By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 26, 2007
Sarah Rothleder was already intimidated about hosting 10 people for dinner on New Year's Eve. Then she found out that coming to teach her how to pull off this fete was none other than Eric Ripert, three-Michelin-star chef.
"Holy cow! Really?" she exclaimed. "Does he realize he'll have to truck out to the suburbs to hang out with a housewife?"
Actually, when Ripert answered Rothleder's plea to Chef on Call, he arrived at her Fairfax home in a chauffeured car, not a truck. At his side was Michelle Lindsay, his director of operations and former sous-chef at his famed Le Bernardin in New York City. To say that Rothleder was flustered would be an understatement.
Tall, fit and unmistakably French, Ripert commands attention with his appearance (thick, wavy salt-and-pepper hair; drowsy blue-gray eyes; aquiline nose) but holds it with nice-guy likability. His accent is so thick it sounds like a parody. Ripert, 42, has a sense of humor about it, though, and even told Rothleder a hilarious story about appearing on Bravo's "Top Chef" as Santa Claus and being unable to aspirate the "h" in "ho, ho, ho" despite coaching by the show's host.
"Padma [Lakshmi] said, 'Say, 'Oh, oh, oh,' and I said, 'I'm saying 'Oh, oh, oh,' and she said, 'No! 'Oh, oh, oh. . . .' "
Rothleder, 40, giggled at the story, but soon enough it was time to get down to business.
Her trepidations about dinner parties, it turns out, were not born of a lack of organizational skill. As a wife (her husband, Neal, 41, sat in on the lesson), a mother of two (Eli, 8, and Simon, 5) and the owner of a Web-based business she runs from home while also consulting, Rothleder is no stranger to multi-tasking. But she tries to prepare overly ambitious foods for dinner parties and loses control of the time. What she needed from Ripert was not only help in creating a doable menu and advice about wine pairings, but also strategies for preparing enough in advance that she wouldn't be popping up from the dinner table like a jack-in-the-box every few minutes.
Ripert, whose Westend Bistro recently opened in Washington, was up to the task. The word "bistro," after all, is said to derive from the Russian word for quick, and Ripert thought a bistro mentality was just what Rothleder needed to pull off her dinner. He provided her with a three-course menu of dishes similar in style to those he and chef Leonardo Marino serve at the fast-paced Westend: smoked salmon croque monsieur with caviar paired with a watercress, green apple and cucumber salad; roasted veal loin with black truffle Madeira sauce, mushroom packets, sauteed greens with ginger and garlic, and braised salsify and Jerusalem artichokes; and citrus segments with Grand Marnier sabayon and sorbet for dessert.
Rothleder asked about her biggest concern: how to get everything to come together and reach the table at the right time and while still hot.
"Each course has only one element that needs to be done at the last minute," he told her. "For the first course, it's putting the salad together with the dressing. For the main course, it's sauteing the greens. For the dessert, it's making the sabayon sauce."
Ripert laid out the plan of action.
"You toast the croque monsieur ahead of time and then only heat it up for a few minutes before serving. The veal is seared and ready for the oven. The sauce is made ahead of time. The vegetables are prepped in the morning," he instructed.
And then, in a just a few hours, he and Rothleder carried the plan through, assembling the sandwiches and pan-grilling them, tying and searing the veal loin, forming the mushroom packets, braising the salsify and artichokes, sauteing the greens, making the black truffle sauce. Once the components of courses were completed, Ripert demonstrated how easy it was to compose them into finished dishes.
He applied the same method to the dessert, arranging citrus fruit segments on individual plates, topping them with frothy sabayon and using a blowtorch to lightly brown the sauce as a final flourish.
Rothleder asked what wines Ripert would match with each course. He recommended champagne with the croque monsieur and a delicate pinot noir with the veal to complement the earthiness of the truffles and the mushrooms.
So as not to give the wine element of the meal short shrift, Ripert deferred to the expertise of a connoisseur. After the lesson, he asked wine importer and distributor Terry Theise to pair specific wines with Rothleder's menu and pass the information to her (see sidebar). Ripert also offered Rothleder a cooking timeline: "I would serve the croque, sit down and eat and talk a little bit with your guests, then come back to the kitchen, plate the main course, then go back to your guests."
"It would be a lot easier if I had Michelle helping me like you do," Rothleder pointed out, not quite joking. True enough: Ripert obviously was used to having someone by his side to anticipate his every need. Lindsay spent the afternoon assisting her boss unobtrusively and with the precision of a surgical nurse.
Ripert replied by advising Rothleder to hire someone to help during her party but offered an alternative if she didn't: Serve everything family-style, on platters.
Ripert headed off other concerns at the pass:
¿ "Of course Iranian caviar would be excellent for the croque monsieur, but that's very expensive. American caviar is very good and costs only about $25 -- an ounce."
¿ "I always have a lot of vegetables. I did four for this menu, but you can only do two or three if you want and just make more of them."
¿ "We made our own sorbet for the dessert, but you can buy a very nice one from a store and it's just as good."
Ripert took every opportunity to stress the importance of good work habits, constantly reminding his student to keep her cutting board clean and repeating often that a successful service relies on having the mise en place (prep work) in order.
"You do everything in the morning," he insisted. "Cut and clean all the vegetables, prepare and sear the veal for roasting. That way you're not looking for everything at the last minute."
There was a lot of prep to be done, which rendered Ripert's "bistro" label a bit deceptive. If you scratch the surface of his food, you find an adherence to instructions set forth long ago by the masters. Vegetables are cut just so; sauces are constructed in precisely defined steps. Nothing is arbitrary.
And so it was that Rothleder was exposed to the fundamentals of classic French cooking, although she might not have been aware of it. The veal's Madeira sauce, for example, followed a strict formula: Make a meat essence, add a wine reduction, thicken with butter.
So what Ripert passed off as tips throughout the day could more accurately be described as rules. (Slice cleanly through herbs rather than hacking at them, or they will oxidize and taste grassy. Always add salt to the acid part of a vinaigrette before adding the oil, so it dissolves. Taste everything often as you go, and adjust the seasoning.)
If there was one message Ripert emphasized more than anything else that day, it was the need to employ proper knife skills. He took Rothleder by the hand and guided her through the correct way to mince, dice, cut into julienne, chop and slice, cajoling her to keep at it when she was on the verge of giving up.
"Look at yours compared to mine," she said, pointing to his perfectly identical batons of green apple and then to her more free-form attempts.
"That's what justifies my salary," he joked. "Try it again!" And she did, until she got it right. By day's end, Rothleder had turned from tentative to confident.
"Before today, I was one step above amateur, maybe. I didn't know the techniques, like how to use knives the right way," she assessed. A smile came to her face. "And now I know."
Vive la difference!
David Hagedorn, chef and former restaurateur, can be reached email@example.com. His Chef on Call column appears monthly.