He looks like the heavy in a James Bond film, this towering Parisian chef planting his hands on his hips and surveying the produce section of the Georgetown Safeway. One imagines Hubert -- chef-owner of Le Bistro d'Hubert, cooking teacher, author, and creator of one of Paris' most revered cheese shops, La Ferme St. Hubert -- could rip off the plastic produce bag from its roll with a mere piercing stare.
Within minutes, though, he is reduced to gaping.
"C'est fantastique!" he blurts as he opens his eyes wide and takes it all in. "Ah, boy!" He had been in one Chicago supermarket on a previous visit to the U.S., but it was nothing like this. He is revved up to choose and make lunch for four with whatever is available in the supermarket.
Parading past the aisle of cereals, Hubert, who only admits to that one name, holds his hands to his head and looks worried. All those different kinds -- how does one choose? "Wow!"
His English fails him in the midst of all this display.
Finally Hubert reaches the refrigerator case and something familiar, fillet of sole. He puts on his glasses leans over to examine it closely, bumping his head on the sign that identifies it. No matter what the sign calls it, though, he has his hesitations: "It's not the same sole as the French . The texture is different." And that will be borne out later in the cooking, when the sole falls apart after the merest seconds of simmering.
Texture isn't all there is to know about fish, though, so Hubert picks up a package to investigate the pull date, and tries to smell it through the plastic film. He also looks over the swordfish, but loses interest beyond learning its name in English.
Tiny bay scallops, however, excite Hubert's culinary imagination. He has a very good dish made from scallops and endive, he explains, and takes a package for the appetizer course. "It is not expensive," he notes, comparing it to the sole, which he says is expensive in France also. He has yet to learn that endive, unlike in France, is very expensive in the U.S., and he will make his scallop dish do with zucchini.
Appetizer and fish course under control, Hubert turns his attention to the chicken, looking for "filet of chicken" but first wanting to see what fresh herbs will be available to flavor it. He examines a plastic-wrapped chicken package and reassures the people trying to translate for him, "I understand 'boneless.'"
To finish off the sauce for the chicken he will need a little cream, and at the dairy counter Hubert is truly impressed: there is cre me frai che. "Ah! Formidable!" he exclaims, but backs off from it and shakes his head when he notes how expensive it is. Then he is on his way to "chicken stock in packets" but is sidetracked by the dried chives, a new product to him.
He is also sidetracked by the crowded aisles, and pauses to get down pat the phrases "Excuse me" and "I beg your pardon."
By now lunch is outlined and Hubert is being distracted by pure Americana:
Port wine cheese marbled with bright red. "Fantastic colors," he grins.
Peanut butter. "Only peanuts?" he wonders.
Smoked cheese. He turns up his nose. He did, after all, gain his fame in Paris for his impeccable cheeses.
Spaghetti squash. He is astonished.
Enoki mushrooms. He is quizzical.
By this time Hubert's vocabulary is stuck in two words, "fantastic" and "formidable." He marvels at fresh coriander and cactus plants. He sees eggroll wrappers and explains that in his restaurant he uses rice paper to wrap oysters and julienned vegetables.
Then he discovers not only that endive is expensive, but that the store has run out of it. "I'll change the recipe," he tosses off, as he investigates hydroponic lettuce. At first he thinks of doing the scallops with thyme, garlic and olive oil, then settles on zucchini. "The zucchini are not pretty," he discovers to his slight dismay, poking at them and finding them softened. But at last he unearths two small ones that will do.
Hubert would love to experiment, he says, with different kinds of squash and enoki and cactus. But he decides to take the safe route for this lunch, to cook with what is familiar.
Once he spots kiwis, the dessert is unquestionably his orange and kiwi salad with vanilla flavored wine sauce. "The oranges are superb," he notes with pleasure, and picks what seem to be the juiciest ones.
Aisles of packaged goods are even more amazing. First the imported vinegars, particularly the Corcellet brand: "It's Paul!" Hubert is delighted to encounter the product of an old friend. He is overwhelmed by the variety -- the mustards, the vinegars.
The Sauce and Gravy Center stops him dead in his tracks. Then he encounters further wonders: garlic juice and onion juice. "It's crazy," exclaims Hubert. Not to mention canned gazpacho.
