I’m not entirely sure when first dawned on me that professional chefs weren’t like home chefs. For a long time, I sort of thought that “real” chefs simply had better knife skills, funny hats and a wider knowledge of how to make sauces- sort of like what you saw on “Yan Can Cook.”
Over the course of reading about and getting interested in food though, I learned that the professional chef is a much more complex being. Part chemist, part artist, part cook, a professional chef doesn’t simply have to be able to make something taste good, he (or she) has to be able to make it taste that way every single time. Hence, there is a bit of fanaticism in the blood of a chef. Actions that I don’t think twice about- the best way to sauté an onion or slice a carrot- take on a strange precision in a professional kitchen.
This belief was reinforced over the weekend by Ian, a CIA-trained chef turned restaurant consultant who joined my family’s July 4 festivities up in New Hampshire. Cooking is a competitive sport in my family and outsiders generally have to muscle pretty hard to be allowed near a stove. We are not a family that measures or follows directions. We chop and throw and bang and yell… Giving advice on how to do something is likely to get you thrown out of the kitchen and spirited debates have erupted over the best way to make a paella or how long to marinate a pork chop.
I drove up there on Friday with a dozen lobsters I’d picked up that morning at the fish pier- beautiful, 1.5 lb. lobsters, their speckled shells edged in blue. I figured we’d boil the creatures alive as I typically do and serve them with melted butter and a wedge of lemon. Ian, however, had other ideas.
First, the lobsters would be steamed, so as not to waterlog their flesh. While I agree with this technique on the grounds of flavor, it seems to prolong the suffering of the lobsters, which I’m not big on. Since reading David Foster Wallace’s Gourmet essay “Consider the Lobster” I’ve become much more attuned to the question of a lobster’s suffering before it gets to my plate. That, however, is another post.
What turned this lobster feast into something out of the ordinary was quite simply the butter. In his book Heat, Bill Buford takes a break from getting burned, cut and otherwise embarassed in Mario Batalli’s kitchen to illustrate the tenacity of chefs by asking Marco Pierre White how to fry an egg. What would be a mindless Sunday morning routine to most of us turned into an almost fanatical and deliberate ritual. There was nothing mindless about it.
Buford writes: “In normal life, “simplicity” is synonymous with “easy to do” but when a chef uses the word it means, “takes a lifetime to learn”… For two days, we talked about eggs.”
Ian was similarly fanatical about the butter. While I would have been perfectly happy to throw a sick of butter in a bowl and nuke it for a minute, that was not in the cards with Ian. Instead, four sticks of butter were put into a pot on a gas range and heated. As the temperature rose, the butter began to bubble and white foam formed, which he painstakingly skimmed off the top and deposited into a tea cup. More bubbling, more foaming, more skimming.
“This sounds kind of gross, but you want it to look like really yellow pee,” he said as he drew a spoon over the pot for what seemed like the zillionth time. This, I learned, is called clarifying butter, the process of removing milk solids and water, thus concentrating the flavor and raising the smoke point of the substance. It is the first step to making a bunch of mother sauces, and is also what in Indian cuisine is referred to as ghee, the base for a bunch of curry dishes and other deliciousness (I occasionally dream of marrying an Indian man solely for the home cooking… that too is for another post though).
At one point my uncle took over the skimming. Ian promptly dismissed him when he let too much foam collect in the pot. “I’ve fired guys for less,” he said, taking the spoon back. I didn’t doubt it. Finally, the pot was pronounced “as good as it’s going to get.”
“In a restaurant, I’d strain it through cheesecloth to get out all the solids,” he explained. We didn’t have cheesecloth.
I was skeptical of whether all this fuss was truly going to produce something superior. After all, we’re talking about butter here, how much better can it get? Apparently, the answer is much better.
The butter flavor was intense, slightly toasty and somehow less greasy. Add a squeeze of lemon and you could have poured the stuff over car tires and made them edible.
I have never felt compelled to drink butter before. I resisted the urge on Saturday only by dunking every edible part of one and a half lobsters in it (yes, that says one and a half LOBSTERS, not one and a half pounds of lobster). An evening of over indulgence? Perhaps. Of perfect clarity? Absolutely. In more ways than one.