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La Belle Cuisine
"Cuisine is only about making foods taste the way
they are supposed to taste."
Chef Charlie Trotter
(or How to Cook with the Ease of a Professional
Without Becoming One)
by Michele W. Gerhard
Hopefully you are an enthusiastic, serious
with a "knack"
for cooking, because this article is intended for you. No
discrimination intended, it's just that professionals already know what is included here,
and then some.
In a nutshell, you learn how to cook with the ease of a
professional by learning the
basics. Our purpose here is
not to train you in the classical French manner. There are already a number of excellent
books on the market which can do exactly that if you take them seriously. Rather,
purpose is to convince you of the need to know the basics of classical
training. It will simplify your life, allow you to cook well (with ease rather than with
trepidation) and most importantly, allow your creative juices to flow so that you can
become a truly excellent cook.
Do you love to cook? Despite this love affair, do you find that
afraid you don't really know how? Would you like to "really
know how", but suspect you would have to have formal training to do it (and have
neither the time, money nor inclination to do so)? Do you know what is meant by
sauce bordelaise, but find you have
your doubts about
and concassée (although, of course, you've heard the terms)? Does your husband threaten on an increasingly regular basis to add a room onto the
house to hold your burgeoning collection of recipes, cookbooks, food magazines and
catalogues? Do you find yourself automatically gravitating toward Williams-Sonoma when you
go to the
mall? Would you rather receive a new Cuisinart or Kitchen Aid for your birthday
than a piece of jewelry? Then, welcome to the club. You and I
have a lot in common.
Funny how all of a sudden things come together. All of a sudden
they jell. The light dawns. Of course, it isn't really all of a sudden.
Like the old cliché actors have to contend with when they appear to be an overnight
success, but they've been acting for twenty years. In my case it was a lifetime of cooking
without REALLY knowing what I was doing, but loving every frustrating minute of it. Years
of reading cookbooks like novels. Collecting recipes like other people collect stamps or
coins or Hummel figurines (current count is in the thousands on recipe cards.) Cooking,
cooking, and more cooking, constantly changing, experimenting, improving, refining,
perfecting, but struggling all the while. And then one day the veil lifted.
professional chef knows became crystal clear to me: it really boils down to a fundamental
group of themes, with an infinite number of variations on those themes.
Learning the themes well will eliminate a great deal of unnecessary confusion, frustration
and excess in your life.
Simplify, simplify, simplify...
"The qualities of an exceptional cook are
akin to those of a successful tightrope walker: an abiding passion for the
task, courage to go out on
~ Bryan Miller
a limb and an impeccable sense of balance.”
Ever since I can remember, I've wanted to be able to cook the kind
meals served in
New Orleans' finest restaurants. New Orleans has finally
home! This marvelous city has been my second home ever
since I was four years old, so I
was brought up with an appreciation of
excellent food, impeccably cooked and served.
I came to have a very healthy respect for the process as well.
The original Owen
Brennan's Vieux Carré was my favorite restaurant at
age five, and I cherish the
memory of Owen stopping by the table to chat
and serving me an outrageously garnished
Shirley Temple drink, complete with Japanese umbrellas and loaded with maraschino
and orange slices.
Ever since I can remember, people have said to
me, "Hey, you really are
a great cook, why don't you open your own restaurant?"
Naturally, I was
quite flattered, but spending 18 hours a day at least 6 days a week tied
down to the kitchen was not exactly what I had in mind. And of course,
I didn't REALLY
know how to cook. Strictly trial and error, with lots of
frustration, blood, sweat and
tears, and everything
from butterflies in my
stomach to sheer panic.
Of course, as the years went by, my cooking improved, and as I
continued to read, to experiment, and to change practically every recipe I ran across,
things began to make more sense. In the meantime, my older son, Keegan, became a very fine
professional chef who wound up specializing in the pastry field (and who
is now chef/owner of D Bar Desserts
CO and D Bar San Diego). Go figure. Keegan, of all people,
who as a teenager was quite
content to live on Kraft macaroni and cheese, pro-
would cook it for him. None of that made-from-
scratch stuff for him!
Or how about
"Keegan, I'll cook anything you want for your
birthday dinner! What
would you like?"
"Great, Mom! How about meat loaf, mashed potatoes and peas?"
Invariably. Year after year. Well, you just never
know, do you? Chef Keegan had no formal culinary training, but what he
has instead is invaluable. What we used to call OJT. Good ole sink or swim on the
even that was an accident.
Keegan did not intend to become a
chef; rather, his professional culinary career just sort of evolved. But what an
evolution! He has cooked with -
and for - some of the finest chefs in the world. With the enthusiastic zeal
so typical of him, his lust for life and insatiable curiosity, he soaked up
everything he saw, heard and read as if by osmosis. Keegan's optimistic boldness
and adventurous spirit continue to serve him well.
Chef Keegan is just as
fearless in the kitchen as he was on the football
field and in the soccer goal. (Need I
say that I much prefer to have him
in the kitchen?) What I have learned from him is beyond
is an honor to be able to share some of this knowledge with you.
