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…
This week’s technique–cooking with demi-glace–isn’t really a technique at all. The first technique in the book–Holding The Knife–is so essential, so important that it’d be impossible to convey it in an online post. Remember the cackling that ensued when Michael Symon and crew watched me hold a knife at Lola for the FN Dish (see here)? Well I do and after that scarring experience, I practiced and here’s how I hold a knife now:
You hold the top of the blade like a pencil and wrap your remaining fingers around the handle. Pepin says, “Hold the item to be cut with fingertips tucked under, so the blade ‘rests’ and slides directly against the middle section of your fingers. The knife follows, in fact, ‘glued’ to the fingers and slides up and down the fingers at the same rate all the time. The speed at which the fingers move back determines the thickness of the slices.”
Here’s my visualization of what Pepin is talking about (though I haven’t really created a wall, here):
So when you see real chefs chopping or slicing, they make that wall with their left hand (assuming they’re righties) and then glide the knife along it as they go. It’s the sort of thing that gets easier the more and more you do it (hence Colicchio and all that celery). Also useful to remember (and something I didn’t really know before reading Technique #1, Step #3): “The knife does not go in a straight down motion while cutting, but rather in a down and back motion at the same time.”
Technique #2 is “How To Sharpen Knives” and it’s so essential, and yet something I’m still so bad at, I feel like I need to get to a knife shop ASAP to get my knives sharpened and to learn how to do it myself for real. (Those who’ve read my book will know which knife shop I’m headed to; I haven’t been back since I wrote that chapter!)
So, yes, understanding knives and knife skills are absolutely fundamental to good cooking. There’s a reason those are #1 and #2.
But after the knife section (which goes about 11 chapters) comes Technique #12: “Brown Stock (Classic and Fast) Half-Glaze and Meat Glaze.”
In that picture, you’ll see the chapter in question and resting on top of that chapter a store-bought container of demi-glace.
Let me explain. This whole technique–which has a four page essay at its start–is so deep and profound a topic in French cooking that it’d be overwhelming to attempt it all at once. Essentially, great French sauces–yes, those deeply rich wine-colored sauces you soak up with your French bread after finishing your steak au poivre–are mostly enhanced with brown stock and the elixers that brown stock produces when it is reduced in great quantities.
Classic Brown stock (Fond Brun Classique) is made by roasting and then boiling 10 pounds of veal bones, chicken bones and beef bones in water for 10 hours with the requisite aromatics (for more on aromatics, see Michael Ruhlman’s “Elements of Cooking”–a wonderful supplement to this book) namely: carrots, onions, tomatoes, a leek, celery, bay leaves, thyme and black peppercorns.
The resulting broth is used, according to Pepin, to “wet (mouiller as we say in France) a stew or deglaze a pan, or add to other bones (game, lamb, etc.) to produce a more concentrated and flavored stock.”
Brown Stock isn’t very exciting (your stomach isn’t growling reading this, is it?) but when you reduce that stock by half what’s left is rather intoxicating: it is demi-glace, a most powerful tool in the kitchen. Pepin says of demi-glace: “It is the ‘hidden and modest’ friend which enables a cook to produce a well-finished, long-simmered sauce in minutes. It is what we call in English a basic brown sauce. It doesn’t have a specific name or identity of its own yet. With the addition of wine it becomes a sauce Bordelaise, with Madeira and truffles a sauce Perigueux, with vinegar and shallots a sauce Bercy, etc.”
I figured, for this first entry on techniques, it would be useful just to buy some demi-glace and cook with it. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about, whether making demi-glace from scratch would be worth it and, most importantly, how demi-glace enhances and enriches a sauce. Lucky for me, D’Artagnan sells pre-packaged demi-glace at my local Key Foods. If yours doesn’t carry it, I’m sure you can order it online.