What the shelves don't have, though, is pink peppercorns. "Yes, I'll change the recipe," shrugs Hubert. He is the soul of flexibility, having spent the past hour repeatedly throwing up his hands in wonder. He also finds no raspberry vinegar. What kind of vinegar would everybody like instead, he asks. In the meantime, Hubert's wife slips a carton of cigarettes into the cart. He shakes his head and moves on to the produce.
There the pineapple coring and slicing machine is what amazes him. He had seen perfect round cored slices of fresh pineapple in his hostess' kitchen and had meant to ask her how she had done them, and now he knew.
The cart is full, nearly an hour has passed and Hubert is about done. He checks the items, notes that he needs to buy red wine elsewhere. Not enough time for decorating and garnishing in this project; normally he would garnish the fish with white cabbage and the chicken with potatoes or sliced baked carrots. He claps his hands together and heads for the checkout counter. The total, with wine, is $35, and includes more butter, cream, vinegar, bouillon, olive oil, sugar and vanilla than will be used in the lunch. That's what dinner for one would cost at his restaurant.
The shopping was easy, and not really so unfamiliar. Hubert says he is one of the few chefs in Paris who personally shops at Rungis -- the wholesale food market outside Paris. Once a week he goes himself in his truck, and another day his sous chef does the same. Fish and meat are delivered to his restaurant, though, every day.
The greater challenge of the day is to come: cooking all this food in a tiny, ill-equipped Georgetown kitchen commandeered for the occasion. The first task is to learn how to use the one-handled faucet. The second, which seems universal for chefs, is to set a large pot of water to boil, which requires Hubert figuring out how to turn on the electric stove.
Hubert refreshes the fish and scallops by soaking them in cold water, not quite pleased with their smell once they are unwrapped. The smell of the butter, too, is a disappointment. Not so serious a disappointment as the knives, though. Even the peeler needs sharpening. And the oranges aren't as juicy as they looked.
One item exceeds expectations: The fresh thyme is so strong that Hubert cuts the amount to one third.
Two hours later everything has been cooked, devoured, discussed. And Hubert has learned some lessons: American sole cooks in about a quarter the time of French. The quality of some American supermarket ingredients is inferior to what he is used to having -- the fish was bitter and dry, no asset to the dish -- but if you tried the same task with French supermarkets you would find it worse; the quality of food in French supermarkets is low, says Hubert. In all, cooking with supermarket ingredients is no problem compared with cooking in a Georgetown bachelor kitchen -- flimsy and unsharpened knives, and electricity rather than gas. But Hubert has enjoyed the challenge and isn't about to complain, given the delicious outcome of the experiment. Was it hard? He hedges: "It was different." Here are Hubert's recipes, as adapted to American supermarket ingredients. SCALLOPS WITH THYME AND ZUCCHINI (4 servings)
1/4 cup olive oil
Salt and pepper
2 small zucchini, sliced very thinly
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, minced and crushed
1/4 teaspoon minced garlic
1 pound scallops
In a large saute' pan heat olive oil. Salt and pepper zucchini, put in pan in 1 layer and sprinkle on 1 teaspoon thyme. Cook on high heat, shaking occasionally, about 2 minutes. As zucchini slices brown, turn them and brown other side. Add garlic a few moments before they are finished cooking. Drain zucchini on paper towels and arrange on four plates. Add scallops to pan, salt and pepper them and add 2 teaspons thyme. Saute' scallops, stirring, over high heat for 1 to 2 minutes. Scatter scallops over zucchini and serve. FISH FILLETS WITH THREE JULIENNES (4 servings)
8 small fish fillets, about 2 pounds total*
Salt and pepper to taste
1 large leek
1 large carrot
1 1/2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1/4 cup sugar
About 4 tablespoons ( 1/2 stick) butter
1 1/2 cups orange juice
1/3 cup minced chives, plus more for garnish
Wash and trim fillets, and salt and pepper them. Set aside. Peel oranges. Julienne and blanch the peel. Wash and julienne leek greens, reserving white part for another use. Blanch leek greens 5 to 10 minutes until tender, then rinse in cold water. Peel and julienne the carrot and blanch 5 to 8 minutes until tender, then immediately rinse in cold water.
