Dear Chef Bourdain;
Do you think you could take Julia Child in a fair fight? I know you’re pretty tall, but you’re a lanky bastard – and I swear, I think she’s just as tall as you. I dunno, chef – I think I have to put my money on Mrs. Child. And we’re going to find out on Sunday.
See, one of my best friends in town, and he is no slouch when it comes to the French cooking, being a Frenchy bastard himself. So I figure I’m going with one of the Big Classics to make dinner for him – bouef bourgignon. I start doing my recon on your recipe, like I do, to get ready. This has become my habit – I pull out a clean sheet of paper, and I put the ingredients I don’t have or think I might not have at the top. I double-check that list in the kitchen, then go shopping. My next step of planning is writing down all the steps and how long they take – then backwards planning that from the time I want to serve. This works especially well when I’ve got a bunch of stuff planned.
S’anyway I’m making the list, and I realize – no bacon! No mushrooms! What the heck? I pull out my copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and check. Sure enough, bacon and mushrooms are so integral to the recipe that it’s even in the description of the history of the dish. I suspect the difference here is, your book is all about bistro-style cooking, and you don’t have time when you’re moving fast to put it in the oven for four minutes, brown the flour, take it out, put it back in, etc etc. So heck with it – leave out the extra steps and strip it down to the basics, the pure heart of the bourgignon.
Or not, maybe it’s really a lot better the classic way. So I’m going to try it both ways. Both you and Julia point out that it’s even better the next day, when reheated – so that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to make both kinds on Sunday, and serve the winner for dinner – and freeze the loser for later consumption, probably while skiing. I mean, not actually WHILE skiing, because that would just be nuts. I mean like, after skiing.
So strap on your boxing gloves, Chef. You’re going up against the 400 pound gorilla of French cooking in America. By the by, I made poulet roti again and it didn’t turn out quite as sublime as the first time. Beginner’s luck, maybe? Or maybe I did something wrong. Don’t misunderstand, it was great – it just wasn’t life-changing great like that first time. Seriously that shit was amazing. I’m going to be chasing that dragon for the rest of my life, I think.
Today I’m making clear chicken stock of the bones – I don’t have that from stock day, and anyway I’ve used most of the dark chicken stock already anyway. I’m also making mushroom soup for tonight, but that’ll get its own entry.
Ok, it’s time for me to hit the store and do some shopping. You feel that on the back of your neck, Chef? That’s the shadow of Julia Child, looming over you like a gladiator. Get ready to rumble!
Dear Chef Bourdain;
I know you’re a pretty avid supporter of pate de foie gras and, to put it slightly diplomatically, irked by folks who are lobbying to get it banned. So I’m sure you’d be happy to read the following post about the physiology of duck-feeding, de-bunking some of the worst misconceptions about how foie gras is produced.
Certainly from the point of view of this writer, responsible producers maintain a facility that’s as humane as any farm where animals are raised for slaughter. The ducks aren’t crowded, they’re in good health, they have room to roam, and they’re basically unruffled (get it? See what I did there?) by the gavage process. In fact, ducks swallow their food whole, store it in their crop, and grind it up in their gizzards like many birds. So giving them more food than they can digest at once just mirrors what they do when they’re storing food for a migratory journey, albeit to a greater extent.
The one thing that blew my mind? Ducks have a trachea completely separate from their esophagus – and it runs from their lungs out through their tongues! So ducks breathe through their tongues. That’s just weird, man. It’s so weird, I think we should eat them.
So there you go, chef – if ever you want to do something other than spit bile and mock anti-foie gras activists, you can give them as a rational rejoinder. Anyone who eats chicken – which are fattened in their pens like any domestic animal – should feel ethically okay about eating foie gras.
I still can’t find any locally though. What a pain in the liver!
Dear Chef Bourdain;
For Christmas I served a crown roast of pork. I used a recipe I found from Gourmet Magazine. It was made with a marjoram and sage stuffing – but I modified that to go along better with sauce bearnaise by using thyme and tarragon instead. I also repeated your gratin dauphinoise.
But the real triumph was the bearnaise. I corrected my previous mistakes; for Christmas I got a metal mixing bowl, and I used that in a properly simmering double-boiler. Also, I chopped the shallots much finer, though maybe using the food processor was a bit of a cheat. Actually, I can chop an onion or a shallot pretty quickly now, so I feel like I’ve learned something there, too.
I was ably assisted by Dummy The Cat, who reminded me over and over again what’s become my catch-phrase in this project – “Don’t fuck up the meez.” I mean, when you’ve got a cat poking her nose in your prep, you make extra sure that it’s all measured out and safely stowed. As a result, I was able to pull off dinner for 12, never lose my cool, and keep the kitchen basically neat while working. So much so that Dummy’s predations were minimized, and when MLF got home from visiting family, she said, “Wow. Everything actually looks pretty clean.” Chef – I did not fuck up my meez.
