A little while ago I had the opportunity to work with someone who showed me a lot. A lot about food and cooking, and alot about passion as well. I was working under my good friend Andy Lilja, now executive chef at the Colossal Cafe in St. Paul. He was leaving soon to take his new position when a new guy showed up out of nowhere. His name was Brett.
Working in a well known professional kitchen, I get to see a lot of stages (Stazshez). These are people who come in to work for free for a day. Maybe they come in to just check the restaurant out, most of the time they are probably looking for a job. I have done plenty of stages myself, often to just go and check a place out. Its good to go and see how another place operates, to step back for a minute and see things through a different perspective. You would be surprised how many little tricks and things you can glean just from a few hours helping some other guys cook, and doing things the exact way they would like them done. Sometimes staging can be like slave labor, guys just give you projects, don’t talk to you much, and when you’re down with the project, (typically whatever the guy you are following doesn’t want to do) they just hand you more projects and more projects.I have had experiences like this and better ones where people take an interest in your interest in their restaurant, and actually talk and converse with you. Naturally, I much prefer the latter.
It is kind of an unspoken rule that you also will get fed or at least get to taste a bunch of food while staging as well. Sometimes I have even been offered the opportunity to just order off of the menu, which is nice. Most of the time when people are staging, they are looking for a job. In the culinary industry, you need to have some serious skills to survive in a pro kitchen, also known as a “shark pit”-referring to the often cut throat hierarchy that kitchens are ruled by. Usually the guys that I have stage with me are pretty new and fresh out of culinary school, what we might call a “green horn” or a “newbie”. On a rare occasion though, you might have someone come stage with you that far surpasses your own skill set, after a day of having Brett work next to me on a stage, I knew this was the case. This has the ability to set you on edge a little. As my friend Ryan, another talented chef around the twin cities once said to me:
“Al, its all good until some shark from New York or California comes out of the blue and takes your job from under your nose.”
In kitchen lingo, a shark is a monsterly talented cook, possibly trained in restaurants where a single tasting menu can run 600$+ or something similar. Chefs who can just walk into a restaurant and move through the brigade ranks very quickly, instilling fear in the hearts of complacent and comfortable cooks who are just hanging out enjoying their job. Brett was one of these guys. Its not he was mean, he was just way good. Not only had he cooked in India, but he was formerly the sous chef of Blue Hill at Stonebarnes in New York under celebrity chef Dan Barber, and before that, spent two years working at the legendary Charlie Trotters in Chicago, which won best restaurant in the world from Wine Spectator Magazine, and has won 11 James Beard Awards.
I own a couple of Charlie Trotters books, and they function as a sort of food pornography for chefs as they contain huge centerfolds of fantastic cuisine, consisting of intricate technique and often many, many complex sub-recipes. The ingredients alone making the cuisine near inapproachable, with dishes redolent with foie gras, black and white truffles, South African porcini, unbolted matsutake, caviar expensive enough to make a sultan blush, and wines like Chateu D’yquem, which can run over 1,000$ a flute.
One Order of Humble Pie
Back to the restaurant though, my long time friend Andy left as sous chef, Shortly after, Brett was given the title of sous chef. I felt wounded a little, but deep down inside I knew my boss had made the right decision.
Brett’s command of food surpassed my own in a couple different ways: He went to a professional culinary school and knew more of the technical in’s and outs, something I still struggle with. Bigger than this though was the refinement gained through working in world renowned and famous restaurants. However, I am a huge nerd, and my food knowledge has always served me well. I came to respect his technical and skillful command of cuisine, and he may have learned a thing or two about cooking with dried boletes.
He and I would chat about culinary geekery. We found obscure vegetables like cardoons and archaic celtuce lettuce fun topics. It seemed like every day I got to learn something new, and I was overjoyed to be able to have someone new who was excited by my enthusiasm and was eager to show me fun tricks and tips. One day we discussed the best all time vegetable pairing for chanterelles: He said peas, and I don’t disagree, but we should include things with similar flavors like favas and endamame. I shared with him my love for Jean Louis Palladin, in turn, on one snowy day in the dead of winter I recall, he exposed me to a French chef who could probably be the closest to eclipsing Jean Louis I have ever heard of. This is really saying something, considering my bedtime prayers consist of mutterings like:
“Dear Jean Louis, please don’t let the vegan diners be difficult tomorrow and reject honey because it hurts bees”
Who he spoke of is the one and only recluse and culinary savant: Michel Bras. A self taught chef and worldwide restauranteur, Bra’s flagship restaurant is located in the remote region of Lagouile France on a hill miles away from any town (This region is home to the makers of the exquisite knives of the same name, overstocks of their cutlery can be found occasionally at Marshalls and T.J. Maxx on the cheap, typically a set of 8 steak knives will run 200$+ at places like Williams Sonoma)
Bras is a renowned chef and culinary icon. There is one dish in particular that he is famous for, called the gargouillou. (Pr: gar-goo-yoo) It is named for a traditional dish of ham and potatoes served in L’aubrac region of France. What it is exactly, cannot be chained down. The inspiration came to Bras one day when he was running through the countryside of his home. Touched by seeing the landscape in it’s full summer bloom, he was inspired to shre his vision of the Aubrac region on a plate for diners.
Essentially the gargouillou is an ever changing dish of typically 60-80 individual ingredients. Some ingredients will only be a single leaf on the plate. Every day the dish changes from what Michel and his son Sebastien find at the market. Herbs, flowers, root vegetables in the beginning of autumn, everything is seasonal. Some ingredients may be raw, like flowers, leaves, and herbs, some may be cooked lightly and refreshed lightly in cool water, such as beans, zucchini, or asparagus.Bras is said to even have exact proportion of salt to water for the blanching of individual vegetables. Each morning Sebastien Bras says it takes their company of 7 chefs 2 hours to prepare the daily gargouillou. This is not even close to being feasible in any restaurant I have ever worked in around the twin cities. It is another level of cooking entirely.