"The only real stumbling block is fear
of failure. In cooking
you've got to have a what-the-hell attitude."
My dad used to just shake his head and say, "Michele, why is
it that you
have to learn everything the hard way?" I never had a good answer, but I knew
he was right. I learned everything about cooking the hard way as
well. Trial and error. I
finally learned how to put together an excellent
Thanksgiving dinner, for example, with
ALL the trimmings. But how I suffered in the process! What was wrong? I had so many
more recipes than I knew what to
do with, and I loved to cook...
Just recently it dawned on me that I really don't NEED a bazillion
recipes (although I admit I still love to collect them). All I need (all
anyone needs) is to learn the basics and learn them well. Then it becomes
obvious how simple it really is. Less really is more. Granted, it will help a great deal
(in fact, no doubt it is essential) that your starting point be
food, sense of food,
feel for food, an
instinct that tells you how certain
foods need to be handled (or in some cases not
handled). But assuming
that is there to some degree (or else you would probably not be
this) all you really need is a good solid foundation in basic techniques, a
creative imagination and an adventurous spirit.
"Cooking is like love. It should be
entered into with abandon
or not at all."
~ Harriet Van Horne
What do I mean by "good solid foundation in basic
techniques"? If you are
at all like me, by now you're thinking to yourself that you
don't want to be
a professional. You just want to be an excellent cook, right? Otherwise
you would have gone to the CIA or one of the other renowned cooking schools around the
There is a lot of good educational literature available on the subject of
gastronomy, but I must admit that I used to find most of it somewhat
intimidating. No doubt
intended for professionals only, I thought - it's
just going to confuse me. Wrong!
"The secret to good
cooking resides in the cook's ability to say 'the hell
with the basic recipe' and improvise freely from it. If you haven't got
kind of moxie, you might as well hang up your apron."
~ James Alan McPherson
Along with a deep appreciation of fine cuisine and a love of
cooking for its own sake, I inherited from my mother an excellent culinary library which
included the classic Larousse Gastronomique
and both volumes of Julia Child's
Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It
pains me to admit that I didn't even bother to open them for years, because I imagined
they were somehow beyond me. The number of pages in the Larousse, for example (the edition
I have contains 1193), I found somewhat daunting to the working mother. I was, quite
honestly, frightened by it. Although Julia Child's tomes looked fascinating, I found them
somewhat intimidating as well. Why would I want to master the art of French cooking? I
to be a French chef!
Perhaps that has been your experience as well. If only I had
What I didn't realize at the time is that good classical training is essential,
no matter which art or craft you may choose to pursue. Why would I want
to master the art
of French cooking? Simple, because the French wrote the book on cuisine, so to speak.
Because that would be my foundation, my
classical training, whether or not it took place
in a formal environment.
There is a certain inevitable discipline involved if one is to
excel at what
one does. We may be able to sidetrack the formal education, but some-where
along the line, it is essential that we master the fundamentals.
“Just as in music and theater, a classical food background
helps you find
your own freedom.”
~ Michael Lomonaco
Consider, for example, how many pop, rock and jazz musicians have
had formal classical training, not because they wanted to become
classical musicians, but
because they aspired to become excellent
is one of my all-time favorite musical groups.
On the video "Bring
on the Night", which beautifully
beginning of the group,
Sting says to his back-up singers,
"You sing a
third, you sing a fifth, and I'll sing the tonic."
Because they have learned at
least a basic knowledge of harmonics,
they know he didn't say,
"You bring a fifth of gin and
I'll bring the tonic."
Ah, yes. Everything we have heard since childhood about building on a
firm foundation is just as true in cuisine as it is in any other area of life.
have had no formal training have learned the essentials the
hard way - as they went along.
It requires commitment, which means
discipline, but once we understand the
essentials, everything else falls
into place and we are free to become
Honestly now, among friends, did you cringe just a bit at the
the d-word, discipline? I certainly used to. What did I
need with discipline
in the kitchen? Just leave me alone and let me cook... It tastes great, does
it not? I know what I'm doing!
I had reluctantly given in to discipline in other areas of my life, strictly
necessity, I must admit. I was known in my professional world as
reliable, punctual, trustworthy, loyal and all of
those other good qualities that my
grandmother and the Girl Scouts had
instilled in me early on. Why did I have to be
disciplined in the kitchen as
well? I wanted cooking to be fun! I wanted to relax
in the kitchen. After
all, cooking was just a hobby. Right?
Wrong again. Through the years I have
learned that discipline is not a dirty word. It is not a synonym for drudgery or
punishment. What it really is, is love. To me, that is the one essential
ingredient, no matter what the topic.
Based on my own personal experience, I am firmly convinced that
learning to make friends with discipline is the best thing I ever did for myself, the most
loving thing. M. Scott Peck describes discipline as an
It does not come naturally. It must be desired, cultivated, nurtured.
It is what must happen when we make a commitment to excellence
lives. In order to achieve a certain standard, we must choose new attitudes
This reminds me somehow of my younger son, the musician in the
family, who surprised us all in junior high by announcing that he wanted to play football.
