Foodies may brag about producing restaurant-quality meals at home, but Richard Buik and Patricia Sweeney of Cleveland Park went a step further a few months ago and turned their entire kitchen over to a Michelin two-star chef.
Most restaurant chefs don't make house calls, of course. Gerard Pangaud, chef-proprietor of Gerard's Place, on McPherson Square in Northwest Washington, donated the in-home cooking class last year to a fund-raising auction at St. Patrick's Episcopal Day School. Buik, a stockbroker, purchased the class and three-course meal for eight in fevered bidding, for $600.
"It was a scary event," Sweeney, an attorney, explains as Buik hands Pangaud a corkscrew to open a bottle of Selection de Grains Noble, a sweet Alsatian dessert wine. "Richard was not going to be outbid."
Pangaud admires 6-year-old Will Buik's red toy Cadillac and Sweeney's six-burner Vulcan stove as he dons chef's whites over a pair of green-plaid trousers that would do any Hibernian golfer proud on St. Patrick's Day. As the lesson begins, it becomes apparent that while many food-obsessed people may regard a meal as symbolic of life itself, for Pangaud, golf is the appropriate metaphor.
"When you use a knife, just as in golf, the swing is a double motion, down and forward," he explains, waving his 10-inch chef's knife behind his ear and then down and across his body, "so with the knife you do not want to chop down, but down and forward, using the entire blade." He demonstrates: Down-and-forward, down-and-forward, the knife swishes rhythmically against the cutting board, and an irregular knob of ginger is transformed first into slices, then into a perfect julienne.
Perhaps it is an indication of the hunger in the room, but no one remarks on the irony of Pangaud comparing his golf swing to his slicing technique.
The guests, including several tax attorneys, a wine merchant and a reporter, listen as Pangaud explains the sauce for his signature dish, poached lobster with ginger, lime and Sauternes (at the restaurant, the sauce is always made with Sauternes, but at home any top-quality dessert wine will work).
"When you do a sauce with wine, a Sauternes or late-harvest, even a red wine sauce, you need to reduce it slowly," he explains, placing the saucepan over a low flame. "If you boil it down too fast, it accentuates the wine's acidity. You want the perfume of the wine."
As the afternoon unfolds, Pangaud (pronounced pan-GO) reveals some of the thinking behind his cooking, while his sous-chef, Jonathan Krinn, helps prepare the meal. "I am very interested in the structure of the taste," Pangaud explains. "When you taste this lobster, your mouth will be full of flavor. It contains all four elements of flavor our palates are able to discern: salt with the lobster, sweet from the wine, acidity from the lime and bitter with the ginger.
"I think a lot of cooking nowadays, people are doing in a very aggressive way," he continues. "One flavor is dominant, there is no subtlety. Our endurance may be challenged, but not our palates."
Pangaud, 43, began developing his cuisine of subtlety at age 15, when he entered the Ecole Hoteliere in Paris. He learned pastry from the great Gaston Lenotre and apprenticed with some of France's greatest chefs, including the brothers Troig\ros in their restaurant in Roanne, Joseph Rostaing and Roger Verger. He opened his first restaurant in Paris in September 1976 and quickly won a Michelin star. His second star came three years later after he opened a new restaurant in the Paris suburb of Boulogne. In a footnote now enshrined in Washington, D.C., restaurant lore, in becoming the youngest-ever two-star chef, Pangaud eclipsed Jean-Louis Palladin by two months.
Pangaud moved in 1985 to New York, as chef at Aurora and later had an unsuccessful attempt at owning his own restaurant there. He regained his stride in 1990 at the Ritz-Carlton in Pentagon City. Now celebrating his third anniversary at Gerard's Place, he is planning to open a more casual restaurant and wine bar later this spring on M Street NW in Georgetown. Calling it Vintage, he describes it as "a place you can go for a salad or a glass of wine."
Soft-spoken and self-effacing, Pangaud seems ever on the verge of sleep. That's probably due to his exhausting schedule of six days a week at his restaurant. He shuns the publicity circuit favored by many superstar chefs, preferring to stay in his own kitchen. The cooking class at Buik's house was Pangaud's first "day off" in four weeks.
This chef takes teaching and mentoring seriously, often hiring staff fresh from cooking school so he can develop their kitchen skills. "I prefer someone who is starting and I can teach him or her well from scratch than someone with experience who has already learned bad habits," Pangaud explains, displaying a hint of hubris. "Of course, if they have experience and good habits, that's even better."
"My ultimate goal right now is that one of the greatest chefs in the country should come from my kitchen," Pangaud says.
In the meantime, what can a Michelin two-star teach the home cook?
"When in the kitchen at home, the biggest mistake people do is disorganization," Pangaud says. His listeners nod knowingly. "When planning a dinner party, say an appetizer, main course and dessert, try to pick two of those dishes you can do ahead, so you are not spending the evening in the kitchen instead of with your guests.
"And start with the dish that takes the most time, which is usually dessert," he says, as he rolls out pastry for his warm chocolate tarts with mocha cream sauce.
"That ginger smells so good," says Renay France McCarty, sniffing the aromas coming from the stove.
Pangaud lunges for the stove. "It's burnt!" he says, showing the saucepan around. The wine has reduced beyond the syrup he wanted and has caramelized the ginger a deep brown. Instead of getting angry, the chef shrugs off the mistake. He grabs another hunk of ginger and his knife. Swish-swish, down-and-forward, and in no time the reduction has begun anew.
