Holly A. Heyser
What to write about last night? So much going through my head right now. I am sitting here exhausted and sore, elated and conflicted. Duck Duel Deux, an all-duck cookoff between Chef Michael Tuohy of Grange and me, is over—with the same result as last year: Chef Tuohy won.
This is as it should be; Tuohy is a veteran and a chef of the highest order. Were I to beat him at this game it would be like a high school team beating the Green Bay Packers. I knew this going in, and didn't give the actual competition much mind.
Holly A. Heyser
What hung over me the entire week was the realization that the vast majority of the nearly 150 people filling the restaurant to were coming to eat my food. Chef was certainly under pressure to not lose to an amateur, but I was under pressure to give those of you who made the effort to come—some from as far away as Texas—a meal worthy of your journey. Duck hash wasn't going to cut it.
Oh, and for one more thick slice of stress sandwich? This time I'd be working the line, plating the food during service. Last year I only prepped the food and cooked for the private competition. This time I'd be in the crush, for the first time in almost 20 years. I'd be lying if I told you I wasn't nervous.
Still, I designed a high-wire menu—but it was a high-wire menu I thought I could pull off, and had pulled off for dinner parties any number of times. But let me tell ya folks: 150 covers ain't no dinner party.
Any of you out there who watch Top Chef or similar shows and armchair chef the whole thing—"Oh! Don't use cilantro there! See? I knew he'd braise that beef!—you need to check yourself. I consider myself a good cook, better than most home cooks even. But this was HARD. Hard physically, mentally and, to some extent, even emotionally.
Let me walk you through it.
Our task was to create an amuse-bouche plus three tasting courses. Pastry chef Elaine Baker would handle dessert. My original plan was to make a gizzard carpaccio, a chestnut flour potsticker filled with my duck liver ravioli filling, my version of the French Laundry duck roulade, plus a crazy dish that featured a boned-out duck leg stuffed with longaniza sausage and cooked sous-vide for 17 hours; that would be served over a bitter greens salad.
I personally broke down close to 30 ducks and deboned 57 legs. My forearm cramped up twice, and my two sharpest knives were left horribly dull. That was Day One.
I say "original" because I soon found out that to succeed as a restaurant cook, you must adapt quickly to problems, both of execution and scale. First thing that happened was that I had to scrap the carpaccio when I saw how puny the duck gizzards were. I normally make that dish with snow goose gizzards, which are three times the size. What to do? Switch to duck tartare, which I've made any number of times with success.
When my potsticker dough turned out gummy, I tossed it and chose to go with a yellow pasta based on duck egg yolks and boosted with saffron. After toying with various sauces for several days, I landed on the idea of a rich consommé based on my dark duck broth.
The crazy leg dish works great done sous-vide.
I would cut the stuffed legs into coins and serve it on a salad of baby lettuces, weird Italian greens from my garden, sorrel, radicchio, and lovage. The roulades would be pretty easy to make, too, and I'd serve them with a root vegetable puree (I was vacillating between parsnips and celery root and settled on celery root), mushrooms, and a dark duck jus.
That was the plan.
Here's what happened. For starters, it took forever to break down and debone the legs of all those ducks. I personally broke down close to 30 ducks and deboned 57 legs. My forearm cramped up twice, and my two sharpest knives were left horribly dull. That was Day One.
Day Two, the first full day of prep, started with me making longaniza sausage to stuff the legs. To make sure everything held together, I'd sprinkle transglutaminase on the leg and sausage; transglutaminase is basically meat Bondo—it sticks one protein to another. That took forever, too.
Here's the thing: When you cook for 150, every little detail is magnified. Every element on a plate needs to be done 150 times, as close to exactly the same as is possible. It's hard enough getting 12 garlic chips to look identical, let alone 150. You finish that task, look up—and realize a full hour has passed. Time is your enemy. It is always running out on you. I felt no leisure, took no breaks, over nearly 24 hours of prep work.
Holly A. Heyser
The first disaster came on Day Three. My boned-out legs needed to be cooked sous-vide, but no immersion circulator is large enough to hold 57 legs. So we decided to seal the rolled up legs in cryovac bags and cook them in a hot box at about 180 degrees, or 32 degrees warmer than I'd planned to cook them.
That temperature difference killed me. The legs fell to pieces. Ruined. All the fat rendered out of the sausage, as I had feared. I was screwed. But with only a few hours to go before service, there was nothing we could do. It tasted okay, if a little crumbly and undersalted. So I decided to serve it with a little Trapani fleur de sel and a splash of sherry vinegar. Longaniza is supposed to be vinegary, anyway.