In a small saucepan put vinegar and sugar, plus the orange peel. Cook over high heat, shaking occasionally, until dry and golden brown, about 5 to 7 minutes. Be careful not to burn the sugar.
Peel every bit of white pith and section the orange, removing all bits of membrane. Set aside.
When you are ready to cook the fish, put leek julienne in a small ovenproof bowl, add salt and 1 1/2 teaspoons butter, and reheat in a 250-degree oven until warmed through. Do the same with the carrot julienne.
In a saute' pan large enough to hold fish in one layer, put the orange juice and enough water to just cover the fish. Arrange the fish in it and bring to a boil. Cook 1 to 4 minutes, depending on thickness of the fish, and carefully turn fillets, cooking just until they have just turned opaque (a few seconds for sole, longer for thicker fish). Remove fish carefully and drain on paper towels. Strain pan juices and reserve.
Arrange fish fillets on bottom half of plates, and on the top half arrange equal portions of carrot, leek, then orange peel juliennes attractively. Keep plates warm in the oven while you finish the sauce.
Bring pan juices to a boil over high heat and reduce to 1/4 cup. Add salt and pepper to taste and swirl in 3 tablespoons butter. Remove plates from oven, arrange orange wedges on the fish and spoon sauce over fillets. Garnish with chives and serve immediately.
*Hubert used sole fillets, but found American sole too soft, so it fell apart. Firmer fish such as turbot or red snapper would work better. CHICKEN WITH LEEKS (4 servings)
1 1/2 pounds boneless chicken breasts
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
10 tablespoons whipping cream
5 pinches salt
Pepper to taste
1 cup chicken broth, bouillon or water
2 teaspoons tarragon vinegar
Minced chives for garnish
Cut chicken breasts on the diagonal to obtain strips the thickness of a finger. Remove all but 1 1/2 inches of green from the leeks, quarter them lengthwise, wash under running water, then slice thinly into batons the same length as the chicken. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a saute' pan and sweat the leeks gently, covered, stirring occasionally, until dry, about 15 to 20 minutes. Add 1/4 cup whipping cream, about 5 pinches salt and pepper to taste. Return to the stove and stir over high heat about 1 minute. Set aside.
Peel tomatoes by dropping them briefly in boiling water. Remove seeds and juice, and dice the tomatoes.
In a large saute' pan heat 2 tablespoons butter. Salt and pepper chicken and add it to the pan in one layer. Saute' quickly over high heat, turning pieces as they brown, about 3 minutes. Drain on paper towels.
Spoon leeks onto plates. Arrange chicken on top. Keep warm in the oven while you finish the sauce. Pour off fat from the pan in which the chicken was cooked and discard. Add 1 cup broth and 2 teaspoons tarragon vinegar to the pan, stirring and scraping to deglaze and boil down to about half. Add 2 tablespoons cream, bring to a boil and reduce over high heat, shaking the pan, for about 2 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste, the diced tomato and 4 tablespoons butter. Swirl over high heat until the butter is incorporated. Add 1 to 2 tablespoons minced chives, pour over the chicken and serve. ORANGES AND KIWIS WITH SWEET VANILLA WINE (4 servings)
10 tablespoons sugar
2 cups red wine
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla
Peel 4 oranges thinly and julienne the peel. Blanch peel, in boiling water to cover, in a small saucepan, until the water boils away. Squeeze the juice from the 4 oranges and put in another saucepan with the wine. Add 5 tablespoons sugar to the wine and boil over a low flame until it is reduced and syrupy.
Peel remaining oranges, removing all the pith, and slice oranges into rounds. Set on a plate and sprinkle with 2 tablespoons sugar. Peel and slice kiwis and arrange on another plate. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon sugar. To the saucepan with the orange peel add 1 tablespoon vinegar and 2 tablespoons sugar. Cook until sugar caramelizes, and set aside.
Take 4 large dessert plates and arrange circles of alternating orange and kiwi slices. Scatter julienned peel on top. Chop the mint and sprinkle equally over the four servings. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
Prepare a large bowl of ice, in which you put a smaller bowl. When the wine has reduced and thickened slightly, add vanilla and pour into the small bowl and stir until completely cold. Pour a little wine sauce over each plate of fruit and pass the rest in a sauceboat.