The recipe I attempted (there are four demi-glace recipes on pgs. 36 and 37 of the book) was Hunter Chicken (Poulet Chasseur). I chose it because it was the cheapest and the least daunting. Here’s what you need:
1 Tbs. butter
1 (2 3/4) pound chicken, quartered, keep the carcass bones for stock
[Note: Here’s how I quartered the chicken. There wasn’t much instruction in the book, so I used kitchen shears to cut the backbone out (which I subsequently put in the freezer) cut off the legs and thighs as whole pieces and then cut the breast in half:
2 Tbs chopped onion
1 clove garlic, peeled, crushed and chopped fine
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 large tomato, peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped (1 cup) [I used canned tomatoes here–about 3]
1 tsp tomato paste
1 bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon thyme
6 to 8 mushrooms, sliced (1 1/4 cups, loosely packed)
1/2 cup demi-glace
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
So here’s my mise en place–everything all ready in preparation of cooking:
Always do all your prepping before the heat goes on and you’ll be in good shape.
I opened up the demi-glace and dipped my finger in and tasted:
It had the viscosity of a gravy and tasted like what a stew might taste like if there were no stuff in it.
Now Jacques doesn’t have you salt and pepper the chicken before you start cooking, but I did out of habit. You begin by melting the butter in a heavy sauce pan (I used my Dutch Oven) and “browning the chicken over medium heat for 10 to 12 minutes, starting with the skin side down and turning the chicken after 5 to 6 minutes of browning.”
Browning the chicken, as I’ve learned watching Mario and making various braised chicken dishes, is absolutely essential for the finished dish to taste good. You’re creating a fond on the bottom of the pan–lots of crispy, brown chicken bits–that’ll get picked up into the sauce later. The secret to good browning is NOT moving the chicken around: so just put it into the hot pan and walk away. Come back 6 minutes later and flip it. That’s it!
After the chicken’s browned on both sides, you add the chopped onion and saute for 15 to 20 seconds. Then you add the garlic, white wine, tomato, tomato paste, bay leaf and thyme. Cover and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the mushrooms:
Cover and simmer another 5 minutes. Using a spoon, transfer the chicken and solids to a dish. And here’s where this week’s technique kicks in: add 1/2 cup demi-glace to the drippings…
…bring to a boil and reduce to 1 cup. Season, add parsley and tarragon (I forgot to buy those!), pour on top of the chicken and serve at once.
There’s the finished dish. I’d argue that much of what makes it look so appealing is owed to the demi-glace. Look how rich that sauce looks, how thick. And doesn’t it look oh so French (except for the messy border of the plate which, if I were in a restaurant kitchen, would’ve been wiped meticulously only after beating me over the head for letting that go.)
But the real question: how did it taste? Did I notice the demi-glace? Was it worth it?
It tasted wonderful–classic, incredibly rich, and robust–but the overall effect was a bit like a time warp. What did this taste like? This tasted like classic French food in the good sense but also in the bad sense. What’s that bad sense? Continental cuisine! Yes, probably because all those classically-trained chefs who have nowhere to go end up at a musky hotel in Colorado or at the French restaurant in EPCOT or on a cruise ship somewhere, and this flavor, that flavor of demi-glace, is what they use (perhaps poorly) to enhance their uninspired dishes.
Like the book itself, this dish had that whiff of yesteryear. It’s like reading a classic work of literature and coming across a racist passage. You want to put the book down because it’s so out of date, so out of touch with our modern sensibilities, but you keep reading because you have to read the book in context. Same for this dish: you have to eat it in context. This is a dish from a certain period of time when French techniques were the gospel; and like corrupt preachers misinterpreting the Bible, bad chefs have ruined the religion for many of us.
The important thing is seeing the big picture; understanding how sauces work, how they operate. Here, a reduced brown stock turned a standard chicken dish into something decadent and memorable. Demi-glace is a powerful tool and it’s your assignment, if you choose to accept it, to find yourself some demi-glace this week and to cook with it. See if you can appreciate why this tool is such a powerful one in the chef’s arsenal and, perhaps more importantly, how one can use the ideas behind demi-glace in a more modern context. What does Jean-Georges do with demi-glace? What would David Chang do with it?
Not sure what next week’s technique is, but I’m looking forward to cutting my teeth here on the blog with the help of Jacques Pepin and his masterful book on techniques. If this book can produce a Tom Colicchio, who knows what it’ll produce here? Let’s all learn together and conquer the world.