Anyway, the bearnaise came out just perfectly. The egg yolks never got close to curdling, and the sauce thickened up as beautifully as could be with the butter. It was a gorgeous emulsion, and it kept in a thermos for an hour and than another few hours on the table without breaking. This morning we had a little leftovers, and the sauce was still firm and delicious. It was well received at the table, too. I don’t have the greatest experience with bearnaise in the world, but it was easily the best I’ve had, anyway.
People seemed quite taken with the dolphinnoise, too, which I jazzed up with a little bit of white truffle oil. Unlike last time, I put the herbs in a sachet – which you don’t call for in your recipe, but makes fishing them out after boiling the potatoes in cream quite a bit easier.
So in short, the stuff I made that came from elsewhere was good but not fantastic, whereas everything out of the good book was really excellent. I didn’t make anything I hadn’t tried before, but like you said, I’m going to fuck up the bearnaise the first time, so just try it again. And lo – it worked! Somehow we squeezed 12 people into our little house for Christmas dinner – but the crowd wasn’t a burden, but a pleasure. Somehow this big family is all really close. No one fights, they all sit down to share genuine affection, love and…dare I say it? Joy. Yes, joy. What goes better with joy than pork, cream, butter, and cheese, I ask you?
Nothing chef. Nothing at all. I hope your Christmas was just as merry – I’m sure your dinner was!
Dear Chef Bourdain;
With the Christmas just around the corner, all the cuts and roasts that are normally hard to get are on display at the local supermarkets. For my Christmas beast feast, I settled on a crown roast of pork. No recipe for that in The Book, but I’ll make do. Anyway, a bone-in rib steak, which is what we’d call Cote de Boeuf, was easily available, so I seized the opportunity. This means making sauce bearnaise, though, which is one of the things I was both dreading and looking forward to. One of my chief motivations in this project was my utter inability to make any sauce that requires an emulsion. Sauce bearnaise is like the granddaddy of all emulsions, so it was going to be a challenge. Never the less, your assertion that this sauce senses fear was well taken, and I proceeded with the courage of my convictions.
First I paid very careful attention to my mise-en-place. The tarragon reduction was pretty easy, and the process of clarifying the butter worked exactly as I’ve heard it described, but never done before. Imagine that!
I didn’t want to be in the middle of trying to keep the sauce from breaking and scrabble for something. So I got all the ingredients together, and sort of mentally rehearsed how it would go. With that in mind, I could proceed without feeling like I had no idea what I was doing, and also without having to stop to check the recipe. Here is the result.
This video goes on too long. Also my fiancee argues with me too much. Anyway the result was a really delicious sauce, and the steak was exquisite. The sauce had a tendency to separate a bit when it was left alone, but this could be rectified with just a little stirring. And the flavor! It was so intense and smooth and tangy! It was nothing like bearnaise sauce I’ve had in the past, in a very good way. This is one of my favorite recipes I’ve done so far, and MLF says it’s her favorite, hands down.
I got a cast iron pan ripping hot. Today was the largest rainfall in Los Angeles history, so the grill was kind of out of the question. I seasoned the steak, put olive oil in the pan, and browned it on all side for about three minutes a side.
I literally had to stop MLF from molesting the steak -she picked up a fork and was about to poke it. “STOP! What are you doing?” I said. “I want to poke it,” she said. To what end? This is the sort of mystery that plagues inter-gender relations throughout the ages. I convinced her not to molest the steak, and put it in a 400F oven for 12 minutes – this was a really thick steak, it needed the extra time.
I let it rest. Between Assistant Chef Bourdain and a poke-mad girlfriend, I had to guard this steak pretty carefully so it could get some rest. I felt like Napoleon’s Imperial Guard, keeping watch over his campaign tent so L’Empreur could sleep in peace. When it was done, voila – amazing steak.
Of course, I did serve a shockingly expensive burgundy in cheap glasses. I did serve that steak in bleeding, fat-rippled hunks, just as you instructed. And yet, despite my attempts to show them who’s their daddy – which your book promises I will accomplish, when I asked MLF who her daddy is, she said, “My daddy is my father.” So yeah, that just didn’t work at all.
I guess if I want to be someone’s “daddy” I’m just going to have to have kids. But they can’t have any of the wine!
Not your daddy;
Dear Chef Bourdain;
Based on my extensive research – and by that I mean I read “Kitchen Confidential” and “Medium Raw“; you spent time in France in your youth, but not as an adult. Too busy scoring smack and grilling meat, I gather. But no doubt recently you have, given all your “No Reservations” episodes in France. Some of my favorites, by the way, and I’m by no means a Fraco-phile. So you’ll know what I mean when I say Gallic indifference to someone else’s inconvenience can be infuriating.
