Long before there was Kitchen Confidential, or Bill Buford in the kitchen at Babbo, or me in the kitchen at applewood, for that matter, there was John McPhee’s brilliant essay about a restaurant’s owner-chefs and its kitchen, “Brigade de Cuisine.” Looking back, this may be the essay that, when I I first read it some fifteen years ago, eventually led me to Eating for Beginners. It’s collected in a fantastic book called Giving Good Weight which was first published in the late 70s and is still in print, and also includes what I think remains the best essay about New York City’s Greenmarkets–an entirely different animal at that time than they are now–ever written. “Brigade de Cuisine” is full of sumptuous details and personalities, and the kicker is that McPhee promised the chef he wouldn’t identify the place beyond calling it “a sort of farmhouse-inn that is neither farm nor inn, in the region of New York City.” As far as I know it’s remained a secret ever since, though if you know differently, please! Share your information!
It’s almost impossible to choose what to quote here, but I gave it my best shot. (As for getting the book yourself and reading the whole thing, I say do it–but not when you’re hungry or you may never recover.) So here’s the chef, pseudonym Otto, in his natural habitat, accompanied by a pork loin he’s just pounded.
The pork loin flattens, becomes like a crepe. He dips the mallet in water. “All the cookbooks tell you to pound meat between pieces of waxed paper,” he remarks. “And that is sheer nonsense.” He is preparing a dish he recently invented, involving a mutation of a favored marinade. Long ago he learned to soak boned chicken breats in yogurt and lemon juice with green peppercorns, salt, garlic, and the seeds and leaves of coriander, all of which led to a flavor so appealing to himt hat what he calls chicken coriander settled deep into his repertory. In a general way, he has what he describes as “a predilection for stuffing, for things with surprises inside,” and so, eventually, he found himself wondering, “Maybe you could translate a marinade into a stuffing. You could pound a pork loin thin and fold it like an envelope over a mixture of cream cheese, fresh coriander leaves, lemon juice, and green peppercorns. Then you’d chill it, and set it, and later bread it. Sauté it a bit, then bake it. It should have a beguiling taste.”
Picking up a knife now, he extends his fingers beyond the handle to pinch the blade. He rocks his wrist, and condenses and pile of parsley. There are calluses on his fingers where they pinch the blade. “The great thing is the mise en place,” he says. “You get your things together. You get ready to cook. You chop your parsley, peel your onions, do shallots, make the hollandaise, make demi-glace sauce, and so forth.” He does most of this in the center of the room, a step from the stove, at a long, narrow table that sags like a hammock. He works on two slabs of butcher block, and around them accumulate small tubs, bowls, and jars full of herbs and herb butters, stocks and sauces, grated cheeses. A bottle of apple jack stands nearby for use in patés, and a No. 10 can full of kosher salt, which he dips into all day and tosses about by hand. Everything he measures he measures only with his eyes. How does he know how much to use? “I just know what is going to make things taste good,” he says.