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.
Offal demands this appreciation of the work and an intimate understanding of the ingredient based on experience. Because of this the chef, in this case more than ever, has to be a true craftsman, handling the product in a methodical and precise way in order to produce excellent results. The payoff, when done well, is exciting. 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.
During the fall menu development phase last year I was naturally drawn to the idea of adding a course featuring offal, based on my meaningful experiences cooking them at the French Laundry. Our wine director and general manager Joe Catterson hinted that people would likely enjoy drinking more glasses of red wine during the 27-course meal, which was currently dominated by whites. Due to the tour menu's length and commitment, it tends to self-select the more gastronomic adventurous; therefore we are able to add courses that feature more obscure and not unanimously liked ingredients. We settled on a beef heart course.
The framework of the dish began with the heart itself, and the typical, assertive, mineral-like flavors that accompany organ meats. We decided to match the flavor strength of the heart by adding several equally powerful components to the dish. The heart was cured in a mixture of sugar and salt heavily scented with Thai long peppercorns. The pepper is obviously spicy, as you would expect from a dried peppercorn, but they also have a profound floral nose that tricks the mind into thinking sweet.
Illustration by Grant Achatz
Being that it was fall, we honed in on season fruits and vegetables that would further compliment the dish and drive it into the red wine-friendly category that we were aiming for. Dark flavors were needed, and we found those in black mission figs and Blis elixir sherry vinegar. The figs offered the jammy dark fruit while the aged balsamic-like vinegar balanced the sweetness in the figs while adding elements of licorice and caramel.
The flavors now aligning it started to make sense; the aggressive nature of the heart being tempered by other strong flavors like the peppercorns and vinegar, the anise qualities of the Blis elixir pairing nicely with the figs and the peppercorns which bounced off both the darkness of the figs and vinegar. We needed a clean component to adjust the weight of the otherwise heavy and palate-coating dish. Raw celery branch, leaf, and root were used to help add herbaceous elements while giving the dish a much-needed textural crunch.
As I snacked on the warm, thinly sliced confit beef heart I could not help to be drawn to fresh horseradish. The heart was basically like the best, most exotic roast beef you could ever have, and the association of horseradish cream as a condiment wouldn't leave my mind. Fresh horseradish was incorporated into a celery root cream to form the final component.
When Joe tasted the dish there were three strong elements that helped him choose the pairing of the Biale Zinfandel "Black Chicken". Zinfandel is known for its forward dark fruit and licorice, sometimes-brown spice nuances, so this was an obvious starting point. But after tasting the dish Joe mentioned several times the importance of the mineral, and hot spice elements coming from the beef, horseradish and peppercorns. In fact, once he was confident that the Biale was the pairing that would create the best food and wine synergy, he suggested that we add more horseradish to the dish, increasing the nasal burn and therefore finding harmony with the wine.
Because the dish started with the idea of pitting strong against strong in an effort to find balance instead of bowing down to the focus ingredient, the layers of bold flavors continued to build into a dish that could easily dominate a food and wine marriage. Joe took the same approach to the wine pairing. Trying to out fruit the fruity sweetness of the figs, and overcome the olfactory potency the horseradish and peppercorns with the powerful fruit-spice identity of a well-made ripe Zinfandel grape.