Learn From the Old, Cook With the New


Regina Charboneau

To try Regina's recipe for chocolate mousse torte with orange-scented crème anglaise, click here.

I am beginning to question that saying I have heard my entire life, "You are as young as you feel." I feel young, but there are constant reminders that I am not. The other day when someone said she had been married 40 years, I immediately replied that we were approaching out 39th anniversary. I realized I had added a quick 10 years to my life and marriage. I am quite happy to say it has been only 29 years and I apologize to my husband if I indicated in any way that it feels more like 39.

The real incident that made me realize my "middle age" was two weeks ago when I returned to one of my favorite places, P. Allen Smith's Moss Farm in Arkansas, for a bountiful summer event—Tale of Two Farms, a tribute to tomatoes and heritage poultry and great wines from Presqu'ile Winery. When I walked into the prep kitchen to meet the other visiting chefs, for a moment I felt I had walked into my son's dorm room at college. Especially when the salutation toward me was not "chef," which I have become accustomed to over the past 30 years, but "ma'am," which was in reference and reverence to my age over theirs.

I come from a place where all ages spend time together at events and at the dinner table. A dinner party in Natchez often has three generations. It has always been that way and I find it a lovely thing. In fact, that weekend we brought two of my mother's friends with us for the event and a weekend getaway. They are equally my friends, and I have to admit, I have always said "yes, ma'am" to both of them. It is the proper thing to do. We have always been taught that anyone 15 years older than you receives that respect.

I welcome any generation of chef to cook with me in my kitchen, because I share equally the joy of teaching and the reward of being taught.

So, I must compliment my young chefs for their good manners, even if it was a reminder of that dreaded benchmark, "middle age." Oddly enough, I went from one weekend working at Moss Farms with the ever-so-talented Josh Smith and this absolutely charming and committed sous chef, Jonathan from Local Roots, a farm-to-table restaurant in Roanoke, Virginia, both a generation younger than I am, to last weekend here in Natchez, where I was so very fortunate to work with the ever-so-popular Gunter Preusse from Broussard's in New Orleans, a generation older than I am. We were celebrating our 10th annual Natchez Food and Wine Festival. I quickly came to the conclusion that the older I become, the younger everyone seems on both sides of me. Within two weekends, I was caught between two generations of chefs, and it turned out to be a joyful experience.

Here I am, a chef from the '80s working with chefs from the new millennium and from the '60s, all 20 years apart in age and a 20-year food timeline between each of us. If those 40 years could not tell the story of trends, I am not sure what would. It just proved to me once again that you never stop learning about food.

I try to stay current on food trends, but because I am not in a restaurant kitchen every day I am a bit removed from what really is going on in the professional kitchens of this generation. The "deconstructed dessert," for example, which intrigues me as a diner but even more as a chef, tries to bring a combined taste of something familiar to us in separate components. Josh's dessert from that evening at Moss Farms was a deconstructed goo-goo cluster candy bar. As we got more familiar with each other over the weekend, he and I both agreed about the need to know the basics to be able to be creative in the kitchen. I was fascinated when he and Jonathon prepared a traditional chocolate mousse but slowly dripped it into liquid nitrogen to for "chocolate rocks" (that was a totally new experience for me and I loved it). He then made a powder from peanut butter cookies and a meringue, and the individual tastes, brought together on one spoon, created the taste of the classic goo-goo cluster.

The irony of these three generations of chefs was that the youngest (with the exception of their dessert) were just as committed to the classics as Chef Preusse and I. Their roast heritage poultry was perfection because it was properly brined, marked on the grill and roasted with lardons made from the best quality smoked bacon. One week later Chef Preusse and I were in my kitchen where I made a classic chocolate mousse encased in ladyfingers with a Grand Marnier crème anglaise, the entire time wishing for some liquid nitrogen in the kitchen and thinking of what dessert I was going to make next year for the Food Festival using the new technique I learned from these two talented young chefs. I can hardly wait to go to Roanoke to have an entire meal at Local Roots. I know talent when I taste it.

One week later, as Chef Preusse and I were marveling over the most exquisite sugar-sweet yellow watermelon I procured from a local farmer for my watermelon tomato salad, I knew that if Josh and Jonathon were there they would have been as impressed and excited as we were. When I first started in the kitchen, I learned from the generation of chefs that Chef Preusse belongs to, and it is a worthy bunch: Paul Bocuse, Alain Chapel, Jean and Pierre Troisgros, Michel Guerard, Roger Vergé, and Raymond Oliver. A generation before, they learned from Fernand Point. These are the chefs that I looked up to, and I learned from their innovative approach to cooking.

Chef Preusse and I worked well together and felt proud of the dinner we put out to the guests. Ironically my contributions were the more traditional and his had the more modern presentation. Maybe the world of cooking is where we can stay eternally young. I have learned from generations on both sides of me. I welcome any generation of chef to cook with me in my kitchen, because I share equally the joy of teaching and the reward of being taught.

I do not recommend liquid nitrogen in the home kitchen, so here is something a bit safer: chocolate mousse torte with crème anglaise.

Recipe: Chocolate Mousse Torte With Orange-Scented Crème Anglaise