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Cooking Like a 3-Star Chef in
Your Own Home (Almost)

The New York Times, May 15, 2002

By Mark Bittman

"It looks pretty straightforward, and for Harold Moore, the 29-year-old chef at Montrachet in TriBeCa, it is. Take a dry-aged sirloin and sauté it. Serve the
meat on a bed of shallots in a red wine reduction sauce, with sautéed chanterelle mushrooms, a few haricots verts and some carrots. Finally, sprinkle some tiny
flowers on top of the meat, accompany it with a round of potato gratin and send
the resulting plate out to the customer (or, for that matter, a photographer).
There it is: honest, relatively simple restaurant cooking. A perfect French dish.
The sort it would be lovely to make at home.
But without a lot of help, you can't. It is, in fact, virtually impossible for any home cook to cook like a chef. In order to make his dry-aged sirloin with potato gratin,
Mr. Moore employed nine people over two days. For the final preparation, he used
10 pans and a stove area about the size of an average Manhattan kitchen.
Not even a chef can cook like a chef outside his restaurant, no matter how ac-
complished a slicer and dicer or how visionary an artist. "I just smoke up the
house, and it annoys my wife," Mr. Moore said. Still, with some planning and
a few simple techniques borrowed from the professionals, the home cook can
approach the grace of Mr. Moore's $28 creation, without smoking up the house.
It won't be exactly the same, but it will be close.
The great advantage that chefs have is a labor force. There were, for example, the two men who arrived at Montrachet in the morning to peel the Yukon Gold pota-
toes used in the gratin and to slice them to Mr. Moore's specifications. They left
the results soaking in cream in the restaurant's walk-in cooler for another prep
cook, who assembled the gratin, cooked it in a convection oven, covered it with
parchment paper and returned it to the walk-in to cool.
Then there was the butcher who accepted delivery of the sirloin ($120 a side, aged three months) and who cut it into steaks for the evening service, trimming fat and sinew. There was the unpaid chef's apprentice who cleaned the mushrooms, and
a line cook, Ryan Stewart, who turned and glazed the carrots and trimmed and
blanched the haricots verts and who, at the end, sprinkled the flowering micro
beet sprouts over the meat.
There was another line cook, Pedro Espinal, who sautéed the steak and warmed
the shallot sauce. There was Kevin Lasko, who cut the potatoes out of the gratin
pan with an aluminum die, and gave the round to Mr. Espinal, who warmed it in
the oven and browned it in the salamander, a kind of superbroiler used in pro- fessional kitchens that sits above his stove.
And throughout the process there was Mr. Moore, who poked and prodded and nudged and tasted and, eventually, smiled. 'This is my job,' he said, by way of
slightly amazed self-explanation. 'This is what I do.'
And you, cooking at home? Before you finish peeling an onion, a chef is sautéeing
it. While you are mincing an herb to get the teaspoon needed in a recipe, a chef is
grabbing a pinch out of a little tray.
When, before tackling a new recipe, you wonder whether you should make a batch
of stock, which itself might require a trip to the market, in order to reduce it so
you can produce a few tablespoons of demi-glace, the chef is spooning that thick,
delicious, sauce-enhancing substance out of his seemingly endless supply, pro-
duced earlier by a prep cook who arrived at 7 a.m.
A well-stocked restaurant has common herbs like parsley, dill, thyme and basil
on hand every day of the year; it may also stock chervil, shiso, marjoram, lovage,
baby arugula, basil sprouts or, as at Montrachet, micro beet sprouts. Veal chops
are ordered cut to specifications; beef cuts are consistent and dry-aged; fresh
pasta might be made on premises or delivered. And so on. Will your local fish
supplier or supermarket have halibut tomorrow? The chef has someone call
Maine to make sure it is delivered first thing in the morning.
And though it does not matter as much as people believe, restaurant equipment
is often on a different level from what is available to all but the wealthiest home
cooks. There are indoor grills and wood-burning ovens; efficient salamanders
(so named for the mythical reptile who lived at the fiery center of the earth) that, unlike most broilers, actually brown food; convection ovens to speed the roasting process; Fryolators that make frying, a tremendous challenge to home cooks, ridiculously simple; dishwashers, both human and mechanical, that take care of
pots and pans almost as quickly as they are soiled; and exhaust vents that can
handle real smoke.
At Montrachet, for example, Mr. Moore needs to keep the door to his kitchen open
at all times. If he does not, the suction created by the exhaust hood above his stoves
will pull the door open by itself, creating a breeze that blows decorative elements
like flowers off his plates.
Finally, there is a fact that few people talk about but everyone knows: most chefs
do not cook with your health in mind. They might fuss about organic vegetables
