Finding a Wine to Drink With Offal

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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.

The guest experiences offal's richness, which is surpassed by nothing. And the idea of eating things we can associate with our own bodies adds an element of exoticism.

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.

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Grant Achatz is chef and owner of Chicago's Alinea. He grew up in the restaurant industry, literally, with restaurateurs as parents and grandparents. More

Born in Michigan in 1974, Grant Achatz grew up in the restaurant industry, literally, with his parents and grandparents being restaurateurs. Naturally curious and always driven, he could be found in the kitchen by his twelfth birthday and over the coming years spent most of his free time there, learning and developing the very skills that would allow him to become one of the foremost innovators in the field. Early on he realized he wanted to become a chef, and upon graduating from high school, he immediately enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America. Excelling at the CIA, Achatz graduated and ascended the culinary ladder at several prestigious restaurants, including the acclaimed French Laundry in Napa Valley. Achatz worked closely with owner Thomas Keller, and thrived in his highly creative, dedicated environment. After two years, he became Keller's Sous Chef. In a decisive move to broaden his knowledge and experience, Achatz accepted a position as Assistant Winemaker at La Jota Vineyards after four years at The French Laundry. Then in 2001, he returned to the Midwest when he accepted the Executive Chef position at the four-star Trio in Evanston, Illinois. Achatz flourished at Trio, garnering accolades including being named the James Beard Foundation's 2003 Rising Star Chef in America and one of ten "Best New Chefs in America" by Food & Wine in 2002. Under Achatz's lead, Trio received four stars from the Chicago Tribune and Chicago magazine and was honored with five stars from the celebrated Mobil Travel Guide in 2004. Known worldwide in culinary circles as one of the leaders in progressive cuisine, Achatz realized a lifelong dream by opening Alinea in Chicago in May 2005. From day one, Achatz and Alinea received extraordinary attention and unprecedented accolades. The Chicago Tribune and Chicago magazine both awarded the restaurant four stars within months of opening, and the James Beard Foundation nominated Alinea as the Best New Restaurant in America within a year. In September 2005, The New York Times identified Achatz as the "next great American chef." In October a year later, Alinea received the coveted Five Diamond Award from AAA, and Ruth Reichl of Gourmet magazine declared Alinea the "Best Restaurant in America," an honor bestowed only once every five years. Under Achatz's leadership, Alinea continues to receive worldwide attention for its hypermodern, emotional approach to dining. In both 2007 and 2008, Alinea was named one of "The S. Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants" published by Restaurant magazine, and Achatz himself received the James Beard Foundation Outstanding Chef in America award, the culinary equivalent of an Oscar, in 2008. Achatz has appeared on the Today show, CBS Sunday Morning, the Food Network, the Discovery Channel, and PBS, and has been featured in dozens of periodicals across the US and the globe including countries as far away as Sweden, Finland, Great Britain, Spain, Italy, the Philippines, and France.
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