Over the past two years, author Dan Charnas has spent dozens of hours in professional kitchens interviewing over 100 people from the culinary world —including lauded chefs like Thomas Keller and André Soltner. The goal? To deconstruct the chef’s particular system of personal organization, called “mise-en-place,” and show how it can be applied outside kitchens—in offices, homes, and other settings. The book that resulted is called Work Clean: The Life Changing Power of Mise-en-Place to Organize Your Life, Work, and Mind. One of the chefs Charnas profiles is Jarobi White, an original member of A Tribe Called Quest, whose decision to depart from the crew to pursue a career in cooking led him to work in some of the finest kitchens in NYC. The following is an excerpt from the book, which chronicles White's journey from emcee to Roy Choi cooking partner.
In a kitchen at the New York Institute of Technology’s Long Island campus, a chef taught his new students how to turn potatoes—“turning” being one of the basic techniques of knife work: peeling and cutting vegetables so that they have a smooth and uniform shape.
One student, Jarobi White, was neither novice nor slouch. He’d been working in restaurants since he was 14 years old. Stuck stuffing hot dogs into buns at an O’Charley’s on Long Island, Jarobi muscled his way onto the hot line by convincing his boss to fire one of his coworkers because, Jarobi claimed, he could do both jobs at once.
Jarobi’s problem was that he hustled too hard and moved too much. The chef watched Jarobi at his station, potato skins spilling over the table and onto his feet, potatoes rolling off his cutting board. The chef could see Jarobi’s thoughts play out on his face: Oh, shit, I need a bucket! Jarobi crossed the kitchen to grab one. The potatoes now went into the bucket, graying as their moist insides came in contact with the air. Shit, I forgot to fill it with water! Jarobi crossed the kitchen again to fill the pail.
Finally the chef-instructor barked at him in German-accented French: “Mise-en-place!”
Jarobi turned around. He had no idea what the chef was saying.
“Mise-en-place! Mise-en-place!” The chef gestured to his own station: Tray, knife, pail of water, bowl for scraps.
Jarobi’s face lit up. Jarobi said: “Oh, word!” He meant: What a great idea.
The chef nodded: “Everything has its place,” he said. “I don’t go anywhere.”
Jarobi White gathered his mise-en-place, resumed, and tried going nowhere, fast.
While Jarobi White tried to make smaller moves, thousands of people were asking why he wasn’t making bigger ones. After all, Jarobi was the only person in that kitchen with a video on MTV. The year was 1991, and Jarobi was a member of a new rap crew named A Tribe Called Quest, along with three friends—Jonathan “Q-Tip” Davis, Malik “Phife” Taylor, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad. The previous year the group released their first video, “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo,” and their debut album had sold hundreds of thousands of copies, making A Tribe Called Quest one of the most talked-about new acts in hip-hop. While the group worked on their second album, Jarobi had second thoughts. He’d been skeptical from the start. Jarobi hadn’t signed the group’s penurious management and production contract. Recording artists found it hard to make money even in the best of circumstances, and even with Tribe’s success, they were still far from seeing real money to live on, not with four dudes in the group. With Q-Tip and Phife handling most of the vocals and Ali being the DJ, Jarobi was the unofficial member with the least-defined role and thus relegated himself to the margins. He had always been the silent one, with fans wondering aloud what he did. He soon became the invisible one—appearing, disappearing, and reappearing—fans wondering where he’d gone.
If they happened to stop into the Tacoma Station Tavern in Washington, DC, in the mid-1990s, they would have seen him running the small kitchen there, cooking soul food and burgers and wings. But if they caught Tribe on tour, or one of Phife’s solo gigs, Jarobi just might be on stage. You never knew. He kept moving. By the mid-2000s—married with a newborn son, and living in Charleston, South Carolina, where his wife was a teacher—Jarobi needed to plant some roots. He walked the town, handing his résumé to every restaurant on his path. The last one he visited, Pearlz Oyster Bar, was the only one with a black chef, Eric Boyd. Boyd took a chance on the boisterous quasi-famous rapper. “I want this guy in my kitchen,” the chef said.
Jarobi still treated cooking like a competitive sport, his goal being to drill out food faster than the chef or expediter could handle, to put them in the weeds, in the shit, dans la merde—meaning inundated with orders. Take that, motherfucker. Jarobi cooked at a furious pace. Fury, however, was not all Chef Eric wanted from Jarobi.
