Food & Drink

Becoming a Michelin-starred chef not so simple for the ambitious home cook

Let’s assume for a moment that you don’t actually want to be a Michelin-starred chef.

Sure, being one is probably a lot of fun and incredibly prestigious. But getting there? It ain’t easy. Do you enjoy peeling potatoes and mincing onions while trying to figure out how to make your next student loan payment for the years you spent at that pricy culinary school?

Eating Michelin-star food is also not exactly a breeze. The exclusive chef’s counter dining experience at three-star Meadowood in St. Helena is $500 per person. That’s before you even peek at the wine list. If you want to dine at a place like the French Laundry in Yountville, a three-star mainstay in the Michelin Guide, getting a reservation is a job in itself. Josh Bieker, a Sacramento chef who hosts occasional multi-course pop-up dinners, recently tried to land a reservation at three-star Brooklyn Fare in New York with a mere phone call. He called 100 times without success; his wife, Jade, called simultaneously on her phone, nabbing a table on her 98th try. Oh, and they charge your credit card eight days out ($326 per person, before wine).

So, there’s another option. Books. Big books with recipes that will make your eyes bulge, your head spin and have you Googling things such as “fennel fronds” and “calcium gluconate.” The conversation with the grocery clerk gets awkward when you ask where you can find the monkfish liver and locust bean gum.

These are generally terrific books. They give you a chance to understand how great chefs think, get a sense of their commitment and passion and, for better or worse, come to grips with how incredibly difficult – and messy – it is to cook the way they do.

“When you’re tackling any kind of complicated recipe, you should always read the recipe first. Sometimes they call for ingredients that aren’t attainable for the home cook,” said cookbook collector and avid home cook Deb Ray, who once did the marshmallow recipe from “Bouchon,” by Thomas Keller. “The marshmallow recipe used four bowls, a stand mixer, a regular mixer and a sauce pot you had to heat up to a very precise point. It was very complicated. I made it one time, and it felt like I used every pan in the house.”

And did we mention that it was for marshmallows?

OK, so great chefs don’t take the easy route. If you’re like me, you may enjoy the experience of reading great recipes and the accompanying narratives more than cooking from them. For me, everything by “Cooks Illustrated” or “Joy of Cooking” is in the doable, and largely satisfying, category. If you haven’t gotten a handle on cooking fundamentals from a book such as the essential “The New Making of a Cook” by Madeleine Kamman and Jacques Pépin’s “The Complete Techniques,” then you need to take a deep breath and get yourself some more experience before proceeding.

But when you’re ready, or sort of ready, you can learn a lot by delving into the upper echelon of cookbooks. These books are not simplified for home cooks, and that’s part of the charm. These are not recipes you attempt after getting home from work. Try them when you have a day off work, a whole weekend with little else on the agenda or, best, when you take a stay-cation and devote yourself to cooking, eating and cleaning up the war zone of a mess you made in pulling this off.

The books assessed for this story include “The French Laundry Cookbook” and “Bouchon,” both by Thomas Keller; “A New Napa Cuisine” by Christopher Kostow; “Atelier Crenn: Metamorphosis of Taste” by Dominique Crenn; and “Benu” by Corey Lee. The recipes can be divided into three general categories: “doable,” “daunting” and “if you dare.”

“These are great cookbooks as long as you have a sous chef, a great dishwasher and someone to help you in the kitchen,” said Paulette Bruce, whose Good Eats cooking classes have been a Sacramento fixture for years. “If you’re adventurous and want to up your game, these books are worth a try. But if you’re not at that level, they’re better off on your coffee table.

I sought to delve into elevated “Michelin” cooking with relative ease by making soup — spring vegetable soup or, soupe de legumes printaniers — from “Bouchon.” I’ve made hundreds of soups over the years and know that it’s something you can always adjust and “save” if you err.

“This straightforward soup is so loaded with vegetables that it’s almost like a stew,” Keller writes.

I’ll admit it: I used vegetable stock from the store. Maybe I hate myself a tiny bit for doing so. But I have this fancy thing called a full-time job. And a life. And I started this darn soup at 8:30 p.m. on a weeknight. The garnishes? Twenty-four shiitake mushrooms? Eight pieces of tomato confit? I streamlined the garnishes, too, OK? You’ll note that this soup involves an ice bath. I have never done this with soup.

You chill the soup and refrigerate it until you are ready to serve it. Ideally, Keller says, the soup should be refrigerated for a day. I suppose he knows what he’s talking about. Last time I checked, he had nine Michelin stars to his name. That is why we read recipes all the way through before attempting them! Since I didn’t see myself eating soup for dinner at 3 a.m., I tucked the soup into the fridge and got Thai takeout. Next day, the soup was as good as advertised, a balanced melding of parsnips, potatoes, celery, fava beans and asparagus. I gave myself a Michelin pat on the back.