"How about chopping the ginger in the food processor?" asks Buik, his hunger perhaps putting an emphasis on speed.
No, Pangaud says, the speed and heat of a processor produce a chemical reaction in some foods, such as ginger, onions and shallots, that turns them bitter. Someone else asks about a ginger grater.
"The difference in texture would interfere with the perception of taste in the dish," the chef explains. "The ginger adds crunchiness."
When the wine is properly reduced to a syrup, Pangaud finishes the sauce by swirling in butter and lime juice and zest. The poached lobster is presented in its shell with sauteed spinach and drizzled with the sauce. Diced mango, avocado and red bell pepper are the garnish.
Fancy techniques and complicated recipes don't automatically make a great dish, in this chef's thinking. Pangaud quotes a maxim he attributes to Jean Troisgros, whom he calls "the greatest chef I have ever met": "If you buy a good ingredient, you cook it perfectly and season it well, you are already a great chef."
Simplicity is the key to another Pangaud signature dish, crispy sweetbreads with wild mushrooms. The sweetbreads, soaked for 24 hours in several changes of cold water and peeled of their membrane, are cut into rough pieces about an inch in size. Vegetable oil is heated to smoking in a large saute pan, and then the sweetbreads are added all at once. The sizzle erupts like a cymbal crash.
"Cooking is the only art where you use all your senses, even your hearing," Pangaud explains over the roar of the saute pan. "If you do not hear the sweetbreads, your pan is not hot enough."
The sweetbreads are left alone to cook, without shaking the pan, until crispy brown on the bottom. Then they are turned to brown on the other sides. When done, they are seasoned generously with salt and pepper. The chunks are large enough that the insides are cooked merely to a melt-in-the-mouth tenderness that provides a sensual contrast with the tooth and flavor of the crust.
Simplicity governs the mushrooms as well. Assorted wild fungi are placed in a pot, covered with foil and roasted in a 250-degree oven for three to four hours. During this time they render their moisture and concentrate their flavors. At the restaurant, Pangaud adds some veal stock to provide a sauce for the final dish, but the mushrooms are excellent cooked alone and seasoned at the end of roasting with salt and pepper.
The lesson finished, the assemblage moves to the dining room, where Sweeney has brought out the fine china and crystal for the wines supplied by Pangaud and by Peter Anastopulos of Cleveland Park Wine & Liquors. It is probably the first time Pangaud's sweetbreads and lobster have been served in a room decorated with a toy basketball hoop and the complete oeuvre of a 6-year-old finger painter.
"I always say a cooking class is like making love," Pangaud says, once again sounding quintessentially French. "You have to have two, and if there is a good reaction, it is much better than if people don't respond."
As the last of the mocha sauce is wiped from the dessert plates and Pangaud prepares to leave, Sweeney looks crestfallen.
"No leftovers for tomorrow night," she complains. Dave McIntyre is a Silver Spring journalist who loves to eat. GERARD PANGAUD'S POACHED LOBSTER RECIPE POACHED LOBSTER WITH GINGER, LIME AND SAUTERNES (4 servings) FOR THE LOBSTERS:
2 cups white vinegar
10 whole black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
1 bunch parsley, washed
1 carrot, washed and diced
2 medium onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
3 ribs celery, coarsely chopped
3 garlic cloves, peeled
2 ounces (about 3 tablespoons) salt
4 live lobsters, approximately 1 1/2 pounds each FOR THE SAUCE:
1 cup Sauternes
2 ounces peeled fresh ginger, julienned
1 pound cold butter, cut into small pieces
2 limes, zest grated and juice reserved
Salt and pepper to taste TO FINISH:
1 1/2 pounds fresh spinach, washed and stemmed
2 tablespoons butter FOR THE GARNISH:
1 mango, diced
1 red pepper, diced
1 avocado, diced
For the lobsters: In a large nonreactive stockpot, combine 2 gallons water with the vinegar, peppercorns, bay leaves, parsley, carrot, onions, celery and garlic. Bring to a boil. Add the salt and live lobsters and return to a boil. Remove from the heat and allow to sit 20 minutes. Remove the claws, knuckle and tail meat from the shells. Cut each tail into six pieces. Reserve 1 quart of the cooking liquid.
For the sauce: In a nonreactive pot, heat the Sauternes with the julienned ginger and reduce to a syrup. Lower the heat and slowly whisk in 1 pound of the cold butter. Do not allow the sauce to boil. Add the lime zest. Adjust the sauce to taste with the lime juice, salt and pepper.
To finish: Reheat the reserved cooking liquid. Saute the spinach in the 2 tablespoons butter and season to taste with salt and pepper. Reheat the lobster meat in the heated cooking liquid for 30 seconds.
Squeeze the excess liquid from the spinach and arrange on 4 dinner plates. Place the lobster around the spinach on each plate, spoon the sauce over the lobster and garnish with the diced mango, red bell pepper and avocado.
Per serving with 2 1/2 tablespoons sauce: 792 calories, 38 gm protein, 22 gm carbohydrates, 56 gm fat, 239 mg cholesterol, 29 gm saturated fat, 1111 mg sodium CAPTION: For chef Gerard Pangard, simplicity is the key to many dishes. CAPTION: Chef Gerard Pangard cooked at the home of the highest bidder.