There’s a place near my house in Venice that when I refer to it I call “The French”. Though in fact it’s really The French Market and Cafe. But whatever, the point is they serve good breakfasts and have a little market with French imports in it. I checked there for some of the weirder stuff I need for this project and basically struck out – what they’ve got is either pre-prepared, or the kind of stuff I can find at any market around here.
But! Oh joy! I stopped in the other morning for coffee and a croissant on the way to work and discovered they had boudin noir, which previously they didn’t. I didn’t want to take what’s basically congealed blood with me to work, though, so I didn’t get it on the spot. For whatever damn French socialist reason though, they were closed at 5PM when I stopped by on the way home. So today – I went back. Fuck it, I’ll just throw it in the fridge at work to thaw, and serve boudin noir aux pommes for dinner tonight.
Nope. Frozen packet of congealed blood in hand, I went to the register. A gaggle of people stood around it, confused. There’s a sign that says “NO CREDIT CARDS”. The lady behind the register was utterly unruffled – no doubt due to her utter lack of concern. There was mad buzzing from the circle of people though – they were stymied. They had already got their coffee and pastries from the self-serve, but had no means to pay.
“Will you take a check?” asked one lady.
The woman behind the counter did it, then. The Gallic Shrug. The “sounds like you’ve got a problem” shrug. The shrug that causes all responsibility to bounce off like low caliber rounds off the front glacis of an Abrams battle tank. So invulnerable to responsibility are French merchants, that it’s well known that Tony Stark keeps a “Hulkbuster” Frenchman handy to shrug if the Hulk goes on another rampage. BOOM. Stopped cold.
So she shrugs and says, “No no no.” As if taking a check was some sort of mad request, like, “I’ve got a handful of Africanized bees. I’ll give them to you in exchange for coffee?”
Chef, I wish I was capable of not giving a shit like French shopkeepers are. It’s amazing. It would be so handy in business meetings, or when my girlfriend asks me to take out the trash. Just shrug. “No no no.” And that’s the end of it.
So no blood sausage for me, until I go and get some cash first or something.
Guess I’ve got a problem, non?
Dear Chef Bourdain;
For the most part, my job is better than yours used to be. Definitely not better than it is, because clearly you have about the best job in the world right now. But I’m talking the 14 hours a day on your feet in a kitchen part. Mostly I sit on my butt doing computer stuff – it’s almost always low stress, pays well, and I like the people I work with. Also, they never threaten to “stand on either side of me, drill a hole in my neck and make their dicks touch in the middle”. Well, almost never, anyway.
But tonight I’m stuck watching a database restore which is as thrilling as it sounds. So that’s why I have time for a second letter in the same day. That’s okay though, since I have quite a backlog of things I’ve made and have yet to report on. It’s just that writing these letters after work, I only have so many hours in the day, you know?
Dear Chef Bourdain;
You know how people quote Winston Churchill, and talk about “blood, sweat and tears” going into some effort or another? Well, I can say that I literally put blood, sweat and tears – oh so many tears – into your Onion Soup Les Halles.
This was another one of those recipes where, if I’d followed your instructions literally, the results would have been seriously awful – but because I had some idea what the final product should look like, I could ” call an audible” and it turned out beautifully. This was part of the massive dinner I put together in honor of my best friend (and the best man at my wedding in May – oh by the way, Chef, you’re invited. It’s on Catalina, make it an episode, it’ll be awesome.) who was visiting Southern California on vacation.
Dear Chef Bourdain;
I’m hosting Christmas dinner for 10 to 12 people, and don’t want to break the bank. The “Les Halles Cookbook” has lots of great recipes for big dishes based on reasonably priced cuts of meat – but the problem is what’s a cheap cut in France is like frickin’ expensive in L.A. I believe this is not the first time I’ve made that particular lament.
Your “No Reservations” holiday special was of very little use – since I can’t count on Dave Chang and Mario Batali sending their contributions, and unless something weird happens, no one is going to give me a side of beef cut to order, and Ruhlman won’t be around as sous-chef. I’ll have the enthusiastic help of Assistant-Chef Bourdain, at least. (If you look closely at this picture, he’s actually licking his lips.)
If it was a small gathering, I’d go with the Cote d’Boeuf – serve it in bleeding, fat-rippled chunks with a ridiculously expensive cabernet in cheap glasses. Just to show ‘em who’s their daddy. (It might not be me. I’ve never seen that woman before in my life. I want a DNA test!)
