I spent three months peeling and julienning vegetables for the legendary Jean-Georges Vongerichten last year. Not that he knew. He rarely spent time with the line cooks, and certainly not with a lowly extern like myself. One bright morning, he sliced a sesame-seed bagel on my cutting board while I was fetching something from dry storage. That was the extent of our interactions. The few seeds he left in his wake thrilled me.
He did not teach me directly, but I learned from his recipes. At the sous chef station sat a tome he and his recipe developer had honed, to the gram. (One recipe I prepped—during the one week when I graduated from peeling vegetables—called for 26 grams of salt. 26. Who am I to judge? Maybe one gram of salt is the difference between three Michelin stars and two.) The kitchen put out similarly impeccable dishes—no radish petal out of place, no crouton unevenly browned.
While the chicken was not as fall-apart-with-your-fork tender as it would have been had I confited it, it was moist and succulent—and nobody got a spoon in the eye.
I never dined at the restaurant, either as a customer in the dining room or as a worker at family meal. I never saw a single line cook eat food between the hours of 8am and 4pm. I subsisted on radish peelings and, once I got bold enough, granola bars in the bathroom. So when my friend, Sandra, who works the front of the house at one of New York's best restaurants, suggested we eat at Jean-Georges for lunch, I threw aside my Chinese takeout leftovers, put on my ladies-who-lunch slacks, and whizzed uptown.
Eating with Sandra at a fine-dining restaurant is like touring a museum with a curator. She has an eye for presentation, is aware of the servers' loquaciousness and level of knowledge, and often gets sent "little extras." Every time she swirls a wineglass and breathes in, she points out the piquant notes of cinnamon or mango. All I smell is wine.
The meal, as advertised, was once-in-a-lifetime: tuna ribbons, foie gras brulée, perfectly cooked shellfish in delicately spiced Asian broths, tender meat, homemade marshmallows cut tableside. I found myself on two occasions taking a bite of my dish and bursting out in laughter. It was the only proper response to food so perfectly constructed, so delicious, and yet so playful.
When I returned home, I scoured the folder of recipes I'd surreptitiously copied from the JG recipe tome. Alas, it was missing the pièce de résistance of my lunch: parmesan-crusted confit leg of chicken with lemon butter. I hunted through one of JG's cookbooks, Jean-Georges: Cooking at Home with a Four-Star Chef, to no avail. (To his credit, unlike Thomas Keller, who, in his at-home cookbook, Ad Hoc, urges cooks to purchase a large blowtorch so that they can properly develop a crust on a prime rib—seriously, Tom?—Jean-George makes his recipes approachable and straightforward.) So, like any other overly confident cook, I decided to make up my own recipe.
Instead of confiting the chicken, which takes effort and is messy—many a time, residual duck fat has caused a kitchen tool to whizz out of my hand and clock someone in the head—I covered boneless, skinless chicken breasts in buttermilk, crushed garlic cloves, and a few drops of Tabasco. Before dinner, I dredged them in panko, Parmesan, and parsley. I baked them at 425 F for 30 minutes, until they were cooked through, then finished them with a broil to get a nice crackly top. I drizzled on a lemon basil beurre blanc, and served a simple salad on the side.
While the chicken was not as fall-apart-with-your-fork tender as it would have been had I confited it, it was moist and succulent—and nobody got a spoon in the eye. Both of my guests sighed as they dragged the meat through the lemon-beurre blanc, and I heard a small chuckle as one went back for seconds. I felt a little surge of pride.
For dessert, I knew I would be a fool to attempt to tackle masterpieces like those of Johnny Iuzzini, JG's pastry chef. His website recommended that, for February, I make his "Chocolate Whiskey Sponge, Pepper Powder, Purple Corn Puff," which requires a Pacojet, a Cryovac system, a food dehydrator, and the swagger one assumes when voted New York's sexiest chef. Instead, I stuck with my lowly Cuisinart ice cream maker and made what I titled "Caramel, store bought almond cookie, NaCl crystals"—a salted caramel ice cream.
I sprinkled four grains of fleur de sel on each scoop, and watched my guests inhale them. If I learned anything from the masters, it's that precision makes all the difference.