or their steaming technique or their vegan soup, but when it will benefit a dish
they load in the fat. While you might think twice about finishing a reduction
sauce for four with a tablespoon of butter, the chef will finish a sauce for one
with two table- spoons. Your two tablespoons of olive oil used for sautéeing four
portions could easily become half a cup for sautéeing one at the chef's stove. Mr.
Moore uses butter with calculated glee, which is to say with no calculation at all.
"I don't even think about the amount of oil I use," Mr. Moore said, pointing to
some glazed baby carrots in Mr. Stewart's sauté pan. "For me, it's a tool, not
an ingredient."
Having said all that, though, experienced home cooks know that you can produce great food that approaches the four-star restaurant level in the home kitchen. It
just means you must have reasonable expectations while exercising good judgment
and mastering a few special techniques.
For 'judgment', I might say 'restraint.' Home cooks get themselves in trouble when
they become overly ambitious (there is a tradition of this in the United States: it's
called Thanksgiving). Without help, and I don't just mean someone to wash the
dishes, it is a challenge to prepare a meal that includes more than two complicated dishes. Indeed, on anything except a special occasion, when you might set aside
four hours or more to be in the kitchen, it is nearly impossible.
Great as Mr. Moore's potato gratin is, you'd need the bulk of the day just to soak
the slices in cream. But the alternatives are myriad, and some, still worthy of a
great restaurant, are quick enough for weeknight meals.
For example, parboil those same potatoes — a step you can do in advance — crisp them in a pan, and you've saved hours. Then substitute dried porcini mushrooms
for Mr. Moore's chanterelles, replace the carrots with easy-to-prepare broccoli and
eliminate the time-slaughtering shallot sauce, and a meal similar to Mr. Moore's
can be executed in less than two hours.
None of this means that side dishes and desserts should be store-bought; it means,
for example, that you might abandon the idea of Montrachet's crisp-topped crème
brûlée for dessert, as I've done here, in favor of vanilla pots de crème, a stellar des-sert that predates the crème brûlée and is far simpler to make (there's no messing with propane torches to brown the top, for instance). It also means that not every
dish must be served piping hot (an obsession more noticeable in the United States
than elsewhere); as chefs like Mr. Moore know well, many are equally good warm
or at room temperature. Steaks, in fact, can improve in the time spent resting, as
the juices recede from the surface of the meat.
As for the equipment deficiencies of the home kitchen, these are largely imagined and not unlike car envy; you may want a Mercedes, but your Taurus gets you to
work just fine. Similarly, you don't need a Viking stove to be a good cook, and all
but the most inadequate equipment can be worked around (I have done most of my
cooking on electric stoves since 1994, and have come to like them). The key lesson
to remember here is not that you need a stove that produces ultra-high heat but
that you should use the high heat that your stove produces.
I have talked to scores of chefs over the years about this issue, and most agree that the most beneficial adjustment home cooks could make would be to preheat skillets before beginning to cook in them. Even if you have a propane stove, if you rest an empty skillet above a medium flame for a couple of minutes before adding oil, butter or the steak you're preparing, you will begin to sauté and pan-grill like a champ.
High oven heat is almost as important, as is using the oven more frequently, even in preparing dishes that are not roasted. An oven set at 450 or 500 degrees can help
you get food off the stovetop while you continue to brown it.
This has a couple of advantages. First, it can compensate for the lack of an exhaust fan, which means you can brown fish or meat in the house without setting off the smoke detector. It also means you can gain room on top of the stove. And finally, if you equip your oven with a pizza stone or ceramic cooking tiles, you can produce
the kind of strong, even bottom heat that chefs gain by putting their skillets directly
on the floor of their ovens.
Of the remaining issues, some are insurmountable; you will never have a bevy of workers and unlimited access to prime ingredients.
You can, of course, produce large quantities of stock and freeze some, mince enough parsley in a food processor to last a few days (and preclude the need to track down fresh, flowering micro beet sprouts with which to garnish the steak) and so on, but this does not guarantee that you will have what you need when you need it. And you can treat yourself to some chanterelles or a dry-aged steak when you see them at the market or order them from afar. That's easy enough, as long as you have the money.
But in many ways, the easiest way to make your food taste chef-created is to bring butter back into your life: steam some broccoli and top it with lemon, then steam some more and top it with lemon and beurre noisette, and see which one reminds
you of your favorite restaurant."