But with this many, that would easily top $200, and I’m saving up for a wedding, I’ve got car payments, yadda yadda. Must be nice to be a celebrity chef sometimes, with people more than happy to donate equipment and ingredients. But as a humble IT nerd, cost is an issue. But several of my guests are serious foodies, too, so I don’t want to just phone it in – and we’re having a big Christmas goose the night before, so a smoked turkey is out. Let me tell you, it’s not French cuisine, but when I do a turkey in the smoker, it’s pretty amazing.
So I dunno. I might not be able to use your cookbook on this one. I’m open to suggestions (and corporate sponsors! “This Christmas Beast Feast brought to you by … [The Travel Channel? Monsanto? Wusthof?] and God Inc. ™ bless us, every one.”
I guess it’s unreasonable to expect to dazzle a big bunch of foodies with fine French cuisine and stay on a budget. I don’t think I ever made a claim to be reasonable though.
Help me out here, Chef. You owe me after that rillettes disaster!
Dear Chef Bourdain;
Your rillettes recipe was so bad, I can only imagine it was a dirty trick. I mentioned it before in a previous letter; but it didn’t seem to be going right even when I was making them. The allotted time for simmering several pounds of various sorts of pork didn’t get them in anything like condition to shred easily with a fork. Even after going an extra hour at higher heat, and then really cranking up the heat to try and render that fat, it didn’t melt. In despair, and recognizing I’d already gone off the reservation anyway – I threw it in a food processor so it was at least shredded.
But your recipe calls for a pound of thinly sliced raw fat. It doesn’t say rendered fat, it doesn’t say it should be cooked – just layered on top of the finished rilettes and “folded in”. Yeah, that was disgusting.
At the end of the day, the only rillettes that were at all like they’re supposed to be, is because MLF’s mother insisted on scraping up the bottom of the pan in which I’d cooked them. Those fatty, greasy scraps? They were awesome. The rest was dry and crumbly and basically no good.
Well, no good except that in a wretched orgy of fried foods, I wrapped some in a won-ton wrapper and deep-fat fried it, which was delicious. Hot grease drooling across my chin, molten pork-jam scalding my tongue in a last act of piggy revenge on he who consumed it. That was awesome.
I served this as a starter with Steak Tartare. That too seems like there’s something wrong with the recipe. It’s not that it was bad -in fact it was quite good – but it was quite soupy, which isn’t my expectation of what Steak Tartare should be like. I followed the recipe scrupulously, with the possible exception that there might have been slightly more sirloin than normally – which would seem to indicate it would be more firm. Here’s the plate with Steak Tartare on it.
If you’ll refer to your own book, you’ll see that your steak tartare recipe is one of the few that has a picture with it, and it doesn’t resemble the product you see above. I’d be more put out about this except it was good anyway, and next time I’ll just mix the “soup” with the steak bit by bit until it has the right consistency, instead of just glopping it all in at once.
This whole dinner was a killer though. I served steak tartare, rillettes, porc mignons a l’ail, pommes puree with truffles, and onion soup les halles all at once. I was so stressed out trying to get it all to come out at once, I don’t think each individual dish was as good as it ought to be. And also I was so flustered, like a Mormon at a porn convention, that when I finally sat down to eat, I didn’t really pay proper attention to the food. The wine and rum might not have helped, either.
Or maybe it did.
I’ll let ya know how the other stuff came out, but I’m kinda honked off about those rillettes, You let me down, chef!
Dear Chef Bourdain;
Not all your recipes are very clear. In fact, some of them are fucking mysterious. Take the pork rilletes, for instance. I got all the various kinds of pork required, pork belly, pork shoulder and pork fat – and followed your instructions; “Put it in a pot covered in water and cook for 6 hours. Shred, cover with fat in a dingus, wait for three days.”
Yeah. Well, after six hours, there was no way that pork was going to shred, and I didn’t know if that meant it should be cooked longer, or if it was too late. I poked around on the internet and some other people jacked the heat up for an hour or so at the end. I tried that. Still wouldn’t shred. Some sage advice from my future mother-in-law, who is a dab hand at cuisine a la Francaise, told me put a lid on it and let it sit on low heat for a while.
Even that didn’t work – the fat on the pork bellies had never melted and was still really firm. So fuck it, I threw it in the processor. It shredded. There was nothing in your recipe about knowing when it was done, what it would look like when i was done, etc. If it weren’t for La Grande Dame, I just wouldn’t have known what to do, and the whole thing would have been a waste. I’m still not sure that, with the fat slices raw on top, it’s really going to turn out right…but apparently when it cooled down in the pan, the little bits that were left tasted right.
So maybe it’s ok. I dunno, I just can’t tell. But…it’s pig jam. PIG JAM. I will eat that, even if it’s not right.