Thursday, November 02, 2006

The maestro in my kitchen
Some chefs do more than simply inspire -- they inform your culinary consciousness.
By Russ Parsons
Times Staff Writer

November 1, 2006

I'D been looking forward to my dinner at Michel Richard's Citronelle in Washington, D.C., last spring for months, and the first course did not disappoint. With a flourish, the waiter presented a long rectangular plate that had been divided into thirds. One compartment held an eggshell cut in half and filled with what looked like creamy scrambled eggs. Next to it was what appeared to be a dollhouse-size slice of chocolate cake. The third item on the plate looked for all the world like a perfectly normal quartered hard-boiled egg.

Doesn't sound particularly earth-shattering? Well, of course, Michel being one of the most technically gifted and innovative chefs in the world, none were what they seemed.

The "scrambled eggs" were scallops that had been puréed with cream and then gently stirred as you would eggs. The texture was as creamy as the best scrambled eggs, but the flavor was as rich as scallop mousse. The "chocolate cake" was made from razor-thin alternating slices of foie gras and black truffle and had a depth and profundity of flavor that belied its toy-like appearance.

And the "hard-boiled egg" was really a tomato salad in disguise — the white was mozzarella curd and the yolk a yellow tomato gelèe — the familiar flavors presented in a form that made you consider them anew.

It was a splendid goof, but a goof with a point — several, actually. The first an appreciation for the technical mastery that created these trompe l'oeil tidbits. They were smart, too—scrambled eggs given a whisper of ocean flavor with a lump of caviar has become a haute cuisine cliché. These "scrambled eggs" were actually of the ocean. But the dishes also worked on a deeper level, and one that is all too often overlooked by technical chefs these days: They were seriously delicious.

Every cook has his chef — someone they look up to above all others — and for almost 20 years (and even beyond, it turns out), Michel has been mine. I am not alone in this. He is regarded by his peers as a chef's chef—an endless and generous source of new ideas and techniques. When Thomas Keller wrote his foreword to Michel's new book, "Happy in the Kitchen," he titled it "Why Didn't I Think of That?"

It has been my terrific fortune to know a lot of really talented chefs over the years. Some have a wonderful innate sense of flavor. Some have a jeweler's eye when it comes to presentation. Some can play technical tricks that make you gasp. Michel combines all three along with wit and intelligence.

Of course, the first time we met, he threatened to kill me.

That was in 1987, and he had just opened Citrus, the Melrose Avenue restaurant that launched him onto the national scene. I was a restaurant critic at the old Herald-Examiner and had just reviewed the place. To tell the truth, there were rough spots — on both our parts.

A lot of what I ate was splendid, but sometimes the size of the room and the number of customers seemed to overwhelm the chef's culinary ambitions. For example, crème brûlée had been prepared in advance and came with a soggy crust.

For my part, I was simply not sophisticated enough to appreciate much of what Michel was trying to do. He was too far ahead of the curve.

The review was mixed and so, a couple of weeks later, when San Francisco radio host Narsai David suggested we get together for lunch at his friend Michel's new restaurant, I agreed with trepidation.

It took a few courses before Michel tumbled to who I was, and when he did he came screaming out of the kitchen, waving a copy of the review in one hand and (perhaps only in my memory) a chef's knife in the other.

"That was you!" he yelled. "Are you trying to kill me? I'll kill you! If you think it is so easy to cook my food, why don't you come work in my kitchen?"

Inventive approach

PROBABLY to both of our surprise, I accepted the invitation as sincere. Not long after, I started showing up to work Saturday lunches. Michel gave me the most menial tasks he could (in truth, those were the ones that best fit my talent), and I pitched in enthusiastically.

Despite my ineptitude, I was willing to work hard and I loved to cook. Thus a friendship was born (though for years afterward, every time I ate at the restaurant, the dessert course would begin with a plate of tiny pastry-cup crème brûlées, each perfectly crisped — Michel's way of reminding me he hadn't forgotten).

The jobs might have been dirty, but the opportunity to watch and learn from Michel changed the way I thought about cooking. It's not that I got any specific dishes from him or even cook in his style. I'm still pretty much of a "pick good ingredients and get out of the way" kind of guy. No one has ever remarked on the gem-like quality of my presentations.

In fact, I remember the first time I tried to replicate his mashed potatoes at home. They're based on the Robuchon method — equal weights of butter and potato whipped together. I was sure I must have misunderstood. When they wouldn't come together, I called him. "Pas de beurre; pas de beurre," he muttered mournfully, as if my shorting the butter was a moral lapse beyond comprehension.

Once I got the technique down, though, I went for a couple of years serving mashed potatoes for every meal but breakfast, and twisting the basic recipe in sometimes surprising ways.

When was the last time you were surprised by mashed potatoes? That's what I really learned from Michel — an appreciation for the transformative power of technique when it is combined with imagination and respect for pure flavor. Working with him, I realized that an artist at that level can see things the rest of us can't.

That inventive approach to technique and flavor is the essence of "Happy in the Kitchen": the fresh way he looks at ingredients and tools. Whether he's showing you how easily one of those Japanese mandolins can make perfectly cubed potatoes, or he's puréeing carrot tops to make a vivid green sauce for the braised root, an inquisitive cook can't help but shake his head in amazement on almost every other page.

Plenty of chefs have technique. To me, the thing that really sets Michel apart is that he's not blinded by it. He starts a dish not with technical tricks in mind, but by thinking about flavor, shape and color. It's only then that he dreams up a way to achieve what he has imagined.