Oven-Grilled Steak

Time: 30 minutes

1 1/2 to 2 pounds strip or rib-eye steaks,
about an inch thick
Salt and pepper

1. Heat oven to its maximum, 500 degrees [F] or more, for at least 20 minutes. About 10 minutes before serving, place a cast-iron or other
heavy skillet large enough to hold steaks over high heat on stovetop.
Wait 2 or 3 minutes, until pan begins to smoke.
2. Add steaks and cook about a minute; there will be a lot of smoke. Immediately transfer pan to oven. Roast steaks 3 to 4 minutes, or
until nicely browned on bottom, then turn and cook on other side
for another 3 or 4 minutes. Steaks will be medium-rare. Sprinkle
with salt and pepper. Serve.
Yield: 4 servings.


Pan-Crisped Potatoes

Time: 45 minutes

1 1/2 to 2 pounds waxy red or white potatoes,
peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
About 1/4 cup olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon minced garlic

1. Place potatoes in a pot of salted water, bring to a boil, and simmer until nearly tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain well.
2. Heat oil over medium-high heat in a 12-inch nonstick skillet for 3 or 4 minutes. Use more oil for crisper potatoes, less oil to cut fat. (You can
also use butter, or a combination.) Add potatoes along with a healthy
sprinkling of salt and pepper and cook, tossing and stirring from time
to time until they are nicely browned all over, 10 to 20 minutes.
3. Add garlic and continue to cook for 5 more minutes, stirring frequently. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary, and serve.
Yield: 4 servings.


Vanilla Pots de Crème

Time: About an hour

2 cups heavy cream, light cream,
or half-and-half
2 vanilla beans or
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
6 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar

1. Heat oven to 300 degrees [F]. Pour cream into small saucepan. Split
vanilla beans in half lengthwise and scrape seeds into cream. Put pod
in cream, too. Heat cream until steam rises. Cover pan, turn off heat
and let steep for 10 to 15 minutes. If using vanilla extract, just heat
cream and let it cool while you proceed.
2. Beat yolks and sugar together until light. Pour about a quarter of the
cream (remove vanilla bean pod) into this mixture, then pour sugar-
egg mixture into cream and stir. If you are using vanilla extract, add it
now and stir. Pour mixture into four 6-ounce ramekins and place the
ramekins in a baking dish; fill dish with water halfway up the side
of dishes. Cover with foil.
3. Bake 30 to 45 minutes, or until center is barely set. (Heavy cream
sets fastest; half-and-half more slowly.) Chill, then serve.
Yield: 4 servings.

 Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

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