Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Happy in The Kitchen by Michel Richard: If you're happy and you know it...

Real chefs don't do cake

The gap between pastry and cooking is one of the great divides in the modern kitchen. Although it might physically be only a few feet patissiers and chefs are very different animals.

A perfect patissier's of lemon tart. Bonus points if you
 can spot what's wrong with it (answer below)
Chefs are the free thinkers. The dreamers. The guys who can come up with three ways with caviar and chocolate. If a recipe doesn't quite work they can tweak or improvise. Or just claim "it was always meant to be like that".

Patissiers (and their half cousins, bakers) are the mathematicians. They work in weights, measures and ratios. If you're quantities are off you're dead. No excuses (ok, perhaps an exception can be made of the Demoiselles Tatin).

So a chef pastry is a rarity indeed (straight up - I'm a chef. I can terrine a foie gras but my attempts at puff pastry inevitable end up as pancake en croute). And a patissier who can cook is a pearl beyond price.

Anthony Bourdain summed up his bewilderment Kitchen Confidential as he marvels at the career of master-chef Scott Bryan (then at Veritas in NYC, now at Apiary):
The Gotham with Alfred. Back with Kinkaid at 21 Federal in DC. Square One in California. Back to New York with David Bouley. A Hamptons interlud with Jimmy Sears. (Pause for breath here.) Sous-chef for Eric Ripert at Le Bernardin (!)
As if his career wasn't going swimmingly enough for a guy who only a few years earlier had been considering a life installing light sockets and fuse-boxes, the then opened Lespinasse with Grey Kunz.
And if this isn't rich enough meal for you, to round out his skills and ensure his usefulness as an all-around major league player, he crossed the line from a la carte cuisine to pastry - a nearly unthinkable act - and went to work with the awesome uberpatissier, Richard Leach, at Mondrian.
Michel Roux - A rare example of the chef-patissier
Off the top of my head I can only think of a handful of chefs with a real background in pastry. Michel Roux, who held three stars at the Waterside Inn, is one of them. He started his apprenticeship in a Monsieur Loyal's patisserie, and went on to win the Meilleur Ouvrier de France in the same discipline (MOF en patisserie is French for "I'm the Chuck Norris of lemon tarts.").

Then there's Michel Richard, most recently of Citonelle in Washington DC and the author of the extraordinary book Happy in the Kitchen (Artisan, 2006).

The happy chef

Michel Richard, with snack

Michel Richard wasn't originally a chef. He started off in Paris, training with French pastry-god Gaston Lenotre, coming to the US in 1974 to open a cake shop. It was only then that he made the leap to cook behind the stoves, pioneering French-Californian cuisine at Citrus and Citronelle. Then in 1994 he made launched Citronelle in DC (a city more associated with wood-panelled power-breakfasts than Californian cuisine de soleil), finally relocating in 1998.

But it isn't the West-East swap that's extraordinary. It's his food. It achieves the holy grail of combining the technique and discipline of a pastissier with the free-wheeling whimsicality of a chef.

Opening up Happy in the Kitchen is a disorientating experience. Cuttlefish are marmelised and turned into schnitzels. Tomato's are used to make a savoury trifle. Yellow tomato and mozarella is set with gelatin and turned into trompe l'oeil boiled eggs. But as I said, it's not just technical.

There's a playfulness here which is reflected in the names of the recipes. In the first section alone you encounter the All-Crust Potato Gratin, Virtual Fried Rice and Sociable Garlic and Potato Puree. Later on you are introduced to Shrimp "Einstein", Low Carb-o-nara and Chicken Faux Gras. There's a whimisicality here which reminds me of Fergus Henderson's Nose to Tail Cooking (the book which lists Bath Chaps and the inimitable Hairy Tatties).

If your mother ever told you not to play with your food she was wrong. And Michel Richard is here to tell you why.

The Book of Michel

Happy in the Kitchen is a handsome book, laid out in the large landscape format favoured by many high-end US cookbooks (e.g. the French Laundry Cookbook). The recipes are reassuringly lengthy and, importantly for such a technical book, there are step-by-step pictures for many of the dishes.

But that's nothing special. What is special is the sheet inventiveness which leaps off every page. A good cookbook is one that delivers just that one "amazing who would have thought of that!" moment. But in Happy in the Kitchen I'd found half a dozen before I'd got off the potato section. Here are just a few:

You think that's pasta? Think again...