“Mise-en-place!” the chef said.
Jarobi compensated for his lack of preparation and order as he always had, with extra movement, speed, and muscle. But his adrenaline-fueled drive ran right over the subtlety of the chef’s dishes, like a delicate tempura tuna roll—raw tuna brushed with tempura batter; then rolled in panko crumbs and black and white sesame seeds; then quickly, carefully deep fried, so that the outside was crusty but the inside remained nice, succulent, and rare. The time difference between perfection and destruction of this dish was maybe 10 seconds, after which, according to Jarobi, it became “tuna in a can.” Jarobi kept destroying it. “What is this?” Chef said, smashing the plate to the ground. “Again!”
Jarobi repeated his failure, and the chef “plated” him once more. “Again!”
After his shift the chef asked Jarobi over to the bar and bought him a beer.
“I know it seems petty,” his chef continued. “But if you apply mise-en-place to how you cook, you can apply that to your life.”
Jarobi tightened his moves. He expended less energy and got more done. The chef began trusting him to run the kitchen in his absence, and Jarobi showed a flair for the administrative duties— inventory, ordering, analyzing food cost. The firm that owned the restaurant, Homegrown Hospitality, gave Jarobi the kitchen of their flagship steakhouse, TBonz. Staying put was paying off.
Then, just as everything came together, it fell apart. His wife lost her job. They had to move to Atlanta. The marriage dissolved. Jarobi bounced from job to job, including a gig as private chef to Lee Najjar, a nouveau-riche real estate investor who threw dinner parties where guests from the rap world would do double-takes seeing the fourth member of A Tribe Called Quest sautéing vegetables and slicing meat. Jarobi made lots of money and was miserable. He moved again, back to New York.
Thanksgiving dinner at Q-Tip’s house in 2010 changed Jarobi’s fortune. One of Q-Tip’s friends dropped by: Josh “Shorty” Eden, the Jean-Georges Vongerichten–trained chef of a new restaurant in Manhattan called August. “If you ever move back from Atlanta,” Eden said, “I could use your help.”
“Well,” Jarobi replied, “guess what?”
The next Monday, Jarobi White stepped into one of the most rarified kitchens in New York. He knew how much he didn’t know, but he did know that the kind of career leap he had just made was impossible.
For “Shorty,” hiring Jarobi meant breaking him down, forcing him to unlearn all the bad habits he had accumulated in the course of his career. Wear an apron, Jarobi. Make sure your braids are up, Jarobi. Don’t eat breakfast at your station, Jarobi.
Like all cooks, Jarobi took shortcuts. Eden tried to show him what shortcuts he could and couldn’t take. Eden went for as many corny analogies to the music world as possible: How many times did you cut that song before you put that record out? Slow down. Or: Learn how to fix things. When the show starts and you forget a line, do you stop and start over? No, you find your way through it. Eden didn’t care about Jarobi’s semi-celebrity. When Jarobi messed up, Eden yelled at him just like he would anyone else. You’re supposed to be making my job easier, not harder. Then he taught Jarobi the right way to do it.
Jarobi called Eden his “Yoda.” He learned about molecular gastronomy: foams and other subtle arts associated with modernist cuisine. Jarobi’s education on mise-en-place began anew, too. When Jarobi relied on speed and brute force, Eden encouraged sensitivity. Most of all, Eden forced Jarobi to bring order to his surroundings and restraint to his movements: Where and how to stand. How to set his station. How to move his hands and arms.
Eden invested months training Jarobi, but the hours expended early on started to pay off. Eden put him on lunch service. The apprentice improved. Jarobi climbed through the stations. Then came the morning that Eden decided he could sleep late. Why? Because Jarobi was in the kitchen, handling things.
Jarobi worked for Eden for three years, until August closed. He left a bona fide New York cook. More than that, Jarobi had joined a noble family of chefs, a direct lineage that Eden could trace for him all the way back to France, beginning with Fernand Point, viewed by many as the successor to Escoffier in the evolution of French cuisine. Point trained Louis Outhier and Paul Bocuse. And a student of Outhier and Bocuse—a young Alsatian chef named Jean-Georges Vongerichten—brought that training with him to America, where in 1993 he met a hustling 23-year-old cook just out of the French Culinary Institute named Josh Eden. Now Eden had passed that training on to Jarobi White.