On to “daunting.” Pajo Bruich rose to prominence as a chef locally for his modernist techniques and sense of artistry, first at Lounge On20 and then at Enotria. I had known for some time that he learned to cook at a professional level through Keller’s “The French Laundry Cookbook.” The recipes tantalized and inspired him. He cooked them over and over, until the ingredients spoke to him and until he understood precisely what Keller was getting at. Bruich’s wife gave him the book as a gift and the direction of his life was forever changed.

“The first time I saw the book, I very much viewed it as a piece of art,” said Bruich, who studied graphic arts in college. “It was a mesmerizing book. It was a book like no other – three-Michelin-star-dining, really elevated cuisine. Looking at the recipes, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh. How could one cook like this?’ 

Bruich’s favorite recipe in the book is on Page 152: pan-roasted striped bass with artichoke ravioli barigoule vinaigrette.

“There were so many steps – recipes built within recipes – it took me four days to cook this one dish. Afterward, I thought, ‘This took me four days to make and we ate it in 15 minutes.’ We sat at the table and laughed about that.”

No problem. I read through the recipe and figured it would take me two days to accomplish, including time to Google “barigoule.” It’s a dish from Provence featuring artichokes braised in a broth of wine, water and seasonings, along with onions, garlic and carrots. Then I called Sunh Fish, a prominent local fish supplier, and asked about the availability of striped bass. None in the store and none on the horizon. OK, so I would have to learn to fly fish and maybe travel to Montana for that. Could I put the frozen orange roughy from Trader Joe’s on express defrost and no one would be the wiser? Do they ever do that at The Laundry?

There were so many steps – recipes built within recipes – it took me four days to cook this one dish.

Chef Pajo Bruich

When I spoke with Bruich, I felt guilty for even thinking about cutting corners or skimping on ingredients.

The book “was more of a manual of how to be,” he told me, “more of a philosophy of what is important, how to be efficient, how to be thoughtful and how to be precise.”

That’s how you might feel after reading “A New Napa Cuisine” by Kostow, the executive chef at the Restaurant at Meadowood, and, with three Michelin stars to his credit, one of the world’s great culinary talents. I’ve eaten at Meadowood and will never forget it. Kostow’s book has plenty of recipes, but that doesn’t mean you’re supposed to attempt them.

“People say all the time that our book is beautiful but they could never cook anything from it,” Kostow said by telephone. He went on to explain that when he was a boy, he was taken with the Jacques Cousteau deep-sea diving scenes on TV and how the footage inspired him. “But that didn’t imply that I was going to go do it.”

Reading these books, you begin to understand what it means to be a chef at this level. It’s about creating what Kostow calls landmark recipes – food you won’t find anywhere else.

“For books like mine, what I want people to take away is what goes into the cooking and the sourcing,” he said. “There are a lot of misconceptions about what a chef does and who a chef is. Being a chef is first and foremost about a team that you gather and train and teach. It’s about what you do together. It’s about a million things more than having spiky hair and a tattoo of a pig on your arm.”

Asked about the chances of a serious home cook pulling off his recipes, Kostow paused. “It’s not the techniques that make it overwhelming,” he said. “It’s that there is so much implied knowledge in these recipes. Everything is based upon the assumption that the person has a base knowledge.”

Which leads us to Page 269, where a recipe titled “Black shallot beef chanterelle” sounds like something you could pull off with one hand tied behind your back. Then I read the details and gently set the book down on the counter after mulling over the first step. “For the black shallots: Place the shallots in dry plastic containers with lids and dehydrate for 1 month at 150 (degrees Fahrenheit).”

But my dinner guests just texted me. They’re on their way. And, even factoring in rush-hour traffic, they’ll make it here in less than a month. Soup. They’re going to love the spring vegetable soup, which I decide to pull from the fridge and heat up on the stove. It will be introduced as soupe de legumes printaniers. I’ll make a salad with a barigoule vinaigrette and, with any luck, I’ll have the pronunciation down pat by the time they park out front.

Blair Anthony Robertson: 916-321-1099, @Blarob

Spring vegetable soup

Servings: 6 to 8

This recipe, from “Bouchon,” by Thomas Keller, is labeled “doable” by The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson. This straightforward soup is so loaded with vegetables that it’s almost like a stew. Note: The tomato confit garnish is optional.

For the soup:

1 large carrot (of as uniform thickness as possible)

One 2 1/2-inch thick wedge of savoy cabbage

1 small leek

4 to 6 baby turnips

1 to 2 celery stalks

4 to 6 small fingerling or marble potatoes (no wider than 1/2-inch in diameter)

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

2 ounces Bayonne ham or prosciutto (not sliced)

2 large garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Sachet (2 or 3 pieces of dark green outer leek leaves, 8 thyme sprigs, 2 Italian parsley sprigs, 2 bay leaves, 1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns. Wrap in a 7-inch square of cheesecloth and tie into a bundle with kitchen twine.)

