Sunday, 27 January 2013

Signatures: Pommes Puree (Robuchon)

Another post in my occassional series on famous chefs and their signature dishes. Enjoy.

The Two Lives of Joel

Robuchon the chef

Robuchon in his 1990's pomp
Joel Robuchon is the chef with two lives. The first as a trad haute Parisian chef (you know the sort... Lalique China, Riedel glasses and more truffles than sense). The second as the zen master of the global McRobuchon brand - Davos Man's caterer of choice.

Let's deal with his first incarnation; Robuchon the chef. From 1981 through to the mid-1990s Robuchon was acclaimed as the finest chef in Paris, ergo in France and ergo the world (remember this was an era when El Bulli was still serving duck magret and fish pot-au-feu). Robuchon was the first culinary superstar of the post-nouvelle cuisine era. His cuisine married the technical innovation and lightness of Bocuse et al, with a return to more traditional bourgeois combinations - a reaction to the excesses of nouvelle cuisine (you know... raspberry vinegar... kiwi fruit with everything).

So rather than pairing his lobster with vanilla it went with spring vegetables and a lobster-coral sauce (pic at left). Truffles were layered on a bosky galette of smoked bacon and onion. Foie gras came with a smooth cream sauce made with humble lentils. These were combinations you might find in a provincial auberge, but taken to the nth degree by Robuchon's notorious perfectionism. and obsession with detail.

This approach was exemplified in his most famous dish - not some elaborate concoction of caviar (although there was the famous Gelée de caviar a la crème de Chou-fleur too), but simple pommes puree. Or mashed potatoes to you and me. You can hardly call it a signature dish, perhaps a signature side? But it was Robuchon's philosophy on a plate - taking the humblest dishes and applying the finest craft, ingredients and several dozen sticks of butter, resulting in something completely extraordinary.

Of course the food was followed by the plaudits. Robuchon won three stars at Jamin, his first solo venture which later transferred to an elegant mansion at 55 Av Raymond Poincare. For nearly fifteen years he ran the toughest kitchen in town - who's starred alumni included Eric Ripert, Benoit Guichard and a youthful Gordon Ramsay (who famously had a plate of langoustine ravioli thrown at him when he messed up the dish). But then at the height of his powers he gave it all up.

Having seen so many of his peers kill themselves slaving away at the stoves (the great Alain Chapel, who dropped dead at 53, springs to mind), Robuchon always vowed that he wouldn't end that way. So in 1995 he sold up Av Raymond Poincare to Alain Ducasse, and retired to oversee the refit of Larousse Gastronomique, prepare cook-chill meals with Fleury-Michon (sic) and generally enjoy the good life.

Robuchon the brand

Of course it was never going to end that way. After six years away Robuchon was back. Not behind the stoves mind you - but in that elusive role of chef/consultant/general big cheese. A sort of Brand Fromage, if you excuse the pun.

The comeback kicked off in 2001 with Robuchon A La Galera, a haute cuisine joint in a casino in Macau. But it really began to gather pace with opening of Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Paris two years later. Atelier was a mashup of haute cuisine and a sushi bar, heavily influenced by Robuchon's itinerant wanderings in Japan (he had franchised Toyko's ludicrously OTT Taillevant-Robuchon wayback in 1989). Kitted out in a slightly absurd black-dojo-pyjama outfit, Robuchon presented himself as a sort of zen master of haute cuisine.

Robuchon, Atelier, Spiffy Website, Silly Pyjamas.
A cynic would say that he (along with Alain Ducasse) had finally figured out how to apply the franchising model to foie gras. Certainly Ducasse and Robuchon were the first people to realise that if your people and processes are good enough you don't have to be in the kitchen to win Michelin stars (Bocuse had led the the way when he pointed "who cooks at the restaurant when I'm not in the kitchen? The same people who cook when I'm there!"). Although arguably they were only following in the footsteps of Dumas and Rembrandt in getting educated wage slaves to craft the gear and then slapping their name on it to sell it.

Robuchon was also helped massive growth in appetite for haute cuisine - both in terms of the blogosphere creating a wider audience and Michelin's international expansion slapping a macaron-shaped seal of approval on his ventures. Galera received three michelin stars in the first HK guide; the various Ateliers (by now Paris, London, Vegas, HK, Singapore, Taipei, Tokyo) a star or two each. The shamelessly gaudy Robuchon At The Mansion in Vegas another three.

Beef & foie gras sliders at Atelier McRobuchon
The food had evolved some too. For sure it was still assuredly French deluxe, but the plates were smaller and the dishes even more finely wrought. A langoustine (just the one) came tempura-ed with a dab of pistou. Lightly cooked egg was delicately layered in a martini glass with a morel cream. But classics like the truffled bacon tart and the caviar with cauliflower cream had fallen by the wayside (though I think they still do a version in Vegas). The one constant, however, was the pommes puree.

