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French Chef Smackdown

Dear Chef Bourdain;

Bad news, chef. Julia Child took you out by a hair.  It was a good fight, you hung in there until the very last round, and for a while you even had her up on the ropes. But in the end, she has some secret weapons on her side that were the telling edge. It should come as little surprise that one of those secret weapons was bacon. (The other was mushrooms.)

Actually, Chef, the whole start of this exercise was my astonishment that your boeuf bourgignon recipe didn’t involve any mushrooms or bacon. It was my understanding that these were fundamental elements to the recipe – that otherwise it was just a beef fricasee in red wine. I conferred with “Mastering The Art of French Cooking” after reading your recipe, and sho’ nuff, Julia says mushrooms and bacon.  So I thought – heck, let’s try them both and see how it turns out.

Given that I was setting out to make two fairly lengthy dishes, I took special care to get my meez straight. Remember kids – don’t fuck up your meez.

Master Yoda says, "Fuck up your meez not, young chefi."

I decided to start with yours first, since the stew reheats well, I figured it really didn’t matter if I was done early and had to let them sit for a while and wait for my guest judges to assemble. Actually, I tell a lie – I got up early and started on the rassa frassa simmered pearl onions for Chef Child’s recipe. But once those were done and set aside, I set to on the Les Halles recipe.

First, brown the meat. In batches, like you say. I worried that maybe my impatience meant I wasn’t really browning the meat enough, and not giving it enough of a nice crisp texture when finished. But looking at this picture? Nah, that was some gorgeous meat right there. (I hear that a lot, Chef, by the by.)

Why don't we just eat it like this?

I had a gajillion onions sliced already, so I just finished it up as you instruct – brown the onions, add the meat, add the burgundy, water, and two large spoonfuls of demi-glace. Bring to boil, then simmer.

Resist eating it for three hours while it simmers.

Your instructions say to let it summer for two-three hours until it’s fork-tender. It actually took me closer to four hours to get that tender. Also, I did some research and found that paleron is the same thing as chuck roast.  So that’s the meat I used. I couldn’t find a decent burgundy that wasn’t incredibly expensive, so I used a bourdeaux instead. In retrospect, I’d probably use dark stock instead of water the next time I make this, too.

Now, while this was happily simmering on the stove top, I had to do the competition’s bourgignon. This was considerably more effort – I had to boil bacon, then brown bacon, then remove it, then brown the beef in batches, then brown the onions, then pour off excess fat and add the beef, then mix in some flour – then in the oven at high heat for four minutes, then toss it, then in the oven for four minutes again, then add stock and wine on the stove top, boil, back in the oven at a simmer. In the mean time, sautee mushrooms. When it’s finally done, you separate the sauce and the beef, add the mushrooms and onions to the beef, skim the fat off the sauce, then put it all together and simmer it on the stovetop again. Sheesh. And while all this is going on, fend off Assistant Chef Bourdain, who is ever-ready to sneaky-snake something off the counter top if I don’t watch him.

Assistant chef he may be, but he is sneaky-snake-in-cheif.

You might find this shocking, Chef, but it wasn’t hard to find some judges to help us decide which was better. We had guest judges from as far away as Boston, from as far North as Simi Valley, as far out as Rancho Cucamunga, and as far South as Costa Mesa. It wasn’t hard to find people more than willing to sit down to some hot beef stew on a cold and rainy night. We get one or two of those a year, and this was one of them. We also lubricated them with the wine we didn’t cook, plus a couple of more bottles contributed to the cause by the guests. Suffice to say, they were feeling pretty hungry, pretty cheerful, and pretty cozy when they sat down to the serious business of our blind taste-test.

I gave them a spoonful of each, one in a bowl and one on the plate so we could tell the difference. The results were 5-3 in favor of Julia Child – but everyone admitted it was a pretty close call no matter what. Julia’s recipe just uses “stew meat” and a cheap, dry, young red – chianti, for instance. So if we’d used better beef she might have done even better. On the other hand, quite a few people said “This is what I expect bourgignon to taste like, but this one is better” – meaning yours had that classic taste. Personally, I had to give it to Julia Child, because of the bacon and the mushrooms. I do notice that you use a lot of onions in your bourgignon, whereas she uses only one, and keeps the pearl onions separate until the end. I think the acid of the onions in yours makes the beef more tender, in addition to smelling amazing while it cooks.

But the truth is, yours was a lot easier to make, and I think that’s the heart of bistro-style cooking –  make it simple, make it fast, and make it good. Strip your dishes down to their bare essentials. So when I make boeuf bourgignon again, I think I’ll use the Les Halles method, and just add in a bit of bacon and mushrooms. I’d bet my pancreas that if I made yours that way, it would have won decisively.

Take some consolation, Chef. You might have lost the smackdown – and honestly, Julia Child was an OSS operative and no retiring lily, I’d expect her to work you like side of beef if you’d actually faced her in the ring – she had years of clean living, CIA training and exercise while you were scoring smack and snorting coke. She’d push you around like a G8 protestor, man. But there was one clear winner in this contest, and that was us, the folks that got to sit down and judge it.

I learned a lot about cooking yesterday, and I got to share a good meal with good friends. The space around the table was satisfied and companionable, and even the dog replete with the scraps that were his righteous due once they hit the floor. That’s the thing about learning to cook – the better I get, the happier the people in my  life end up. And for that, I thank both you, and Julia Child.

We’re all winners in that contest, Tony!

Yours;

Davy

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Categories: Cooking, Eating
  1. Paul G
    January 3, 2011 at 1:38 PM

    When I mentioned the boeuf bourguignon smack down today at work, someone offered up their favorite boeuf bourguignon recipe as the ‘Southern Living’ one.

    http://find.myrecipes.com/recipes/recipefinder.dyn?action=displayRecipe&recipe_id=10000001923507

    • January 3, 2011 at 1:53 PM

      That’s pretty close to the Julia Child recipe. Just as complex – actually more, since you have to marinate it overnight. But it looks pretty good!

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