Brett ended up getting an impressive position at another restaurant, that of chef de cuisine at the Bachelor Farmer in Minneapolis. The Bachelor Farmer is a great restaurant serving some of the best new age Scandinavian cuisine that I know of. I am of course totally biased being from Minnesota and of Scandinavian heritage myself. We were all happy for him and his new opportunity, but it is always sad to see someone go when you wish you could have had more time to spend with them and learn. On the last day that he was working with us leading the kitchen, I was working on putting the finishing touches for the days tasting menus and I had an epiphany. Brett was going to be working next to me on the fish station, which is directly next to saute station I work. He would be helping me plate things when we get busy, and this gave me an idea:
I had to make a dish to say thanks for hanging out and working with me, I had to make a little gargouillou
The first course on the meat tasting menu is a piece of rainbow trout, so that would be the base of the dish. Other than that, it is whatever we have we wish to create with. It was early summer, and with the long winter, there wasn’t a ton of fresh vegetables like there usually is at the same time of year typically. Given this, I used a variety of pickles to accent the dish and add variety. It was something of a segue between our stunted Minnesota spring and summer of 2013.
Plating The Dish
I’m not going to lie, this was very difficult. Most of the time I try to have 3-4 components on a first course or something similar to make it streamlined and simple to plate on busy nights like Saturday. This was by far the most time consuming and intricate thing I have ever made. Brett and I had to strategize how we would make it happen. First I would sauce the plates with the vinaigrette and sorrel puree. Then Brett would place the pickles and things that could hold for a minute. When the dish is “fired” (meaning the diner is ready to eat it) one of us would finish with the sprouts, herbs, chive blossoms, and lastly the piece of sauteed trout. Keep in mind we would be making multiple orders of this at once, along with 4 ala carte side dishes, two fish entrees, a vegetarian entree which can be ordered ala carte, and a meat tasting menu main course also available a la carte.
As we worked and the orders started to come in, things got difficult. Plating the trout dish was slowing us down a bit. We would not have survived the night without teamwork, and looking over each other’s shoulder. If I was busy plating tasting menus, Brett might plate the dish. If Brett was busy plating fish, I might plate the dish. Inevitably, with so many components on a single plate, each dish looked a little different. A time or two, I just watched while Brett plated a few just by himself. With a flick of the wrist, each sauce became the first part of an edible masterpiece. The tomato vinaigrette was much thicker than the sorrel sauce, so Brett would do little dollops, the sorrel sauce was looser, so this lent itself to beautiful swirls, arcs and parabolic designs. Each one we made was different, unique.
At the end of the night we all cleaned up per usual, then went to a local pub to have a little send off for Brett. I couldn’t forget about how happy it made me make this with him though. No one will ever cook like Michel Bras, but we did channel him a little bit that night.
We made our Gargouillou.
I’m not going to give an exact recipe here, but I will describe the methods used to prepare each of the individual ingredients.
Marinated Queen Boletes
Pick perfect unopened buttons of boletes, cut them in half, saute and caramelize until cooked through, seasoning with a bit of salt. Dress the boletes with some oil to moisten them, cool and reserve.
See my recipe HERE
Lobster Mushrooms Sott’ Olio
See my recipe HERE
Pickled Coral Mushrooms
See recipe method HERE
Split English Peas
Blanch the english peas in lightly salted water for 1 minute. Refresh them in cold water and then drain when cooled. When the peas have cooled, squeeze each individual pea out of its skin, which will make split peas.
Wash radishes and then slice thinly on a mandoline. Season the radishes to taste with a bit of sugar, salt, and sunflower oil.
Trim the purple cauliflower into small florets. Blanch the purple cauliflower in lightly salted water until tender but not mushy, then refresh in cold water, drain and reserve.
Same as Purple Cauliflower.
Pick the chervil into tiny sprigs, store in a container covered with a damp cloth until ready to serve.
Spearmint is a strongly flavored herb. So pick small leaves the size of a pencil eraser. Store them in a container covered with a damp cloth until ready to serve.
Wash the radish sprouts and then allow to drain on towels. Then store in a container covered with a damp cloth until ready to serve.
Wash the chive blossoms in cold water to remove any dirt, then allow to drain on a dry cloth and reserve in a container covered with a damp cloth until ready to serve.
Wash and clean the sunchokes. Next shave them thinly on a mandoline and place in a light pickle mixture made from seasoning water to taste with salt, sugar, vinegar and ginger.
Wild Sorrel Puree
Pick the sorrel from it’s stem, then wash and blanch in lightly salted boiling water for 10 seconds until wilted. Refresh the sorrel quickly in ice water to retain it’s color (It will turn dark, dark green) Then drain and puree in a high powered blender, adding some unflavored oil such as grapeseed to help add air to the puree and make it thick and velvety, season to taste with salt and reserve.
Creamy Tomato Vinaigrette
Peel a couple tomatoes and seed them via my method HERE. Cook the peeled tomatoes slowly in a pan until most of their water has evaporated and the pan is nearly dry, then puree the tomatoes in a blender, adding a touch of apple cider vinegar, sugar if they are under ripe, salt, and grapeseed oil again to smooth the puree and thicken it slightly.
Heat some oil in a pan until lightly smoking. Season a filet of rainbow trout and place it skin side down in the pan. when the skin is gently caramelized, add a small knob of butter, flip the filet to lightly finish the flesh side, then remove from the heat and drain on a fresh paper towel to remove excess fat, then serve.