Photo by Lara Kastner
BEEF HEART fig, long peppercorn, celery root
with ROBERT BIALE 2007 "BLACK CHICKEN" ZINFANDEL
My time cooking at the French Laundry and being mentored by Thomas Keller instilled in me the satisfaction of preparing and eating offal. I willingly joined the team as a commis , yet in relatively short order began to grow impatient as I watched the chef de parties do the "glamorous" job of working the line during a busy service. That is where I wanted to be, that is where the action was.
After months of being patient, I approached Chef Keller and expressed my concerns of being left behind as an eternal prep cook. His soft smile spread over his face and I can only imagine him thinking to himself how presumptuous I was being. After all, I was 22 years old, and he basically told me as much--"Be patient, you don't realize it yet, but you are learning so much right now." I nodded my head in agreement but didn't completely buy it. I wanted in on that line...I wanted to feel the adrenaline, burn my forearms on the oven door, and dig myself out of the giant hole the tickets dumped on me at 7 p.m. every night. He promised me that once I acclimated to the restaurant--its standards, workload, and challenges--he would give me new tasks, and "Yes, eventually we will move you into a chef de partie position".
I was a commis at the French Laundry for 14 months. Looking back on that block of time now, I recognize it as the most important period in my culinary development.
As the months went on, Chef Keller would take time out of his day to personally demonstrate techniques required to complete various preparations, many of them involving offal. Ingredients such as hearts, brains, sweetbreads, liver, trotters, cheeks, gizzards, tripe, and tongue typically require countless cooking steps, multiple days of preparation, and long cooking times. Naturally, making them is a project to be started early in the morning--before the chefs de partie would fill the stoves with other elements of mise en place and start the unavoidable ego-boxing for pot and flat-top space present in every kitchen.
Most people enjoy teaching others things they are passionate about, things they love to do themselves. I recall one December morning the chef walking into the kitchen earlier than I expected him, carrying a beautiful antique copper brassier. He hefted it onto the counter, glanced at me with squinted eyes that clearly had only had four hours of rest, and said, "Morning chef--you have the mise en place for the tripe ready?"
Three days before, we had received a delivery of tripe. Chef Keller pulled me aside and told me he would show me how to process this offal in the coming days, giving me specific instructions on the soaking and rinsing of the tripe, the series of purging required pounds of salt, gallons of fresh water, several containers and about three days. Little did I know we were only halfway there. The task was not enchanting: the entire goal was to clean what is the lining of a bovine stomach. Yet each step of the way I could see the care and determination in his work. He understood something about the end result that I could not understand at this point in my career. Maybe he really likes tripe. But I think for him it was about the tedious work he put into the transformation of what the dictionary calls "something poor, worthless, or offensive."
And so it went, the repeated soaking and changing of the water, the scrubbing with salt, the scraping, multiple blanching, and trimming. Finally we had something that looked appealing. The pure white honeycombed texture of the resulting work was already satisfying, much like waxing your car by hand. The cooking steps went on in the same way. The tripe was packed carefully into the brassier between carefully cut pieces of mirepoix , the layers alternating in a specific order. White wine, vermouth, and aromatics were added and the pot was placed in the oven for hours, only to be removed, repacked with fresh mirepoix and wine, and cooked again. This happened three times. Five days after the tripe arrived it was finished.