Chef on Call

A Master Class, in Secret

By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The chef started the lesson with the most elusive concept of all.

"Give me a pinch of salt," he said. "Bigger pinch. Bigger pinch. There you go! Parfait!" He faced his other student. "Now you: Show me the cayenne." She made an overearnest attempt.

"Ohhh, la, la," the chef tsked while sweeping half the fiery powder from the young woman's red-stained palm. "Half of that or else your dad will go, 'Eeeek!' "

Sisters Elizabeth and Julia Rosenbaum, 13 and 11, got more than they bargained for when they contacted Chef on Call for help in preparing a surprise birthday dinner for their father. Michel Richard, Washington's preeminent star chef, showed up in the kitchen of their Potomac home to give them an experience they won't soon forget.

The process went like this: Richard devised a menu for the event and furnished Elizabeth, Julia and their mother with recipes and a list of required ingredients and equipment. The girls got Dad out of the house on a Saturday afternoon while the tutorial took place, then reproduced the meal (with some day-of assistance from Richard) on his birthday, nine days later.

Richard, who teaches classes at his Georgetown restaurant, Citronelle, was the perfect choice to solve Elizabeth and Julia's problem. Diminutive, stout and gregarious, the 59-year-old chef is a bon vivant with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of creative energy. The thick French accent is charming, but it is his grandfatherly mien -- and uncanny resemblance to Kris Kringle -- that sets people of all ages at ease.

He designed the menu using information that his PR coordinator, Mel Davis, had gathered from the daughters. He knew that their father likes fish and all kinds of fresh vegetables, that the girls are into baking, and that the entire family had recently enjoyed their experience at Bezu, an upscale French-Asian fusion bistro that recently opened in Potomac.

With that in mind, Richard chose an amuse-bouche of cream puff-like Parmesan gougeres followed by vegetable bouillabaisse, a main course of slow-roasted salmon fillets with red wine shiitake sauce and snow pea "linguine," and chocolate mousse with raspberries for dessert.

The selections weren't arbitrary. The dishes suited the tastes of the dinner's attendees and, perhaps more important, gave Elizabeth and Julia some foundations on which to build a cooking repertoire.

- The cheese puffs were made with pate a choux, the easiest and perhaps most versatile of all pastry doughs.

- Prepping the bouillabaisse and the snow peas developed knife skills and showed the girls how to handle various vegetables properly.

- The entree taught them how to sear and roast fish correctly and how to combine a wine reduction with a flavor essence.


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