Many years ago my best friend wanted to learn how to cook. I had just graduated culinary school, and had dumped my Craftsman toolbox of knives and ring molds, and pastry bags, and all the other tools of the trade that we had to have to get through two years of ACC, in the back of my closet. I was wholly content to live at the Jersey Shore, working two to three days a week and being incredibly broke. The skateboard shop that I had tanked with the coming of the nineties and wheels that just about covered your bearings. Many of my instructors told me that I should never be in a commercial kitchen, despite me graduating with a medal. I had been involved in a hit and run, where the driver ran a stop street and creamed me and my last bmx bike I owned, thereby killing one form of fuel-less transportation.
It was not a high time in my life.
My best friend Pete had a subscription to Bon Appetite magazine and was teaching himself how to cook. If anyone remembers Bon Appetite from the late eighties to early nineties, then you remember the recipes being unnecessarily long and choked with extra steps, or poor directions. This was to help home cooks be a little more diligent. To a food service employee, it was infuriating. So with what little knowledge I had from my two years of school, combined with my five years in the industry (one as a dishwasher and one as a busboy, but hey, it was a professional kitchen) I agreed. We tackled recipes that we did not read past the ingredients, thus killing our times when the recipe said “marinate meat for twenty four hours” and we had two to put the whole thing together for that nights dinner. (I got a subscription to the magazine so I could cut that out after a few months of that jazz.) We foolishly tackled recipes from Marco Pierre’s White Heat cookbook, not measuring in grams or substituting the English ingredients for what we thought they were. (Hey who knew that Noily Pratt was a vermouth? White wine worked, sort of.) We burned sugary desserts with plumber’s torches because we didn’t have a dessert torch and they were the same anyway, right? We screwed up, and put out late dinners (try two to three hours late, not a great thing in a suburban family setting during the week.) had things that were over cooked, and undercooked. But you know what? It was fun. A lot of fun. So much so that I kept doing it with him until he went to college. Oh and another thing we learned? We learned from our mistakes. It made us better cooks. I know it did. And it gives us a lot of great stories.
So I get a rare weekend day off recently as my restaurant is doing a deep cleaning and repair job to the kitchen. Pete tells me to come on over and we will cook family meal, just like old times. He gives me my mission, which is to find something challenging, but fun. I look in all the new and flashy cookbooks that I have been stroking one out over the last few years. You know, Alenia, Noma, Fat Duck, all that stuff that takes days and sometimes a science lab to do. It is a good thing that reality hit me enough to decide that making my best friend spend 50 to 100 bucks on one meal that his two daughters may or may not eat, and age and skills now on our side, we may or may not accomplish, was not in our best interest. Who said I didn’t learn anything from back then? So I tell him humbly that mission failed. Inspiration wasn’t coming. So he pulls down his version of food porn, the Jacques Pepin cookbook (complete with dvd) and chooses two recipes he has been stroking one out to, but hasn’t dared ask out yet. Consomme and Chicken Ballontine.
Ok real quick without going into the actual recipes. Consomme is a clear soup made by filtering stock with vegetables and a protein, usually ground beef or egg whites, or both. Chicken Ballontine is a whole chicken completely deboned and then stuffed and tied up. Both of these recipes have fallen out of favor (go back up to my choice of cookbooks) but were not only staples of my culinary school, but in my job in kitchens. I used to make a pretty mean consomme back when I worked soups in the Maplewood (you could read the date on a dime at the bottom of the stock pot baby) and I have boned out enough chickens in my life to be kinda bored with it. It, however is a perfect choice and I have done neither of these thins in about a decades time, and Pete has never done them, and like I said, cooking family meal under the gun of time (or lack of) in a time of his life when both he, and his wife work, and they have two children, well you get the point. Who says he hasn’t learned a thing or two from that time period as well.
So I go over and we watch some of the dvd and in this day and age, I am still amazed when I watch a great, and I mean truly great chef, such as Pepin work. Even trying to be demonstrative to the home cook, he is moving effortlessly and fast. I would love to have seen him move back in the day during service. We get to work.We set out to debone, stuff, and and truss our chicken. Pete even bought a spare in case we screw it up on the first try. Hey another lesson learned. Here is the thing. Back when we did the laundry dinner together last year, I watched him break down the roosters. This is not even going to make him sweat. He says ‘Ok let’s get started.” and I tell him “What, two people are going to de bone one chicken? I’ve done this, this is your date, go for it” And he did. I lent a hand to help him along, but he had it. Meanwhile I chopped the veges for the consomme. Pete cleaned up, made his stuffing, and got to trussing. All that tree work made him good with the twine.Now it was my turn, I had heated up the stock that I brought over, so now I put my veges in the soup pot, added the egg white, tempered it with water and started to add warm stock. I stirred and we all watched as the soup started to get “muddy” looking. Consomme will always look worse before it gets better. Basically the protein acts like static to attract all the solids in the stock. Once it came up to a boil I took it partway off the burner and turned it down to a low simmer for forty minutes.
And you know what? It was FUN! I mean really fun! Sure I could do this stuff standing on my head now, but you know what? I should do it more often for family meal around here. I should cook some of the classics at work, not just for family meal, but for the menu. The first time I cooked with Pete, it rekindled the love that I had when I first wanted to be a chef. something that I will always be thankful for. This time it taught me that maybe I need to remember just what it was like first stepping up to those recipes that gave my profession a history. So it looks like I have a few more lessons to learn from my dinners with Pete and family.