A Birthday Challenge

As part of her present for my 40th birthday, The Wife got me Thomas Keller’s book Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide. For those of you who aren’t chef groupies, Chef Keller is the owner and executive chef of The French Laundry, considered by many to be America’s finest restaurant, and several other high-profile establishments in Las Vegas and New York. Many amateur foodies have fantasies about spending an evening cooking with the likes of Thomas Keller. As for myself, I think that time would be about as productive as a round of golf with Tiger Woods – the skill level is so far advanced of my own that everything would simply fly over my head and not register.

To say that Chef Keller’s recipes and techniques are intimidating to this amateur cook is something of an understatement. Soffit House enjoys a good reputation as a place where good food is available for guests, but it’s not The French Laundry. To properly replicate what Chef Keller has got going on, I’ll need about ten thousand dollars’ worth of specialized equipment I don’t have and about a hundred thousand dollars to add a thousand extra square feet to my kitchen, which will have to be completely redone, so that there is somewhere to store and use this equipment. Some of this equipment will include a dehydrator, a series of strainers, a chamber vacuum packer, a dedicated ice maker, at least two immersion circulators, and a series of twenty-gallon Lexan containers. About forty extra square feet of counter space would be helpful, too. 

I’m sure Chef Keller and his staff have good food-quality blowtorches available at places like The French Laundry and per se. As for me, I’ve also still not found a container of butane with a Z-type nozzle to fit in to the handheld blowtorch I bought to produce Maillard reactions. Propane and LPG are easy to find but I’d rather not use them on food. Give me some time and I’m sure I can find that the butane fuel with the appropriate nozzle needed to let me brown up an entire leg of lamb. Explaining to the guys at the hardware store what I was up to was an amusing but frustrating exercise; one of them seemed to like the idea but the other thought I was just plain nuts.

And I would need to spend about eight hours a week hunting down the rare and highly specific ingredients he’s got listed. Not that I blame him for being very particular about his ingredients — I quite agree that not all ingredients are equal and sometimes there is simply no substitute for the best stuff you can get. For instance, if you’re going to do really, really good chocolates, Valrhona is the way to go. It’s got to be spectacular when it all comes together.

Noodles and gravy it ain’t.

For example, there’s Tagliatelle of Cuttlefish and Hawaiian Heart of Peach Palm, White Nectarine, Sweet Pepper Confetti, and Vinaigrette A L’encre se Deiche. Chef Keller calls this a “simple dish.” I’ve no idea what “a l’encre se deiche” even means; it’s made from the ink of the cuttlefish, mustard, canola oil, and the zest of a Meyer lemon. Perhaps more interesting is the question of where in the high desert I’m going to find cuttlefish. I’m in an environment where most of the people I run into on a daily basis have no idea what a cuttlefish even is, and my guess is that Chef Keller begins preparing this dish with live animals that he can have flown in to his Napa Valley restaurants directly from the Israeli coast of the Mediterranean Sea because his customers will pay whatever he demands because it’s The French Laundry. 

So after what sounds like a rather delicate prep on these little beasts (so as to extract the ink without contaminating it with roe or any of the cuttlefish innards) they get packed into the bag with an herb sachet — another technique I’ll need to learn is how to make such a thing suitable for use in the sous vide oven — and cook the meat for ten hours. After that, I’m to chill it and prepare it for presentation, for which he offers this helpful instruction:  “Lay the cuttlefish flat on the work surface. Trim the edges as needed to straighten, then cut crosswise into ‘tagliatelle’ about 1/8 inch wide. Toss with a drizzle of the cooking liquid.”

How about a simple salad? We have New Crop Onions, Pickled Ramps, and Sauce Soubise. The ingredient list is half the page long. The Albertson’s down the street does not carry ramps. If I were to ask for ramps, they would point me to the handicapped access and likely not even know I was talking about a vegetable. For both the soubise sauce and for pickling those ramps, he calls for champagne vinegar. Getting that in Quartz Hill may prove something of a challenge too; most people here don’t have a very clear idea of what prosciutto is, and to the extent they do, they don’t understand why those silly Italians slice their ham so damn thinly.

Then, there’s the “ice cream sandwich” dessert.  It has 31 separate ingredients, including five different kinds of milk-cream variants, six different kinds of cocoa-chocolate ingredients, three different kinds of butter, and more eggs than a chicken can give you in a week. Total prep time looks like about six hours, not counting one day’s freezing time for the three different kinds of ice cream, one of which includes no dairy products whatsoever. It’s got to be extraordinary to eat, but wow.

This, um, isn’t going to be happening any time soon in Soffit House. In the short term, I can get at the molecular gastronomy portion of the book for food safety and preparation tips. I’ve already learned that I just plain need to abandon the idea of green vegetables in the sous vide altogether and do a big-pot blanch for them every time. After that, I’ll get at what Chef Keller calls “the basics” like his mushroom stock; the aromatic sachets that he adds to his vegetables while preparing them sous vide; and his quintuple-deglazing technique for a “quick sauce” made from bones, veal stock, chicken stock, and leeks.

After that, when I feel technically proficient enough to attempt a French Laundry-caliber recipe, I’ll be looking at substitutes for at least half of the premium ingredients. For instance, I can probably find calamari steaks and substitute those for the cuttlefish. Meyer lemons are sometimes available at the fruit stand up near Stinking Bakersfield. A fresh heart of palm just isn’t going to be available at all here, although the gourmet deli does have canned hearts of palm from time to time. So if everything comes together at exactly the right time I might find myself in a position to do something like this, to show The Wife just how much I appreciate her and want to impress her.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.