and during debates is maddeningly limited. Time spent navigating through a poorly-designed document or decoding poorly-worded block titles is time not available to spend on the high-level strategic planning that wins close debates. Shortcomings in file design are common; most mistakes stem from laziness or thoughtlessness during the crucial final stages of a project. Instead of calling it quits when the last card is cut, students should spend a lot of time and energy making sure that their completed files are highly usable.

In the kitchen, chefs painstakingly plan in advance the process they will use to prepare a dish. As part of this planning, they identify the right place for everything. Dwayne Lipuma, an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America, explains in an interview with Charnas that “every component of one single dish is in one single corner so their hand literally moves inches. Once [students] set up their station I should be able to blindfold them and tell them … and they should know that their tongs are always here, their oil is always right here, their salt and pepper is always right here.” The goal is to eliminate all extraneous movement so that a dish can be prepared with maximum efficiency. Wasted movement by a chef slows down a service and raises the risk of mistakes and inconsistencies.

These principles apply just as much in the debate round. Wasted movement by a debater slows down their preparation and increases the chance that they will make a mistake (read the wrong block, forget to include a necessary card, etc.). Debaters should “field test” their files to make sure that the document map is clear and readable, the hierarchy of heading levels is consistent and intuitive, the blocks are clearly labeled and organized, and the most frequently used materials are the easiest to access. Using a file in a debate should be simple and predictable: no mental energy should be exerted locating or interpreting its content.

Third, collections of files must be well-organized to facilitate efficient access. Even the best files are worthless if a debater can’t find them before and during a debate. Designing and consistently adhering to a file organization structure is a vital part of debate preparation.

In the era of paper files, a brief review of a team’s tubs would reveal whether they were well-organized. If a team struggled with organization, their shortcomings would be obvious: files would be peculiarly sorted (if at all), loose pages would be everywhere, stacks of evidence would be piled on top of tubs, accordion pockets would be jammed full of whole files, evidence handed to the judge would be inexplicably creased and crumpled, and the debaters would constantly be scrambling to find missing cards and blocks. In the era of paperless files, students are better able to conceal their organizational deficiencies. Electronic tubs are often incredibly disorganized. Students rely on a combination of file searches, their memories, and hopefulness to find the blocks and cards they need to construct speeches. The process of file retrieval is often comically inefficient; files are located in many disparate folders, content is duplicated in many places (often in different versions), file titles are inconsistent and weirdly named (the “1AC Greenhill REAL” folder might contain “1AC real.docx,” “1AC final version.docx,” “1AC real final version.docx,” “ghill 1ac.docx,” “Speech 1AC 8-28 2AM.docx,” “GREENHILL1AC(3) (teh deb8er’s conflicted copy 2014-08-28).docx,” and several other files), and every new file just adds to the problem. Many students go so far as to rely on speech documents from previous debates to construct their speeches because the original versions of their files have been lost in the chaos. These habits are the electronic equivalent of throwing all of one’s paper files into tubs without folders or accordions or a discernible organization scheme, zip-tying down the lids, throwing them in the back of a van, and hoping for the best.

All of this disorganization directly undermines a student’s competitive success. The time spent locating and identifying the “right” file taxes one’s mental energy and wastes valuable prep time. Chefs are extremely diligent about labeling and organizing the ingredients in their kitchen because doing so facilitates efficient preparation and ensures food safety. Debaters need to hold themselves to the same standard: labeling and organizing debate files is vital to facilitate efficient preparation and ensure that speeches include the best available content.

Fourth, electronic workspaces must be well-maintained to facilitate efficient preparation and speech construction. The chef’s workspace is their kitchen; a debater’s workspace is their computer. In the same way that a chef needs to maintain order and cleanliness in the kitchen, a debater needs to maintain order and (electronic) cleanliness on their computer. It’s not just about organizing files; it’s also about organizing your “space” so that those files are as usable as possible.