I had it a couple of times in London. Its delicious, though ever so slightly rich (note: that's English irony at work). In fact I'd describe it as being more a butter puree, enriched with potato than vice versa. Its strange - start munching a stick of butter neat and you'll soon start to feel slight ill. But dish up a bowl of JRs super-mash and you could frankly eat it all day. It's that good.

The Recipe

The Pomme Puree recipe from Cuisine Actuelle (click on image for more detail)

Not as easy as it sounds!

There are several versions of the recipe scattered around my library. The most obvious place to start it Patricia Well's Cuisine Actuelle (later reprinted as Simply French), which was the first book to bring Robuchon to an English speaking audience. The set up is very simple. Boil spuds, mash with butter, add hot milk. Hmmm maybe the "chef of the century thing" isnt that hard after all...

The devil is in the detail

Of course as with everything Robuchon the devil is in the detail. Remember Robuchon was the ultimate perfectionist - every tiny detail counts.

La Ratte- Joel's secret weapon
To start with the variety of potato. Ratte was Robuchon's weapon of choice - its a small thin-skinned tuber which is remarkably high in starch, which makes for a fluffier mash. The science behind this is slightly tiresome, but I found a good explanation in Cook's Illustrated compilation of culinary awesomeness, The Best Recipe:
Although you can mash any type of potato, the variety you choose does make a significant difference in the ultimate quality of the dish. Potatoes are composed mostly of starch and water. The starch is in the form of granules, which in turn are contained in starch cells. The higher the starch content of the potato, the fuller the cells. In high-starch potatoes, the cells are completely full-they look like plump little beach balls. In medium- or low-start potatoes, the cells are more like underinflated beach balls. The space between these less-full cells is mostly taken up by water.
The full starch cells of high-starch potatoes are most likely to maintain their integrity and stay separate when mashed, giving the potatoes a delightfully fluffy, full texture. In addition, the low water content of these potatoes allows them to absorb milk, cream, and/or butter without becoming wet or gummy. Starch cells in lower-starch potatoes, on the other hand, tend to clump when cooked and break more easily, allowing the starch to dissolve into whatever liquid is present. The broken cells and dissolved starch tend to make sticky, gummy mashed potatoes.
Then the boiling. Boil then in their skins - apparently to keep the moisture in (hmmm is that really the case?). Then peel warm. Then (gently) stir the drained spuds on the heat for 4-5 minutes to drive off excess moisture.

Then the mashing - by hand mind you (potatos do not take kindly to mechanical agitation). It bursts the starch cells and makes them gluey. A hand cranked vegetable mill (mouli-legumes) is the preferred method. And then rub through a tamis, a flat-bottomed drum sieve.

And in comes the butter - lots of it. The finest unsalted of course. Cut into small chunks. Stirred in, not beaten.

And finally the milk - This comes last for all, just before service. The milk should be piping hot and this time whipped in. Vigorously. To get some air into the mix.

For a full overview of this technique check out this video of JR getting his minion to do all the hard work for him. It's in French but you should get the general idea.

What you're left with is not so much a puree, but a potato butter emulsion. More mousseline than mash. Its paler in colour than your used to. And ever so slightly buttery:

The full-fat Robuchon

One word of warning. If you want the full-fat Robuchon, then Patricia Wells may be an unreliable witness. For all her good points (of which more below), her book dates from an era when full resto recipes were deemed unsuitable for the eyes of domestic readers. She readily admits her recipes were "adapted" for the home kitchen, to capture the essence of Robuchon (hmmm Essence of Robuchon? How about a truffled-scented perfume line for foodies? :-p).

An example would be the proportion of cow fat. Well's puree is 20% butter, but that sounds too low. Anecdotal sources claim the puree was 50% or even 70% butter (Wells herself cheerfully adds that you can double the portion of butter "for exceptionally rich potatoes"). If you want to be cautious, more is more.

There are other versions of the recipe. In his food column in the Le Journal Du Dimanche (compiled and republished as La Cuisine de Joel Robuchon) he outlines much the same method, although does not give quantities. Ditto the 2009 Complete Robuchon. I suspect a more complete version is the one in his Grand Livre de Cuisine, a 2001 magnum opus roughly the size of a truffled turkey and costing much the same. Its been on my Amazon wish list for a while but alas I do not own a copy.

