Friday, November 16, 2007

Frenchness with Jacques & Jean-Claude

The anticipation at the beginning of this week was enough for everyone to be a little on edge. The big day had finally arrived and I think a lot of us were questioning our skills and whether we felt good enough to be preparing a meal where guests paid $500 a head. I couldn't help but wonder how realistic the pricing was, after all, the most expensive set menu in America was $400 at Masa in New York. I'd gone to the French Laundry earlier this year and it was $240 a head and it's routinely voted the best restaurant in the US and is always featured at the top of international restaurant lists.

Obviously, the inclusion of priceless wines helped buffer the cost, but then, I think most of the guests that did pay were paying for the privilege of dining with Jacques Pepin and having some specularly Jacques food. So, Thomas Keller and Masa Takayama be damned, we're chargin' $500.

When Jacques and Jean-Claude arrived, we were all a buzz with nervous energy. I've never heard the class so quiet (much to Paul's dismay). He came in a chatted a bit about technique and skill while Kevin prepared the various items he would demonstrate for us. Everyone at that point was just too nervous to say anything, but luckily, Jean-Claude came in and broke the ice, making a crack at Jacques' expense. Everything else seemed move more organically from that point on.

But, man, there's nothing quite like watching Jacques Pepin take apart a chicken. I've often joked that this class should be renamed "1001 ways to take down a chicken," and today was different. Jacques showed us how to entirely debone a chicken while leaving the chicken flesh and skin in tact for stuffing and rolling (in this case, we were making ballantines). It looked easy enough, of course, but by time I had to start on my own chickens, I'd lost my mind and all rational thought. I remembered some, but not all, of the steps. And, making it worse, I forgot the order of some of the steps. It took about ten minutes for me to take apart my first chicken, and the last half the procedure went by in a flash because Jacques saw me helplessly floundering and took the chicken out of my hands to demonstrate.

I attacked my second chicken with optimism and the hope that having just watched over Jacques' shoulder how it was done it'd go much faster with cleaner results. I was only mostly wrong. It did take me much less time to take apart this chicken, and I remembered more of the steps, but (and I dont' know why) I felt afraid of the chicken. I was worried about breaking it, which in retrospect, I understand is a ridiculous concern for someone holding a dead chicken (or a carnivore). Regardless, once I recognized and got over it, it went pretty smoothly.

It was a confusing day in many ways because none of us were assigned to any particular project, but rather just bounced around hoping to get everything done and be useful. I stayed on chicken duty for the majority of the afternoon, helping season and mix the sausage-based stuffing that would fill the chickens. Eventually, I helped stuff and tie all the chickens together, something that came very easily to me because of my preference for roasting things at home. We seperated all the chickens into two batches, because we had two evenings of demonstrations, Jacques and Claude wanted us to do all the prep we could for both evenings, so that Wednesday could be mostly devoted to making the big dinner on Thursday night.

The menu for the technique demonstrations was simple but very warm and comfortable. The first course was a slice of a French-style omlete on a bed of salad greens and a slice of toasted baguette spread with chicken liver pate. The second (and main) course was a slice of chicken ballantine on polenta with a little gravy. The final course was a simple dessert of citrus segments on a raspberry coulis.

It was a busy day and few of us were able to really get involved in the various aspects of the dinner. I was able to watch Jacques cook and put together the chicken liver (which, was simply divine) and demonstrate how to make a perfect French omlete. We also all watched Jacques peel and segment cirtrus fruits with a knife and by the end of the week most of us were fairly proficient at it (mostly because we'd done so many). I stuck to the chicken prep (although didn't cook them -- in the end Potter seasoned and browned them up on the stove before throwing them into the oven for an hour) and when it came time to plate and get the dishes out, I was slicing bread and prepping pate. Somehow on these demo nights I always seem to be the one slicing bread, I have no idea why.

The demonstration (on both nights) went well, no major hiccups and lots of very positive feedback. I think Claude wasn't particularly happy with the way the polenta turned out the first night and committed himself to find a better quality product to use the second night. I volunteered to be Jacques' assistant the second night, but to no avail. I sat up there with every anticipation of being helpful, but it was clear I wasn't his favorite of the class and wasn't really has helpful as I had hoped to be.

Because we had taken care of all the food for the Wednesday night meal on Tuesday, we all spent Wednesday working on the very extensive menu for Thursday night. I teamed up with Ashish to help clean and trim the sweetbreads that would eventually need to be breaded and pan-fried for service. Again, we all bounced around and tried to be helpful, I found myself segmenting fruit, making candied orange and grapefruit peel, forcing raspberry coulis through a food mill and cutting bread (again!) for the evening demo. Because I offered to help during the demo (see above) I also spent a lot of time gathering all the items Jacques would need for the demo, running around for various types of produce and equipment.

I liked watching Jacques 'perform' for a crowd. It was clear that he was getting tired from two days of cooking with another one still to come, but he came to life. It was obvious why Jacques ended up being the celebrity of the duo, he really fed off the energy of the crowd. My favorite moment of the evening was when he started taking questions and someone asked, "I read in an interview once that for your last meal, you'd have a hot dog. Is that true?" Jacques' response was witty and quick: "Well, yes. But I imagine my last meal would take place over several years."