Vickie Austin, a strategic planning consultant, explains on her blog that:

A chef makes sure that he or she has all the ingredients before embarking on a recipe. He may have to stock the pantry ahead of time, or she may have to measure and set aside certain things in preparation for sautéing. Likewise, in our work, we need to make sure we have everything in place to be successful. That’s why there are so many books and resources on office organization and time management. Having the proper supplies may seem like a small thing, but if you don’t have the tools to do your work it’s hard to march on to greater success.

Then there’s the parallel concept of having a place for everything, and everything in its place. Having systems that work, knowing where things are and how to retrieve them, is another subtle yet powerful tool for achieving results.

For debaters, “having the proper supplies” means having the right files and “having a place for everything, and everything in its place” means having only the necessary files open. Many students open dozens of documents before and during debates; many open documents share a similar title (“Untitled1” or “Document1,” “Speech 1NC 8-28 3PM,” etc.). Navigating these documents requires careful tabbing to avoid mistakes. Students often accidentally close a document they need, move cards into the wrong document, or simply become overwhelmed and lose track of what they were doing. In the same way that chefs need to put away everything that they aren’t using to prepare a particular dish, debaters need to electronically “put away” everything they don’t need for a particular debate.

When thinking about the materials needed for a debate, students should consider whether they are being as efficient as possible. Could files be combined to cut down on the required number of open documents? Could files be created before debates that compile necessary materials into a single document? One helpful tip along these lines is for second affirmatives to create a document prior to affirmative debates that contains their blocks to everything the opposing team (or school) has read in previous rounds (according to one’s scouting information). If the team stays true to their previous script, prep time for the 2AC will be streamlined because all of the needed blocks will be neatly organized in a relatively short (and therefore easier to navigate) document. The specific technique isn’t as important as the universal lesson: like chefs, debaters should organize their workspaces with the goal of efficient preparation in mind.

Fifth, workflows must be well-designed to facilitate efficient preparation and speech construction. Once a debater has designed and organized their files and cleaned up their workspace, the important task remains of using those materials efficiently. This requires an effective workflow.

“Workflow planning involves the logical planning of time to ensure your work is completed methodically and with the minimum time and energy required,” explains Kylie Chapman, author of an Australian cooking curriculum for high school students. “Co-operation between all kitchen staff is an essential ingredient in successful workflow planning.”

According to Chapman, this process includes five steps:

Logical sequence – taking a step-by-step approach to completing tasks is important in any commercial kitchen. Having a clear and logical plan will ensure all dishes are ready for service.

Time efficiency – tasks should be approached in a time efficient manner. Some tasks are simple and others are more complex. By combining tasks, it is possible to achieve more than one goal at a time and complete tasks efficiently.

Planning and organisation – in a kitchen brigade, the head chef is responsible for the smooth running of the kitchen. However, a kitchen can not run smoothly if all sections are not working together. Planning and organisation are essential in the kitchen as it allows all sections to complete their tasks to ensure service times are met.

Time constraints – service periods rely on strict time constraints. Mise-en-place must be complete before a service period so meals can be served to the customer in a timely manner. Chefs must meet these time deadlines to ensure the customer receives their food in an appropriate time frame and to a high standard.

Co-operation – teamwork and co-operation are essential in any workplace. All workers in the kitchen brigade need to work together to reach their common goal.

Each of these steps has clear parallels to debate. Debaters need to have a logical, efficient system for completing the necessary tasks of speech construction. Before a debate, preparation responsibilities need to be clearly defined so that no one’s time or energy is wasted. During a debate, the process of constructing a speech needs to be consistent. What files are opened? How are blocks transferred to a speech document? How are blocks edited and organized? What is written on the flow and what is typed in the speech document? How are speech documents shared with the opposing team? After a debate, the clean up (saving documents and flows, writing and saving new blocks, etc.) and debriefing (round reports, wiki disclosure, judge comments, etc.) processes must be consistently followed. Everything should be done in a logical way that acknowledges the time constraints of a debate — and the whole process should be planned in advance in coordination with one’s partner.

Like a great chef, a great debater can employ the philosophy of mise-en-place to bring order to the chaos that surrounds them. By carefully gathering and arranging the materials needed to construct a speech, students can create a comprehensive workflow that maximizes efficiency, minimizes mistakes, and helps meet the challenge of a high-pressure debate.