While I am studying at the La Varenne cooking school in Paris last year, I had the privilege to work under Chef Chambrette. It wasn't easy.
Fernand Chambrette represents a dying breed of French chefs who were raised on the wrath and fear of Escoffier, in hellish kitchens manned by brigades of 50 or more, schooled with kicks and blows from the tender age of 13. I suppose I feel honored that he respected my interest in cooking enough to treat me the same way.
Chambrette didn't look like the typical chef, at least not like the grinning Paul Bocuse in his starched and shining chef's whites on the cover of Newsweek. Chambrette was anything but flashy. Short and stocky, he preferred his aprons with a week's worth of stains; his tour du cou , chef's necktie, looked bedraggled the moment he put it on. Nor could I forget his ridiculous blue bedroom slippers with the backs cut off, in which sockless he shuffled about the kitchen. And not once did this character wear his chef's hat.
Chambrette was a grouchy, grumbly old goat with a mean streak a mile wide. A heart of gold lay at the center, but he did his damnedest to conceal it. Despite his best efforts, his goodness did shine through occasionally - for example, when I was catering and needed a few tablespoons of his special fish glaze, or assistance boning a shoulder of veal.
Like so many other French chefs, Chambrette was a walking paradox. His language made the ladies blush. He once took a knife to a recalcitrant cleaning woman, and I swear that I saw him spit into a deep fat frier to check the temperature of the oil. The same man, however, was an expert on 18th-century Limoges china and could talk for hours about cinema, the theather, and his beloved cat's flawless pedigree.
He had formerly owned one of Paris' best-known restaurants, La Boule d'Or . He sold the restaurant before my time, but to hear the old-timers rave and to taste some of the house specialities in class, it must have been exceptional. Chambrette was highly regarded by his colleagues. Once he took me into the kitchen of a fancy restaurant; the chefs dropped whatever they were doing to rush over and pay him their respects.
I was assigned to Chambrette's cooking class as stagier , chef's assistant and lackey. I also translated the words of the master into English, for the benefit of non-francophone students. Chambrette loved to tease my by talking nonstop of 15 minutes while I tried desperately to keep what he said straight, then distracted me playfully as I attempted to repeat his words in English. When I was lucky, he would let me prepare his stocks, beat his egg whites by hand, and pound seemingly endless quantities of force-meats through a fine mesh sieve. He rained a full share of blows on my behind, though whether as reprimands or love taps I was never quite sure.
Every morning before class, Chambrette went on a rampage, raiding all the refirgerators for wilted vegetables, meat scraps past their prime, chicken's feet, pork rind, minute saucersful of hollandaise, maderia, and veloute sauce, and countless other goodies which he affectionately called his petits cacas . With these queer, mismatched piles of leftovers, he concocted divine culinary creations.
His bouillabaise had all of the colorful squalor of Marseille, his Cotriade Breton , a kind of fish chowder, smelled of Brittany's salt sea spray. But Chambrette's favorite dishes were regional specialties - tripes, mutton stews and pig's feet, liek his grandmother used to make.
At lunchtime, as the students and staff ate sweetbread terrines en gelee , coulibiacs, souffles, and homemade eclairs, Chambrette would settle down to a simple meal of bread and cheese. As we tippled wines with each course, he drank ice water from a measuring cup. Then he'd trundle off in his civvies, the leftovers loaded into an old gym bag for his wife and cat.
Chambrette has an almost endless repertoire of fabulous dishes, so I hardly know where to begin. There are, however, three dishes I've reproduced successfully in the United States. I offer them with one warning. Chambrette hates recipes. He found the American devotion to and dependence on recipes absolutely ridiculous. He winced when students would ask how much of this or that. Anyone caught writing in his class would be given the messiest job to do. "Who cares about recipes," he would say. "They can't teach you how to cook." So take the following with the proverbial grain of salt.
SAUTE DE MARCASSIN
Pork cooked in the fashion of Wild Boar
The marinade gives the pork a gamey flavor. Chambrette would chuckle at how many "connoisuers" he'd fooled with ordinary pork. I Pork roast (about 5 pounds), boned and cut into 1 1/2 inch cubes 1 bottle dry red whin 1/4 cup red vinegar 1 onion, chopped 1 carrot, chopped 1 celery rib, chopped 3 cloves garlic, smashed 20 peppercorns 5 cloves 10 juniper berries or 3 tablespoons gin 3 shallots, finely diced 1 sprig parsley 4 bay leaves 1 1/2 teaspoons thyme 2 teaspoons olive oil, plus 1 taplespoon 5 tablespoons butter 1 tablespoon flour 1 cup stock 1 to 2 tablespoons red currant jelly 1/2 cup heavy cream 3 tablespoons cream 3 tablespoons butter
Prepare the marinade by combining the red wine, vinegar, onion, carrot, celery, garlic, spices, shallots, herbs and 2 teaspoons oil in a bowl. Add the pork and leave it to marinate overnight. (If you are in a hurry, you can bring the marinade to a boil, then marinate the pork for only 4 ro 5 hours.)
Strain off and reserve the marinade. Pat the pork dry. Heat 2 tablespoons butter and 1 of oil in a high-sided frying pan, then saute the pork until all saides are browned. Sprinkle flour into the pan and stir until absorbed. Add the marinade. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the flour. Add the stock, cover the pan and simmer for 45 minutes. Remove the meat; strain the liquid, pressing hard to extract the vegetable juices. Boil the strained liquid until reduced to 1 1/2 cups; remove from heat, whisk in red currant jelly, cream, and remaining 3 tablespoons butter. Correct the seasoning, and pour over the pork. Serve on toast, or in puffy-pastry shells.
MOUSSELINES DE COQUILLES ST. JACQUES
Individual Scallop Mousses
(4 to 6 servings as a first course)
This to my mind, was Chambrette's finest creation: delicate, light, yet with a heady flavor. He would serve it with a white wine sauce. 1 pound scallops 1 cup heavy cream, lightly beaten; or creme fraiche 3 egg whites Salt, white pepper, nutmeg
Puree the scallops in a food processor or put them through a meat grinder and fine mesh sieve. Let chill in a bowl over ice for 15 minutes. Add 1/3 of the cream and 1 egg white, beat vigorously over ice, let chill for 15 minutes. Repeat this process twice more. Season to taste.
Take 12 small molds or juice glasses. Butter them, chill them and butter them again. Fill the molds 3/4 full, set them in a baking pan with 1 inch boiling water. Bake for 20 minutes at 350 degrees. Unmold. Count on 2 or 3 per person for a first course. Serve with alight sauce such as beurre blanc.
The utter simplicity of this dessert made it one of Chambrette's favorites. It looks easy, but only once did it come out to the chef's satisfaction. 1/2 cup sugar 5 egg yolks 1 whole egg 3 cups milk 3 tablespoons sugar
Put the sugar in a large stainless steel sauce pan or copper bowl and melt it over a low heat, shaking to stir until it caramelizes, being careful not to let it burn. Caramel is very hot, so abe careful. Meanwhile, bring the milk to a boil in another pan, and beat the eggs and sugar together in a large bowl. When the milk boils, pour it over the melted sugar, whisking frantically. It will sound like Mount Etna erupting - don't worry; it's supposed to. When the caramel is fully dissolved, pour this mixture over the eggs, whisking vigorously again.Strain the mixture into 6 small, lightly oiled souffle dishes or bowls; avoid forming bubbles on the surface. Set the bowls in a baking pan with 1 inch of boiling water. Cover with a piece of cardboard or tinfoil. Bake in a 300-degree oven for 40 minutes, or until the custard has set. Remove, chill, and serve with whipped cream.