Actually the best version of the recipe I have isn't written by Robuchon or Wells at all, but by British chef Tom Aikens, who worked with Robuchon just before his first retirement. His cunningly titled Tom Aikens Cooking has the following account.
Robuchon in Paris was famous for its puree de pommes de terre or mashed potato. When I was working there, I was fortunate enough not to have to prepare it, as it was one of the hardest jobs in that kitchen, taking about 2 hours from start to finish. We used Ratte potatoes - a good waxy potato. They would first be scrubbed and slowly cooked, still in the skins to protect them from the water. After about 30-35 minutes they would be drained and kept over simmering water, so they remained warm while being peeled. They were then put into a mouli with a lot of butter, then placed in another pan with even more butter, and then it was all brought together with hot milk. It was then passed through a very fine sieve (so fine you couldn't actually see through the mesh). This would take another 30 minutes, and it was so hard the chefs would be exhausted by the end. When the time came to use the potato, it was placed in a copper pan and warmed, then more butter was whisked in to make it light and fluffy. This would take another 45-60 minutes! There was more butter than potato, and it was so rich you could only eat a small amount.
It's mash cap'n, but not as we know it.

The Books

Cusine Actuelle (also publised as Simply French): For all her simplifications, Patricia Well's work is still the best book on Robuchon available. It captures his cuisine at its pomp, in the glory years of Jamin. The great classics are all there, including more truffles than you can shake a stick at (check out the Radicchio and Black Truffle salad on p36 - its basically a pile of truffles with a few lettuce leaves shoved in the bottom). Her introductory comments and interview with JR are well worth a close reading. They contain some of the wisest word on translating three star cooking for the home kitchen that I know of.

La Cuisine de Joel Robuchon - A Seasonal Cookbook (also publised as Cuisine Des Quatre Saisons): This is a compilation of the weekly column Robuchon used to write in France's Journal Dimanches. It was first published (in French) in 1993, so again covers only his Parisian incarnation. The book contains fifty two columns, each a musing on a particular ingredient followed by a recipe. There's some overlap between the Wells book, but unlike UK cookery columns he at least treats the reader like an adults. I guess standards are higher on their side of Le Manche.

Grande Livre de Cuisine: Taking after Alain Ducasse's Grand Livre de Cuisine, this is a meaty volume with a price tag to match. Again covering Robuchon's Paris years its probably the closest you'll get to the actual restaurant recipes, packed with step by step photos which show how he (or his food stylist) did it. Note I don't think this was ever translated so you're have to slum it with the original French (fine by me - I speak fluent a la carte French and dim sum Cantonese!).

The Complete Robuchon: This is an English translation of the French kitchen manual Tout Robuchon. A word of warning - despite the  title this isn't the complete Robuchon at all. Few of his signature dishes feature (although the mash is there, described pretty much as above). Instead there's a pretty exhaustive list of classic French dishes, from Lievre a la Royale to Chou Farci All very useful but not what it promised me on the Amazon pre-order page! On the positive side the layout (by UK cookbook specialists Grub Street) is simple and accessible and the recipes thorough. Think of it as a useful appendix to Larousse, or as a version of Phaidon's I Know How to Cook without the pretentious marketing bullsh*t. Just don't buy it expecting the complete Robuchon - it isn't.

Tom Aikens Cooking: Tom Aikens is a divisive chap. In his mid-2000s pomp he was one of the few chefs in London cooking genuinely distinctive food, but there has also been no shortage of controversy (branding staff, phantom kleptomatics and pre-pack administration for a start). Most recently he's reinvented himself as a purveyor of ersatz new-Nordic cuisine - a shame because I these he's more original than that.

Unfortunately this book is another disappointment. The recipes tend towards the identikit, showing little of Aiken's distinctive style. There also a weird, slightly Dorling Kindersley tone to the text as well - sort of like what you'd expect from a five year old's Comprehension Test. e.g."Cod used to be widely available, but now, because of overfishing, it is one of the most expensive fish to buy. I just hope that we never run out of it for fish and chips", "Tuna is a fabulous fish, which should always be eaten rare. If cooked to well done, it can get rather dry" or "I get my crabs from Dorset, my lobsters from Scotland, and my prawns from Magagascar" (hey Tom, I get mine from the local supermarket!). It feels like it was thoughtlessly dictated to a ghostwriter between shifts (although I note none is listed in the credits). A frustrating debut from a frustrating chef.

The Best Recipe: America's Cooks Illustrated magazine was doing food geekery decades food geekery was cool. The set-up, for those who aren't familiar, is they select a recipe (e.g. "grilled pork chops"), test of multiple variations on it in their kitchen and come up the ultimate version (a formula copied in a more kitchen-sink manner by Felicity Cloake's How to Cook the Perfect series and book). This volume is a deluxe-sized compilation of magazine articles, covering pretty much every US home-cooking standard, from Pumpkin Pie to Popovers. It's a great-resource for two reasons: Firstly because you know you have a bunch of fail-proof recipes for any conceivable domestic culinary situation. Secondly because each recipe is accompanied by a great deal of explanation (often backed up with a lot of solid food science) not only about how each recipe works, but why it works. And for a cookbook, I can think of no higher praise.