Once he found out he would have to go to football practice ( in
Mississippi in AUGUST?!?!?) in order to play football, it was all over. He had more
important things to do, thank you, - like practice the piano and play the guitar. Those endeavors were
worth his valuable time and effort. whereas football was not. Has he learned discipline now? He
an excellent computer software designer/engineer/ guru, so that's a definite
yes! Otherwise I doubt seriously that Microsoft would have grabbed him. Just
as he was assisting me during a technical crisis, his advice
deliberate and patient." A very wise man, my son.
What if you could significantly simplify your life and reduce your
bazillion recipes down to, say, 100? (I know, you probably don't want to, but just
sake of argument...) Actually, you would eventually reach the point of rarely
needing recipes at all, except perhaps as guidelines, reminders, or for inspiration.
for example. There are basically three ways to make cheesecake, depending on
the TYPE of cheesecake you want. Once you know that, and master the techniques involved,
(which are basically very simple), then you can make an infinite variety of cheesecakes,
limited only by your imagination and the availability of excellent ingredients.
Another good example is basic custard. What could be simpler? It
of egg yolks, milk, sugar and flavoring.
Crème Anglaise is nothing more
soft custard. There is a certain technique involved, but once you
have learned that, just
look what you'll be able to do!
Crème Pâtissière, Crème Caramel. Plus
any number of other wonderful
desserts - pumpkin pie is simply pumpkin custard baked in a a pie
Even ice cream is nothing more than a frozen custard. The only questions are: how many
egg yolks, how much sugar, only milk, a mixture of milk
and cream, or only cream,
and what kind of flavoring. Once again, you
are limited only by your imagination and
daring. Anything from a simple
vanilla ice cream to pistachio to green tea and wild honey
to lavender or
rose geranium, and everything in between.
But here's the point. The only
recipe you really need is the basic one -
a really excellent plain vanilla ice cream made
with only the very finest ingredients available to you: good fresh eggs and milk or cream
vanilla bean. Okay, I know they're expensive, but so is vanilla extract.
you're serious, if it's quality you're looking for, you won't settle
vanilla flavoring once you've experienced the real thing.
We All Scream for Ice Cream
Let's take another good example: basic short dough. Once you
master the basic technique, you will be able to turn out a wonderfully delicious array
shortbread. Why? Because it's
basically the same
thing. Start with flour and a bit of salt, "cut" in fat
(butter, shortening or a
combination) until the mixture resembles coarse
meal (some chefs say cooked rice). Slowly
add a small amount of cold
liquid (water, juice, cider, etc.) and
mix it. That's basic pastry dough, a
If you prefer a
pâte sucrée, a sweet dough, you
simply add a bit of sugar. Naturally there are differences in exactly how
you proceed, depending on whether
you're making pie crust, shortcake,
or shortbread, but the BASICS are the same. After that, it's simply a
matter of variety.
Basic Pie Crust
Can you make
Sauce Hollandaise? It really isn't nearly as
difficult as it sounds. And once you've mastered the basic technique, then you'll also
be able to make
Sauce Maltaise (orange),
whipped cream) and the delectable
Not to mention
mayonnaise! Which will lead,
sooner or later, to
a garlic mayonnaise.
No doubt you've already made a
basic white sauce or two even if
a novice cook. That's what the French call
although the classic French Béchamel "always contains that salpicon of
vegetables and/or that dash of nutmeg which makes it palatable; otherwise its taste is
certainly not very assertive". (The New Making of a Cook: The Art, Techniques,
and Science of Good Cooking, Madeleine Kamman, 1997, William Morrow and
Co., Inc.) Once you know how to make a béchamel, you'll be able to put together a
Mornay (cheese), Soubise (onion),
Velouté (chicken stock),
Suprême (chicken stock and cream),
The list goes on and on. How do you make good soup? You start with an
excellent stock, add
imagination and fine-quality fresh ingredients and go from there. Making stock is not
difficult, and to me it is tremendous fun
and totally rewarding. Just take a rainy Saturday
afternoon and make it rewarding by loading up your freezer with delicious,
cream soups? Yum! There are so many
different kinds that I have quite a ridiculous number in my personal collection. And still
I can't resist one. Fun? Yes, I readily admit that I enjoy it. But necessary? No, because
they are basically the same. Cream of anything soup will simply
be a mixture of a roux
(which you know how to make since you have
mastered Sauce Béchamel), stock, vegetables
and/or meat, milk and/or
cream and the herbs and seasonings of your choice.
If you can
make Cream of Mushroom Soup, you can
make Cream of Broccoli, Cream of Scallop, Cream of Kohlrabi and Leek, Cream of Artichoke
and Chestnut, you name it. But FIRST, you have to know
the basics. You may want to add
a splash of wine or Sherry, thyme
or curry, lemon juice,
or a pinch of sugar. That's where the fun, the
creative part comes in.
The same goes for
And if you really want to know what's
going on, the following book
an absolute must-read. As a matter of fact, when my son
was hired by one of
his first mentors,
Chef Jacquy Pfeiffer,
he was told to read
he did anything else....
On Food and Cooking:
The Science and Lore of the Kitchen
Get your mess in place!
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