Tom Colicchio, that most formidable of judges on “Top Chef,” shocked me the other night when, during an interview on PBS’s series Chef’s Story (with Dorothy Hamilton) he revealed that he hadn’t gone to cooking school, he taught himself everything he knows using Jacques Pepin’s “La Technique” and “La Méthode.” (This is corroborated on his Top Chef bio page.) “Let me get this straight,” I said to myself. “To cook on the level of Tom Colicchio, to be that formidable, all I have to do is buy two books by Jacques Pepin?”
The answer was a resounding “no.” No, I wouldn’t have to buy two books; I’d only have to buy one–those two books have been consolidated!
Yes, this is THE book that Tom Colicchio worked his way through to become the toppiest of Top Chefs. When you open it, you feel like you’re looking at a physical fitness textbook from 1965. Every technique is broken down photographically the same way that an old P.E. book would break down a jumping jack: Stand legs apart (photo), lift hands over head (photo), leap in the air (photo), spread arms and legs (photo), land (photo) and repeat.
There’s something musty about this book, something incredibly dated (there are chapters on making orange baskets and apple swans). And yet, that’s all on the surface. Underneath that surface are the core fundamentals of French cooking, fundamentals that have launched thousands of careers, that are responsible for some of the finest food being prepared in this country and around the world. For example, just opening the book randomly, I find Technique 158: “Cleaning Squab and Other Poultry.” Most of us don’t find ourselves with a dead squab on our kitchen counter on a regular basis but many of us have dined in restaurants that serve squab. When that squab shows up at the kitchen door, does the chef shriek and moan: “How in the world will I clean this domesticated pigeon?” No: he knows his technique. That’s why fundamentals are so, well, fundamental. They’re at the core of all great cooking; they are the wings that allow the greatest dishes to soar.
I want my dishes to soar. I get asked all the time: “Are you always going to be an amateur? Are you ever going to go to cooking school? Who’s your favorite Golden Girl?”
The answers–maybe, no and Dorothy–suggest that I embrace my lack of experience while showing an absolute willingness to advance. My Colicchio revelation–that you can teach yourself French techniques by practicing from this book at home (“I used to cut up stalks and stalks of celery practicing my knife skills,” he said on the show) leads me to declare Tuesdays to be Technique Tuesdays. Each Tuesday we will attempt a new technique from this book and hopefully, through my own experimentation, you will be inspired to try them too. Maybe, after a few months, we’ll be master chefs and we’ll open a restaurant. Or maybe we’ll realize we have no natural talent and quit cooking and become accordion players. Only way to find out is to begin…