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It sometimes bothers me to swoon over someone else’s culinary brilliance. Believe me, it’s not a pride thing in the least: I’m more than aware of my position in the cooking world at the moment. By day, I’m the culinary student - the amateur (at best) fighting to absorb as much information as possible on the fundamentals while the bulk of the student body (almost a decade my junior, frighteningly enough) is still basking in the glow of a life devoid of parental supervision. By night, I’m a garde manger. The title literally means “keeper of the food” and implies that the person responsible is handling all cold foods, and, contemporarily, appetizers and desserts. It’s a busy job, not held in nearly as much regard as sauteeing or grilling (ah, how I miss it), and more or less reserved as a station for the most entry-level of cooks to see if they can handle the insanity of doing anything from shucking an oyster to making puff pastry.
It’s more a reaction of stubbornness. As a young cook, I can only really afford one nice meal out per month - which might only imply a few small bites at one of the restaurants owned by my chef’s good friends or a place that industry people can’t stop talking about (see a few posts ago about Masala, the Halal restaurant in North Providence). The last places I want to think about are Vetri, Mugaritz, or Lasarte - the sites of three of my most amazing restaurant experiences, ever. They’re too far away…too remote from my budget and the life I currently lead. But beyond that, I really don’t want to think about the places I’ve never enjoyed - Per Se, Masa, Alinea (a place I had a dream about last night…I know, cook problems), or The French Laundry.
But I’ll be damned if The French Laundry doesn’t keep coming back to me. As I look at my kitchen bookshelf, there are two books that started it all: The French Laundry Cookbook and The Le Bernardin Cookbook. At some point during my “year off” between college and graduate school, I went from casually enjoying food and cooking to being completely obsessed with it. These two books suddenly became biblical to me - the embodiment of a quest for culinary perfection and frankly, a testament to the daily pursuit of quality that I had never witnessed before.
As time has progressed, Ripert’s Le Bernardin has faded a bit for me considering that his far more accessible A Return to Cooking and Avec Eric have provided me with a number of recipes that I can actually afford to make (unless, of course, someone wants to provide me with foie gras, truffles, and fish so fresh that they might still contemplate swimming postmortem). Keller’s tome, however, is haunting, particularly as I advance through culinary school and a professional cooking career.
At the moment, for example, I am taking “Soups, Stocks, and Sauces” - a class that is considered entry-level. It made me want to look over Keller’s recipe for veal stock for some reason. As soon as I read his opening paragraph, I realized why: “Unlike most recipes for veal stock, ours does not contain a step for roasting the bones…” Day 1, Lesson 1 of Stocks teaches that there are two types of stock: brown and white. Brown requires you to roast bones, white does not. Keller’s veal stock - despite its lack of a roasting process - still has the essential goal of a brownish, deeply-flavored flavor. It is taught, however, that this depth comes from the roasting process. The idea then, is contradictory at best.
The trouble is that the first stock I ever attempted to make at home was Thomas Keller’s Veal Stock. It is time consuming - a three-day process if you intend to sleep: blanch the bones, simmer the bones, caramelize mirepoix, deglaze, add to stock, skim-skim-skim-skim-skim, and strain (day one: complete); take the same bones and mirepoix and simmer, strain (day two: complete), combine the stocks from days one and two and reduce (day three: complete). When all is said and done, by day three, you have taken 10 lbs of veal bones and turned them into 2 qts of stock. That’s not a lot of yield for a hefty amount of bones. But the stock - if completed according to Keller’s directions - is beautiful, far more so than the somewhat rushed veal-beef combination “Fond de Viande” that I’m making in Soups, Stocks, and Sauces.
So then I return to The French Laundry Cookbook, the manual of a place I’ve never eaten, and marvel at its brilliance. What a difference a few extra steps makes - or an attention to detail. A stockpot goes from a watery compost bucket to a thing of beauty - a pure homage to the tenderness and cleanness of veal, the base of 1,000 brilliant dishes that have earned The French Laundry its status on Culinary Mount Olympus. All this for a guy who never set foot in culinary school. It absolutely makes you think. Where have I come from in approaching this culinary lifestyle? What am I doing now? How does one get there?