It used to infuriate Michel when people would talk about him being a pastry chef. (Sure that's where he started, but now he was a real chef, doggone it!)

But far from being a knock, I think his pastry background is what most informs his cooking. That's true not only in his creativity (pastry is, after all, a craft based on transforming the most prosaic materials — butter, sugar, flour — into fantasy) but also in his attention to presentation, texture and bright, clean flavor.

Several years ago when my good friend Phyllis Richman retired after almost 25 years as restaurant critic at the Washington Post, a group of D.C. chefs got together to throw her a thank-you party. I went back for it, carrying a crate of Meyer lemons from my backyard to make lemon curd tarts.

Michel let me use his kitchen and with his help, I ran out several dozen mini-tarts in no time at all. They tasted good, and I was happy. But Michel pointed out that they weren't really that spectacular looking.

So he took over. He peeled long strings of zest from a couple of lemons with a spiral stripper designed for peeling potatoes or apples (one of his favorite toys). Then he cooked the zest in grenadine, turning it a brilliant orange. He put the strings in a blender filled with water and pushed "purée." In a flash, the zest was minced to tiny dots, which he drained, patted dry and used to speckle the tops of the tarts.

Not only was it beautiful and a perfectly complementary flavor, it was technically brilliant. The zest was minced more finely than anyone could ever do by hand, and who else would have thought about using a blender to do it? (Because of the water, the zest didn't grind to a paste.)

Cooking with Michel is only half the fun. I have never known a better companion at the table. For years we ate lunch together regularly, and often by the time we were through with one of these meals it had turned into dinner and even beyond.

Sometimes we ate at my house, sometimes at his. Often we ate at his restaurant. (I learned early not to take him anywhere else — the first time I did he prowled the dining room asking people why they weren't at Citrus.)

Sometimes we ate fancy off the Citrus menu, but probably more often we did not. One frequent lunch dish was these incredibly stinky little French andouillette tripe sausages. Served with mashed potatoes, a pungent mustard and a good bottle of Beaujolais, it was the kind of meal that simply made you happy.

We would sit for hours, talking about our families, our professions and, of course, food. Not in a pretentious "here's a new way to serve caviar" way, but as two guys who loved to cook and loved to eat.

This was true even when he wasn't allowed to eat. Michel has struggled with his weight for as long as I have known him. On my last visit we power-walked from Georgetown to the White House and back, for a brief while part of his daily routine. Years before that, for an even briefer time, he was on a well-known commercial diet plan that required him to eat its prepared foods. But he refused to cancel our scheduled lunch: "Come, have a little to eat, we can talk."

I sat down and he ordered for me, a huge lunch, with a couple of wines. And then he proceeded to interrogate me about every bite.

"What is the crust like?" he would ask. "Is it crisp enough? Does it crunch?" When Michel talks about food and can't find the word he wants, he sometimes stammers a little, smacking his lips. "Can you (smack, smack, smack) taste the butter?" he asked, staring at me while tearing off a bite of flavorless packaged dinner roll.

Michel can be incredibly demanding of those who work for him — I have one friend who almost visibly quivers when he talks about his days in the Citrus kitchen.

And the guy has a bit of an ego and is intensely competitive. "Happy in the Kitchen" is being published by Artisan, which also released the "French Laundry Cookbook," and Thomas Keller was instrumental in putting the deal together. Still, when Michel was proudly showing me the proofs for the book last spring, he had to point out that his friend had gotten more color photographs than he had.

(For the record, his editor now says that, as published, Michel's book ended up winning that competition 225 plates to 212, something that I'm sure will make Michel very happy, and that Keller may hear about sometime down the road.)

I used to tease Michel that if someone told him he was the best chef in Los Angeles, he'd ask, "What about California?" If they said California, he'd ask, "What about the United States?" And so on. Even if someone told him he was the best chef in the world, he'd ask, "What if there are restaurants on other planets?"

The fact that he may have been right did not make it any easier to live with him.

In truth, this competitiveness also caused some friction between us. Once we became friends, I told him that out of fairness to other chefs, I could no longer write about him. He grudgingly went along with it most of the time, more or less, but I know he burned every time he saw another chef's name in print.

And it was hard on me too not being able to write about someone who had such an influence on my life in food. In fact, I learned at one of our long lunches that my relationship with Michel's cooking went back a lot further than I had thought.

Delicious recall

WHEN I was in college back in the mid-'70s, my wife and I would drive up to Santa Fe and stay at the La Fonda Hotel, partly because it was so romantic, but in large part because of the wonderful pastry shop in the basement.

I was hardly a foodie at that point — I was much more interested in rodeo and country music — but I still remember eating these amazing little pastries stuffed with real fruit and thinking, "Wow, this is different than anything I've ever tasted before." It was a turning point in my thinking about food and I remembered them often, especially after I became interested in cooking.

Years later, Michel and I were enjoying a long lunch one afternoon, and he started reminiscing about his days in Santa Fe.

"What were you doing in Santa Fe?" I asked.

He said that back in the '70s his mentor, famed Parisian pâtissier Gaston Lenotre, had asked him to move to Manhattan to open Lenotre's first American store — quite an honor for a 26-year-old. Within a couple of years, though, he wanted to strike out on his own, and his first job was running the pastry shop at the La Fonda Hotel.

"That was you?" I asked. "Did you make a buttery kind of Danish pastry, with a little bit of pastry cream and a poached apricot in the center? That was you?"

He just laughed.

I was shocked, but somehow not surprised.

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