Have you every made a stir fry dish in which the meat was overcooked, the veggies burnt, the noodles congealed into a lump and the sauce was missing a key ingredient/flavor?
What about that special meal you made for guests in which the sides were ready well ahead of the main dish was ready to be served, and everyone waited while they got cold?
Do you wish you could join your guests at the table enjoy and enjoy the meal without loads and loads of stress?
Have you ever wondered how restaurant chefs can have your order come to on-time at the right temperature and looking beautiful?
It's not magic, and the cook is NOT racing around the kitchen with a clock ticking like on Chopped.
Sure the Chopped chefs DO have an amazing kitchen with all the appliances, all the gadgets, and bins of ingredients at the ready.
What makes a great restaurant meal, however, has much less to do with the appliances and gadgets as it does with planning and preparation or Mise en place - translated it's French for "to put in place".
What's that mean exactly?
Here are some key points.
Plan ahead - Whether you're mapping out your family's meals for the week (See 5 Things to do this weekend), or planning a special dinner to entertain friends and family, planning ahead HELPS a lot! Gather your recipes, read them through - twice. Cooks and carpenters aren't as different as you might think. Great cooking requires craftsmanship. Make a list of ingredients that you're going to need. I like to note anything that is unique or unfamiliar. Will it be available where you usually shop? Are tools or techniques mentioned that you don't have or don't know? If it's critical to the recipe you need to decide whether to get it, learn it, or choose another recipe. Timing is important, too. Think about the timing (prep, cooking, serving, etc.) of each dish. What about oven temperatures? Are the compatible with baking dishes at the same time?
Check your supplies what's in your freezer, pantry, and refrigerator? Do you have what the recipes require? Is a well-used recipe your can comfortably substitute similar ingredients? For new recipes, I like to follow them to the letter before going off-piste.
Before you cook, get everything together. This includes tools as well as ingredients. Ingredients should be "ready to cook." Time spent chopping and measuring, now, will eliminate stress and mistakes later. Some tasks can be done days (or weeks) ahead of time. A well-stocked freezer, refrigerator, pantry (stocks, staples, spices, meats, marinades), and an in-season kitchen garden can make cooking a pleasure rather than a chore.
Use your time well. Often you'll have dishes that bake for a while or have "rest time." I like to do some clean up during the lulls so there is not a mountain of work left for after the meal. If there are a lot of steps that come together at once (like an Asian stir-fry with noodles), having everything ready ahead of time makes things much less frantic.
Assign family members table-setting duties and other tasks, so you can focus on the food.
Breathe. Pour yourself a glass of wine. Relax for a couple of minutes before you serve.
Enjoy the meal with your family/guests.
Here are a couple of links to learn more about Mise en place.
Basic techniques from the Kitchn and The Reluctant Gourmet.