One 1-ounce piece of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese or piece of Parmigiano rind

8 cups chicken stock or vegetable stock (low sodium)

For the garnishes:

1 pound fava beans in the pod

16 medium asparagus spears

24 small shiitake mushrooms, cleaned

8 pieces tomato confit (see recipe)

2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley

2 tablespoons minced chives

Shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Extra virgin olive oil

You will need  1/2 cup of each of the sliced vegetables.

Peel the carrot and cut away the ends. Cut it lengthwise in half, then cut each half lengthwise again. Cut each piece crosswise into  1/4 -inch-thick slices. Remove any dark green outer leaves from the cabbage and reserve. Place the wedge cut side down on a cutting board and cut crosswise into  1/4 -inch-wide slices. Cut away the dark green leaves and root end of the leek. Cut the leek lengthwise in half and rinse well under cold water. Cut each piece of leek lengthwise in half and then cut crosswise into  1/4 -inch-wide slices.

Peel the baby turnips. Cut off the tops, then cut them into small wedges, about  1/2 -inch thick.

Wash and trim the celery. Use a paring knife to pull away the strings, then cut the stalks into  1/4 -inch-thick slices. Wash the potatoes. Discard the ends, then cut the remaining potatoes into 1 1/2 -inch-thick slices.

Heat the olive oil and butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the ham skin or fat side down and the garlic and swirl the pan for a few seconds to coat the garlic, then sweat the garlic for a minute or two. Add the  1/2 cup each carrots, cabbage, leek, turnips and celery, stir, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Cook gently for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the  1/2 cup potatoes, the sachet, Parmigiano, and stock and bring to a simmer. Add salt and pepper to taste and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes, until the potatoes are tender.

Meanwhile, prepare an ice bath. When the potatoes are tender, pour the soup into a bowl or other container and chill in the ice bath until cold, then cover and refrigerate until ready to serve. (The soup is best if it is refrigerated for a day.)

For the garnishes

Prepare an ice bath. Shell the fava beans and peel the skins from the beans (peeling the beans before cooking them prevents gases from being trapped between the beans and their skins that could cause discoloration). Remove the small germ at the side of each bean. (You should have about 1 cup of beans.) Blanch the beans in a large pot of generously salted water for about 5 minutes or until tender. Using a skimmer, immedately transfer to the ice bath to chill.

Cut away the bottom third of each asparagus spear and discard. Cut the remaining spears on a sharp bias into pieces about  1/4 -inch thick and 1  1/2 to 2 inches long. Blanch the asparagus in the boiling water until just tender and transfer to the ice bath to chill. When they are cold, drain the favas and asparagus and spread on paper towels to drain.

Cut off and discard the mushroom stems, then cut the mushrooms into  1/4 -inch-thick slices.

Cut each piece of tomato confit lengthwise into 4 pieces.

To complete

If any fat has solidified on the surface of the soup, remove and discard it. Transfer the soup to a saucepan, and remove and discard the sachet and Parmigiano. Remove the ham, cut away any excess fat, and cut into lardons about 1 1/2 inches long and  1/4 -inch thick. Return the lardons to the soup and bring the soup to a boil.

Add the mushrooms to the soup, reduce the heat, and simmer for a minute. Add the fava beans, asparagus, and tomato confit and remove from the heat. Stir in the parsley and chives, taste the soup, and adjust the seasoning.

Ladle the soup into bowls and garnish each bowl with a few shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano and a drizzle of olive oil.

Tomato confit

The tomato confit at Bouchon is plum tomatoes, peeled, drizzled with oil and cooked in a low oven for several hours, then stored submerged in olive oil.

12 plum tomatoes

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 teaspoons minced thyme

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees.

Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil. Fill a large bowl with ice. With a paring knife, cut out and discard the stem end of each tomato. Cut a small X on the opposite end and place the tomatoes in a large bowl.

Pour the boiling water over the tomatoes and let them sit for about 15 seconds. The riper the tomato, the more easily the skin will peel. To check, lift a tomato and pull away the skin. As soon as it peels off easily from one tomato, drain the tomatoes and cover them with the ice to chill quickly.

Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Once the tomatoes have cooled, peel them. Cut them lengthwise in half and place cut side up on the baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil and lightly sprinkle with salt, pepper and thyme.

Place the sheet in the oven and cook for 5 to 6 hours, or until the tomatoes are dried about halfway through; they will have shrunk but should still be moist. Let cool on the baking sheet.

Layer the tomatoes in a storage container and pour the oil remaining on the baking sheet over the top. (The tomatoes can be refrigerated for up to a week.)

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