Some people must have their cornflakes for breakfast. Or their croissants, or their kippers. I've never been one for regimens, but I think now that I could make a habit of breakfasting on champagne and foie gras.
I could also get used to having the chefs of three world-class French restaurants prepare it for me.
This is not just a theory. I actually tried it out, and can guarantee it beats pancakes.
It started on a Wednesday morning in Georgetown, the three chefs arriving just past 9:30 carrying all their ingredients into the kitchen of Justin and Micheline Frank, who have as complete a professional kitchen as a private home has ever known, I'd wager. The chefs were Jean-Michel Lorain, age 27, who along with his father has raised La Co te Saint-Jacques in Joigny to its third Michelin star this year; Michel Troisgros, 28, who works in the kitchen of the three-star Troisgros restaurant in Roanne with his father, Pierre; and Jean-Paul Lacombe, 37, of the two-star Le'on de Lyon, where he has been chef since his father died 15 years ago.
They were in Washington to promote public television's new "Dining in France" series, which started here on Saturday and runs for 13 weeks on Channel 26 at 2:30 p.m. (with repeats at 12:30 p.m. on Mondays). The promotion included a grand dinner for which they had cooked in New York and they would be going on to do a lunch in San Francisco. In Washington, however, the French embassy had thrown a party in their honor, with a dinner cooked for them and a couple hundred other guests by three French chefs who live in America (Francis Leyrle of the French embassy, Jean-Louis Palladin of Jean-Louis, and Daniel Boulud of the Plaza-Athene'e in New York).
Washington wasn't to see what these visiting chefs could do, it seemed. In part that oversight was repaired: They would replicate most of their New York dinner for me to watch before they flew off to San Francisco.
An American breakfast under their belts, they unpacked their boxes of ingredients and changed into their white chefs' coats. They had brought their cheeses from France, but otherwise the foodstuffs they found in New York satisfied their picky taste. As a precaution against lapses in refrigeration during travel, they had such perishables as sliced salmon and cream vacuum-packed in plastic bags by a friend who does such things in Vermont. And lacking the time to make puff pastry that morning, they decided to improvise the dessert.
Troisgros, dark-haired and built like a prizefighter, was the talker of the group. Unwrapping two-inch-thick filets mignons, he raved about Texas beef, which he claimed could be cut without even a knife.
Lorain is delicate and soulful looking; he worked gracefully and talked quietly as he unpacked the colorful assortment of plastic pillows -- green zucchini mousse, golden-brown caramel sauce.
Lacombe's dimpled cheeks give him an impish look, which he lives up to with his jokes and teasing. He turns serious, though, when he talks of food. "In two hours this will be very good," he said of the cheese he was arranging on a tray, an understatement, as it turned out when we eventually tasted the oozing St. Marcellin. There were jars with white disks of beef marrow; it was explained that they are kept in water a few days to remove the blood and whiten them.
These three had never cooked together before this trip, but they certainly knew of each other. "Who doesn't know Troisgros and Lorain?" Lacombe generously posed a rhetorical question. He was also generous with his praise of American foie gras, which he had made into a cold terrine with artichoke bottoms.
The generous spirit prevailed: "A good working tool," Troisgros described the Franks' kitchen, and larger than most professional kitchens in France. Just a typical American home kitchen, the chefs were teasingly told.
Everyone was sipping champagne and feeling expansive. Troisgros was thus moved to add an impromptu touch to the menu -- a vinaigrette to sprinkle over the foie gras. He turned it into a little cooking lesson: "The seasoning has to be done in the vinegar" rather than in the oil, he lectured. And he added that in France it is typical to sprinkle a little crushed pepper and coarse salt on foie gras just before it is eaten.
Lorain was forming tiny perfect zucchini quenelles with two spoons, and arranging them in the bowls for the gazpacho, a specialty of his restaurant. The gazpacho is turned creamy with egg yolks and at the last minute warm lobster is added to the cold soup. Pink and green, cold and warm, it is a stunning soup.
The most time-consuming part of the preparation was, surprisingly, fried potatoes. Not everyday fried potatoes, of course, but an invention of Troisgros called Desert Roses, devised for the potato chapter in a book he has written with his father. A cross between fried and gratineed potatoes, they are indeed rose shapes, with crisp brown edges to the petals. Troisgros and Lorain tackled the task, carving peeled potatoes into one thin continuous strip and rolling them up again, then soaking them in cold water to crisp. Looking like white tomato roses, they are saute'ed top and bottom in clarified butter, and put in the oven to finish cooking so the inside becomes meltingly soft. For the New York dinner it had taken eight chefs two hours to carve the 150 Desert Roses.
Next came the truffles, from jars where they had been preserved in consomme by Lorain to last until the next truffle season. Minced in great enough profusion that one might think they were mere mushrooms, the truffles were added to a sauce Lorain made for the salmon by reducing shallots and port, then beating in truffle juice and butter. In La Co te Saint-Jacques, Lorain steams sea bass for this dish; in Washington he was steaming the salmon in its plastic vacuum bags, for three minutes at 85 degrees centigrade.
