Coq au Vin, Dump Sinks, and Plowing Through
A writer and chef publishes her memoir.In Marisa Mangani’s inspiring memoir, Mise en Place—Memoir of a Girl Chef, a young girl finds her purpose in the kitchen. Her love affair with food transforms into a full-fledged career as a chef and kitchen designer. Mangani defied the restrictions placed on her in the male-dominated arena of restaurant kitchens and learned to thrive, not just survive. Now, as she embarks on the new adventure of running her own kitchen-design business, she’s bringing her writing life along for future projects.
Food for so many people is a source of comfort or shame. What made you turn to food as self-expression?As a young girl, I’d always felt I wasn’t good at anything. When I got my first job in a restaurant at 14, the organizing, cutting, prepping, and cooking meals were all skills I excelled at. A few years later, I was taught the basics of French cooking—and then no one could slow me down!
You mention finding balance in life a lot. Is there one recipe that reflects the balance you seek to establish in your own life?
I’m not a follower of recipes really, but there have been dishes in certain stages of my life that fed into the balance I was seeking at the time. In my youth it was shrimp and pasta, and many iterations of it. Later, in New Orleans, I would strive for the perfect brown roux for gumbo, gleefully sweating my way through it. Now, in my older years, I prepare coq au vin every June to celebrate Anthony Bourdain’s life and his favorite dish. When my daughter is around, we drink an insanely expensive bottle of cabernet or two and cry together. At 62, that is balance, if you ask me.
What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned working in male-dominated industries?
It’s important for a woman to showcase what she is good at, no matter what. Brains before brawn, baby.
As a kitchen designer, what are the top three tips for creating a functional and organized kitchen?
One, research the operation—listen to the client’s vision extensively before putting pencil to paper. Exercise a skill that is dying in this digital world: listening. Two, the design needs to follow the flow of the food—from receiving, to storage, to prep, to production, to distribution, back to dishwashing, with no wasted steps. Three, mentally work each station to ensure enough storage, refrigeration, and prep—and, for God’s sake, put a dump sink in the beverage counter for the poor servers.
What do you hope readers might gain from your memoir?
I hope readers can get motivated about their own dreams. If I can do it, anyone can. Work at it: plow through the shit of life to get where you want to go if you have to. That’s what we’re here for, I think.
With such a remarkable reputation in the restaurant world, what made you decide to independently publish your book?
My manuscript had languished for years in the land of query and rejection. Then, after 27 years my kitchen designer job was slipping away—the strings were pulled from that tidy carpet I’d built as my foundation. Then I came into some money, and said: “Fuck it, it’s bucket list time.”
And what has been your experience in getting your book out to readers?
I used a hybrid publisher. And, as the lit world promised, it is up to me to market, get reviews, sell books, etc. My publisher set up the Amazon ads and optimization, and I am feverishly researching all the book this and book that on the internet in my little spare time.
The good news is I’d always wanted my career life and my writing life to converge, because I felt like I was living a double life, working by day and writing in the mornings. Now my two purposes are converging: Mise en Place, the memoir, and Mise en Place Design are two sides to my Sybil face. So I’ll continue to work hard at both, and good things should come.
Many writers have books they want to write beyond the ones they have published. Are there other books on your heart you hope to publish?
I love writing personal essays, so probably a book of essays: that way I can record a lot of life’s foibles swiftly!
If you could go back in time to redo a chapter of your life, which one would it be? What would you do differently?
There’re many instances in my life when I wished I’d made different choices at the time. But, in retrospect, the choices I made led to wonderful things, so I can’t really want any do-overs. However, I can point to something more recent that’s not in the book. In 2019 I was on a business trip with my boss in Michigan and, after our meetings, I drank two martinis out of stress about the news that he’d sold the company to a man not in our industry. I normally don’t drink martinis and got quite buzzed. That head-spin marks when I wished I’d made the decision to open my own company instead of hanging on for the three years of hell that were to come. I did start my business, four months ago—my final snub to the patriarchy—and it’s exhilarating but unfortunate that life had to bang my head against the wall for three horrible and pointless years in order to get me to do it. The picture of me and my stupid martini popped up on Facebook not too long ago, and I said to myself, “That was the moment I should not have smiled and nodded and drank gin. Well, no more martinis for me.
Who in the restaurant world inspires you the most to keep going when you’re feeling discouraged?
Hands down, Anthony Bourdain—RIP.
A previous version of this article suggested that Mise en Place—Memoir of a Girl Chef was self-published. As reflected above, the author actually published the book with River Grove Books, an imprint of Greenleaf, a hybrid press.