The most useful thing I learned from Anthony Bourdain
September 14, 2018
“Deep prep” in the kitchen; Anthony Bourdain on the mise en place:
“Your mise en place, your ‘meez’, is an obsession, one’s sword and shield, the only thing standing between you and chaos”…. “It’s your first principle, your belief system, your religion.”
The Les Halles Cookbook, says Bourdain, “is not a cookbook. Not really.” He addresses you as he would a new recruit to his kitchen brigade:
“If, from time to time, I refer to you as a ‘useless screwhead’, I will expect you to understand – and to not take it personally.” I didn’t, and I still look to him for advice.
It’s one of the well-thumbed volumes in my kitchen that I read for pleasure.
There are some recipes I like to make at least once a year, when the star ingredients are in season. There are the definitive (to me) recipes, but I like to mix and match authors too.
Alastair Little’s Home-dried tomatoes from Keep it Simple, and Skye Gyngell’s addictive Tomato & chilli jam from A Year in my Kitchen.
Caponata. The erudite Mary Taylor Simeti defined this fragrant sweet-and-sour aubergine dish in her authoritative Sicilian Food. Giorgio Locatelli describes four interesting variations in Made in Sicily, one for each season.
For Paté de Campagne, I look to Jane Grigson’s classic Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery. I also tore out Rowley Leigh’s recipe from the FT – the step-by-step strip cartoon makes the process easy to follow.
And at least once a year, I go back to refer to Anthony Bourdain’s recipe for veal demiglace.
It’s more than a recipe, it’s an exercise in planning and preparation, a process from start to finish, and a basis for many useful sauces.
As I read, I can hear him at my shoulder, murmuring, yelling, occasionally swearing . . . .
“Some dishes know when you’re afraid. They sense it, like horses, and will ‘misbehave’. . . Do not be afraid”.
“Let me stress again: DO NOT EVER BOIL YOUR STOCK!”
“Your butter for finishing a sauce will be ready and on station. It will be f**king SOFT”.
Bourdain on the therapeutic process of making veal demiglace:
“Let’s do dark stock first…. This stuff you just made is the mother, the source for all other sauces down the line… You can freeze this stuff in batches, large or small. I like the Julia Child idea of filling ice cube trays with the stuff, so that you can later pop out a cube at a time for small meals or for jacking anaemic sauces or stews with flavor, color, and texture.”
This demiglace is my secret weapon in the freezer. I’ve taken to using beef bones and oxtail for even more intensity. The bones and root vegetables are roasted separately before being simmered down into stock, and finally “dump in red wine” and a few shallots and reduce, reduce, reduce.
I just drop a cube or two into anything that needs the meaty depth of its wine reduction, and often add a knob of butter to make it glossy.
Anthony Bourdain, (that’s Th as in although, Dain as in disdain.)
I was saddened to hear of his tragic death in June 2018. I never met him; like most of us, I first came across him through his first book Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, and got to know his funny, scatological, honest, entertaining style through his books and TV.
Honest? In the acknowledgements of The Les Halles Cookbook, he paid tribute to his photographer, Robert Discalfani : “No food stylist came anywhere near this project. Every plate of food you see in a photo was eaten.”
In New York, I ate Oeufs Meurette for the first time, at a brunch in Les Halles, Midtown. (Eggs perfectly poached in a red wine reduction, probably enriched with a cube of demiglace and glossy with softened butter. I still smack my lips at the memory.)
Also in New York I ate at Yasuda, his sushi restaurant of choice. I was looking for his description that took me there when I was writing about sushi recently.
I found the reference this week in his book The Nasty Bits (it was in the wrong place on the shelf) in the chapter My Manhattan.
Here it is. I make no apology for quoting him at length:
“When I’ve been home for a while and I need to treat myself to an expensive spirit-lifting experience, I always think sushi. And Yasuda on East Forty-third Street is the place to go for old-school Edo-style sushi and sashimi, the fish served – as it should be – near room temperature, the rice still warm and crumbly. I always book the omakase (the tasting menu, literally, “you decide”) on a day when Yasuda serves up sublime, tasty bits of screamingly fresh, rare, hard-to-get, flawlessly executed seafood. I can spend a whole afternoon there, eating whatever comes my way, working my way through every available option: mounds of sea urchin roe; top-drawer fatty otoro tuna; sea eel; yellowtail; mackerel – and the occasional surprise. On a recent visit I was served some Copper River salmon roe, before season, from the chef’s personal stash.”
“If I find myself in the neighborhood late at night, just across the street, through an anonymous office building lobby, down a flight of fire stairs to a cellar and through a plain door, is Sakagura, a huge, nearly all-Asian late-night joint with a mammoth selection of sakes and accompanying snacks. Guaranteed to inspire exclamations of “How did you find this place?!” among your envious friends.”
Anthony Bourdain, The Nasty Bits
I didn’t know about Sakagura when I first read this passage. Now I’ve been to the London restaurant of the same name, it makes perfect sense.
Asian Soul Food from a Japanese Chef’s Table
My wife went to his book signing for No Reservations, Around the World on an Empty Stomach when she was living and working in NYC, and brought home a signed copy.
His interviewer asked him about giving up his Marlboro habit after the birth of his child. The audience applauded, to which he immediately responded:
“Oh, please don’t. You smug f**cks.”