By 10:45 we had nibbled foie gras and finished the gazpacho. The salmon was being set atop julienned celery root, and Lorain was talking fish. The trend, he said, is "unilateral cooking", cooking fish on only one side, letting the heat radiate to the top so the fish doesn't overcook.
The champagne had grown warm, so somebody asked for ice cubes. Ice in fine champagne? It turns out that's perfectly acceptable among the French, all agreed. It lightens the champagne. As Troisgros put it, "It's like Perrier with a touch of champagne."
The pace of eating speeded up with the beef -- the thick, meltingly tender steaks in a bordelaise sauce with marrow. The cheeses were forgotten in the rush, and the red wines sat on the side unopened. The chefs, in anticipation of their flight to San Francisco, were intent on recording the morning with their cameras (the Japanese sometimes seem camera shy compared to the French). While there was no shortage of compliments for the dessert arrangement -- chocolate mousse and pear-caramel sorbet garnishing rounds of overlapping caramelized pear slices with a chocolate-etched caramel sauce -- it was attacked a spoonful here and a spoonful there in between photo opportunities. There was time, however, to probe Lacombe about his wonderful chocolate mousse, which, he revealed, was merely melted chocolate beaten with whipping cream. The chefs changed back into civilian clothes and packed their belongings, Troisgros' in his Troisgros-logo plastic shopping bag. Kisses on both cheeks all around. Exchanges of business cards and of menus and postcards from their restaurants. Promises to send the pictures.
It was Lorain who summed it up. A small grin, and he announced, "This is Continental Breakfast." Then off to the airport, where they sat in a plane, grounded for several hours, digesting Washington.
TROISGROS' FIVE CUTS OF BEEF WITH RED WINE AND SHALLOTS (4 servings)
1 cup dry red wine
3 shallots, thickly sliced
Salt and freshly ground pepper
8 1/2 ounces beef tenderloin, cut 1 1/2-inches thick
1/2 pound boneless rib steak, cut 1/2-inch thick
6 ounces sirloin tip, cut into 4 slices
7 ounces boneless top loin, cut into 4 slices
6 ounces flank steak, cut into 4 slices
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
In a small, noncorrosive saucepan, combine wine and shallots with a pinch each of sugar and salt; bring to a boil and set aside.
Season meats with salt and pepper. In both a small and a medium skillet, melt 1 1/2 tablespoons butter over medium-high heat. When butter begins to foam, add tenderloin to the small skillet and rib steak to the medium skillet. Cook tenderloin for 8 minutes, turning once; cook rib steak for 5 minutes, turning once. Remove meats from skillets and set meats and skillets aside.
In a large skillet, heat remaining 2 tablespoons butter until foaming. Add sirloin, top loin, and flank steak slices, in batches if necessary, and cook over medium-high heat, turning once, for 2 to 4 minutes (depending on thickness of meat). Remove meat from skillet and divide evenly among 4 heated plates.
Cut tenderloin and rib steak into 4 slices and place on plates.
Discard fat from all 3 skillets and set them over high heat. Deglaze skillets with shallot-wine mixture; season with salt and pepper to taste and pour this sauce over meats. Serve immediately. GAZPACHO WITH LOBSTER AND ZUCCHINI QUENELLES (6 servings)
4 large ripe tomatoes
2 large green bell peppers
1 to 2 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup red wine vinegar or more to taste
1/3 cup olive oil
3 cups tomato juice
1 to 1 1/2 cups beef broth or water
Hot pepper sauce to taste
Worcestershire sauce to taste
Freshly ground pepper to taste
2 to 3 egg yolks
18 zucchini quenelles (recipe below)
1 pound warm poached lobster, cut into 1-by-2-inch slices
Peel, seed and roughly chop the tomatoes and place in a large bowl. Peel and chop 2 cucumbers and add to bowl. Wash and trim 1 green pepper and 10 scallions and chop roughly and add to bowl. In a mortar, mash garlic and salt. Beat in the vinegar and oil. Combine this dressing with the chopped vegetables and stir in the tomato juice. Add broth or water, to the consistency you prefer. Season with a dash of hot pepper sauce, worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper. Blend til smooth in a blender. Blend in 2 to 3 egg yolks. Chill. Chop 1 cucumber, 1 green pepper and 2 scallions for garnish.
Serve soup in chilled bowls, garnishing each bowl with chopped vegetables, 3 zucchini quenelles and warm poached lobster. ZUCCHINI QUENELLES (Makes 18 quenelles)
3 medium zucchini
2 tablespoons whipping cream
Salt and pepper to taste
Cook the zucchini for 3 to 5 minutes in boiling water until just tender. Drain, shred or pure'e, and squeeze out any excess moisture. Beat in up to 2 tablespoons whipping cream until the mixture is firm enough to hold together. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Form with 2 spoons into tiny ovals.