By Thursday, we were all pretty comfortable with Jacques and Claude. I remember after the second night, Potter, Ashish and I were sitting around and talking, revisiting the insanity of being able to cook with Jacques, when Jacques wandered in looking for a beer. We all paused in conversation and watched as he showed us how to pop a bottle top off a beer with a spoon. It was pretty cool and we all enjoyed seeing a more casual Jacques. In the end, Potter, Jason and I stood and talked to Jacques and Claude for a few minutes about food and art. Even Jason was a little starstruck, I think.

We all got straight to work on Thursday, finishing prep, baking off the rest of the tartlet shells, and preparing the various elements of each dish. I spent most of my day preparing the corn puree for the sweetbreads, making more candied peels and segmenting more grapefruits for the dessert. Two hours before dinner began, we all gathered together to see how Jacques and Claude had planned to plate each dish, on which plates and when things would go out.. I worked with Ashish all night, beginning with hors d'oeuvre of clam fritters, dropping the batter into screaming hot oil and hoping the rounded shape that Jacques had been able to magically achieve would come out for me (it didn't). They cooked up pretty quickly, but we had to keep adjusting the fire under the pan because we didn't want the outside of the fritter to get too brown before the inside had a chance to cook. It was hot, slow work and we couldn't take our eyes off the pan for a minute.

Once all the fritters were cooked, we all walked around to look and taste some of the other items. My allergy to oysters prevented me from trying the oyster rockefeller, and I avoided the tapenade because of my dislike of olives, but I felt totally in love with the smoked trout on scrambled eggs. They were so good, I must have downed five or six spoonfuls of the stuff. I think the most important lesson I got out of working with Jacques was the magic of a perfectly cooked egg. The size and shape of the curd and how it can totally change and affect the way an egg tastes and feels in the mouth.

Once everyone was sitting in the dining room and the soup was starting to be plated, Ashish and I went back to the stove to make the sweetbreads, the next dish. Each pan was started with a huge chunk of butter and a good glog of oil, once it was hot enough, we filled the pan with the seasoned and breaded sweetbreads and let them toast up. Not only was this excruciatingly hot work, but it was delicate work, as every sweetbread threated to fall apart whenever it was picked up and turned. Once they were all cooked through (it took three batches of four pans between Ashish and I), we moved the chantrelles, duxelles, warm corn puree, truffles and sauce over to the plating station for assembly.

First, a bed of corn was poured out. Then, a small pile of duxelles was placed in the center, and covered with a palm sized piece of sweetbread. On top of this we placed a small pile of sauteed chantrelles. We sauced the corn puree and finished the top with two small shavings of fresh black truffles. The entire plating process felt like a blur, we were moving so fast so we could get the food out as hot as possible that I don't remember much of how it got done. I do remember stopping as the finish touches were placed on the last plate and thinking it looked pretty wonderful. We all devoured this plate with reckless abandon, it was just too good, especially to someone like me who has always been a devoted lover of sweetbreads.

Next up was the roasted squab with pea-and-lettuce stew. This sounded unappealing to me and didn't look very appetizing, but it was delicious. The brightness of the peas were great against the lettuce which wasn't at all what I thought it would taste like, and the squab's gamy flavor was actually an asset to the overall flavor of the dish. I don't ever remembering how or when all of the prep for this dish got done, but somehow it came together at the end and it was so good.

The salad was a simple mix of herbs and mesclun greens in the center of a plate with four different types of cheese, candied walnuts and an apple wedge. It sounds very simple, but I have to mention the apple. It was a revelation. It was a golden apple that just cut into a wedge (skin on) and sprinkled with lemon juice and cracked black pepper. I'd never considered apples in a savory way before, but this really lit me up from the inside out.

Finally, we served he raspberry sorbet in chilled martini glasses, with the chocolate tartlets that were dusted with powdered sugar, both were garnished with fruit segments and candied peels (one of each kind). I may sound like a broken record, but the sorbet was fantastic. Bright and clean, sweet without being overwhelming and just really satisfying.

The most important thing I saw from this was how familiar and comfortable all the food we served was. It wasn't about being pretentious or using the most expensive ingredients, it was about cooking food properly and letting the flavors of each one enhance the other. There was nothing in this meal that was really new in terms of flavors and textures and I liked that. I've often thought that food doesn't have to be new to blow you away, it just needs to be good.

I've never been a food snob, I like fried chicken far too much to call myself one without feeling like an impostor. I've always said my favorite food is the simple clean food that makes sense, little a-ha! moments when you realize something pretty simple that seems obvious now but would have never occurred to you before now. I know a lot of people that have that moment with a jar of Nutella, for me, the magical moment occurs with a good bowl of Vietnamese pho.

I think the reason Jacques, Thomas Keller and other famous chefs have reached success is that more and more people miss the idea of good food prepared well and in a simple manner. Its the magical and familiar moment when you have a great roast chicken or a freshly made plate of fries, it's good food done right. I think it's a great trend that we're seeing with chefs paying attention to these details, but it's probably a sad comment on the food available to consumers when the best chefs in America are making the food our parents grew up eating because we don't remember what Real Food tastes like anymore.