Dear Foodie friends,
Three intense days at Ecole Gregoire-Ferrandi gave me many insights on what is going on in the pots, plates, and minds of our young generation’s cooking instructors.
Having paid the yearly tax entitling my company’s staff to take a continuing education session, I signed up at Paris’ most prestigious professional cooking school for a stage (also known as an apprenticeship) with the promising title “La Cuisine Bistronomique.” It was defined as “creative chefs serving a modern take on French classics in an relaxed setting at affordable prices.” It’s the kind of cooking you’ll see at Parisian restaurants like Le Comptoir du Relais, l’Ami Jean, and Chez Michel, to name a few.
At 8:30 a.m. on a sunny November morning, all dressed up in my whites and clogs, little me enters the working kitchen lab, surrounded by eleven men : Jérémie, our thirty-something instructor and ten co-students. Seven of them turn out from 100 to 1000 meals a day for corporate and government cafeterias, and three own restaurants, in Brittany and the Alps. They had all signed up, like me, to learn new tricks, and to break away from routine.
Jérémie went all out, using every technical contraption in the lab, including the siphon, the sous-vide machine, the “four vapeur” (steam oven), and these magical powders called Kappa, xanthan gum, and the more pedestrian Agar-Agar. Minced herring was added to the filet mignon steak tartare (not sure that was necessary), sea urchins were filled with a coffee-flavored, creamy foam paired with porcini mushrooms, smoked eel sneaked into a parsnip galette, and polenta rectangles were cut out. Sounds complicated ? It was. The guys had the time of their life, playing like kids in the sandbox with their “Sharper Image” tools. I was treated nicely, with no trace of the legendary Macho attitude. Merci Thierry, Denis, Frédéric, Nicolas, Olivier …even though you couldn’t figure out who I cook with or for.
It can be your turn to have fun with “bistronomique” cooking for the upcoming holidays. Some ideas are really doable, once the over the top constructions have been deconstructed.
Day one : Jérémie is into vertical and rectangles in creating his dish of leeks and beets with truffle vinaigrette (in French it’s called poireaux, pêle mêle de betteraves crues et cuites, vinaigrette à la truffe, oeuf miroir).
To make the dish, steam several whole leeks (white part only). Peel a large red beet, drizzle it with olive oil and sprinkle with salt, then wrap it in foil and bake for 1 1/2 hours at 350° F. Cut it into circles when cooled slightly. Using a mandolin, slice one Chioggia beet (this is a tough job). Combine half a cup of fresh goat cheese with whatever herbs you have in your kitchen and a tablespoon of olive oil until creamy. Take a few spoonfuls of minced canned truffles and add them to a vinaigrette oil. Make a Melba toast by baking thin slices of buttered sandwich bread at 350° F until crispy and brown. Finally, fry several quail eggs until the white is set. To assemble, place the leeks in the center of the plate, top with the goat cheese and raw and cooked beets, garnish with the egg and drizzle with the truffle dressing. Your little vegetable boat will sail away !
Day two : the rectangle meets the triangle in sardine tartare with cod cream (tartare de sardines, crème de morue, caviar Havruga et ses condiments).
The tartare is made by cutting several fresh sardines by hand into tiny pieces, though if you don’t like sardines, you can use salmon or tuna. The white “salted cod cream” is really a brandade, one of my favorite fish dishes. To make it, poach fresh cod in milk until flaky and then fold it into mashed potatoes. The caviar is actually herring roe that’s been dyed with squid ink. It’s very popular here and a good replacement for real caviar (remember — bistronomique is affordable cooking). Be patient when lining up the hard-boiled egg yolks, egg whites, chopped chives, and shallots, and don’t forget the flower !
Day three : Jérémie rounds up the rectangle with cream of chestnut soup (velouté de chataigne, tartine Poilâne au confit de canard, et pop-corn caramélisé)
OK, cream of chestnuts is a staple in my kitchen come winter, and so is the foam. I’m not sure I will be adding caramelized popcorn to my soup, though ! In this version, we added toasts topped with duck confit, an excellent pairing with the chestnuts.
Dessert bonus : A rectangular, round, and dotted lemon tart (tarte au citron, meringue croustillante, coulis d’orange sanguine). The lemon curd balls are dipped in Kappa, which is a clear tasteless gel, while citric acid is combined with yellow coloring and drizzled over the meringue. I think I will stick to my classic, constructed tarte au citron recipe.
Jérémie borrows his fellow instructor’s device , a pipe attached to a rectangular box with holes at the bottom. You fill the pipe with a sauce (here, a blood orange coulis), you press on the pump, and you are supposed to have even rows of little points. Even a Ferrandi instructor might need to practice. I do like the fact that the dots are uneven, more kinetic …and human.
Recommended reading : Lauren Shockey, who was my assistant a few years ago, recently published Four Kitchens : My Life Behind the Burner in New York, Hanoi, Tel Aviv and Paris (Grand Central Publishing), a memoir of her stages at the molecular gastronomy restaurant wd-50 in NYC, La Verticale in Hanoi, Carmella Bistro in Tel-Aviv and Senderens in Paris. Very diverse experiences, with insights into local culture as well as restaurant kitchens etiquette. She thankfully includes adaptations of these kitchens’ recipes for home cooks.
Back home after her year around the world, Lauren concludes “I discovered what I loved : cooking for my friends and family, sharing the bounty of the table together … it’s those you share it with who really matter”. Don’t we all agree ?
If you are interested in knowing more, just email me and I will be happy to share more insights.
Happy holidays !