  • All-Crust Potato Gratin (p2): Making a gratin so thin   that there's no mush in the middle - just cheesy crust (OK it's sort of a rosti-in-a-frock).
  • Yellow Tomato Tart (p44): Looks like a classic lemon tart, but the custard is made with yellow tomatoes (yes, that's what was what was wrong with the lemon tart above!).
  • Tomato Trifle (p48): A savoury dish, made by layering ripe tomatoes, mozarella, fennel and brioche... like a trifle!
  • Wild Mushroom Potpie (p64): Mushroom's baked with a pastry lid, where a custard is piped in under the lid halfway through to keep the pastry crust crisp
  • Low Carb-O-Nara (p91): Cutting an onion so it falls apart in long strands, then steaming these until they have the texture of pasta before tossing with a carbonara sauce.
  • Crisp and Creamy Bacon-Onion Tart (p92): A version of a traditional Flammenkuche (a very thin tart from Alsace), but made using pancakes instead of bread dough for ultimate thinness.
  • Scrambled Scallops (p124): Scallops pureed, creamed and gently cooked so they have the texture of snow-white scrambled eggs.
  • Cuttlefish fettuccine with Crab and Corn (p134): Cuttlefish pounded and sliced just like tagliatelle (I think Nobu also does a variation on this).
  • Cuttlefish Schnitzel (p137): Cuttlefish marmelised and bound with gelatin, then crusted and fried like a schnitzel.
  • Virtual Eggs (p161): Faux hardboiled eggs made by pureeing and setting yellow tomatoes and mozarella to make the white and yolk.
The egg that isn't...

  • Almost-No-Fat Chicken Sausage (p187): A sausage where the filling is bound with gelatin. To make up for the lack of moistness from the fat, pureed aubergine is added instead.
  • Foie Gras Brulee (196): It's a creme brulee. But with foie gras mousse instead of custard. 'Nuff said (Angelus in London also do a good version).
  • Caramel and Corn Ice-Cream (p253): A combination which feels natural and really works. (I've had these prepared as a Creme Caramel elsewhere. It's great.)

Hint: That's not caviar either...
There's a number of obvious themes here.

First he clearly shows his fondness for for trompe l'oeil (or as he calls it, trompe la langue) i.e. making one food look like another one. He's particularly fond of dressing up unexpected ingredients (cuttlefish, onion, snow-peas) masquerade as pasta. Or in fact doing the opposite - his famous Lobster Begula involves colouring giant couscous with squid ink to make it look like caviar!

Secondly (as befitting his background), Richard takes traditional patisserie preparations (lemon tarts, trifle, creme brulee) and reuses the techniques with savoury ingredients. Although one surprising thing I'd note - the dessert dishes don't seem quite as interesting as the savoury ones. Maybe this is because dessert for Richard is more like home ground - transmogrifying patisserie into savoury is where he shows off.

Thirdly he understands the importance of texture in his dishes, particularly of getting "crunch". This feels like another inheritance from his pastry background; it is an old truism in the pastry world that a good plated dessert should have 1) a primary ingredient, 2) a sauce and 3) a "crunch".

Finally he loves reconfiguring foods - by which I mean changing their physical form. His most common trick is to puree an ingredient (e.g. cuttlefish), bind it with gelatin and freeze it in a block which can then be sliced into new forms and shapes.

In some ways this feels very much like molecular cuisine. For example his Cuttlefish Schnitzel is not that far off the shrimp noodles prepared by Wylie Dufresne of WD-50 (except Dufresne uses the more space-age transglutaminase rather than gelatin which has the advantage of retaining its binding properties when hot). In fact while there's little direct use of molecular cuisine techniques in this book (no space-age ingredients, weird equipment and only case of sous-vide I noticed) you can very much see the direction in which the cuisine is headed.

In other ways though it actually hearks back to Escoffier. Pounded food up, contorting it into different shapes. Turning them into something they are not - that feels very much like the traditional cuisine where a potato could not be potato unless it was pureed, enriched with eggs and turned into a pomme duchesse.

But to obsess about that is to miss the point. Michel Richard doesn't care how he gets there. He just wants his diners to be delighted and surprised.

And happy.


  1. Wow. I need to get me a copy of this one.

    Lovely review. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Cheers mate... Glad you appreciated it! An cheers for the Twit mention.

    Part of what I'm trying to do is dig out books I think are worthwhile but I don't see mentioned much (then again I'm doing a write-up of the St John books next so not entirely managing to succeed!). J