November 1st dawned particularly cold. I trudged down the four flights of stairs and long avenue blocks over to the 86th Street Station, walking in just as the 6 train was pulling away. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.” I begin muttering under my breath. I look at the arrivals board - the next train isn’t coming for twenty-five minutes. Okay, I tell myself, it’s going to be fine. It’s just after 8 now, you’ll just go get a cab and get there in plenty of time. One raised hand later and I throw my bag in the back of a yellow cab.
“23rd and 5th, please.” The cab driver nods, turns the radio back up, and begins heading over to 5th avenue. A sea of red lights rises in front of us. 5th is closed. We navigate over to Park. Madison. Second. All closed around 57th St.
Finally. The FDR. We pull up in front of the school at 9.15 am.
Chef Mike and our newest instructor, a newly hired instructor, Chef Scott, have both been intoning heavily that today’s lesson is a trial by fire. “Sauces,” Chef Mike says, “you’re going to go through more pots than you ever have so far. Keep your station clean. Keep your dishpit clean. Do not even dare to go over and drop a pot off at the sink without cleaning it.” Chef Mike crosses his arms across his chest, dreadlocks spilling out the back of his tall chef’s hat. “Today is going to kick your ass, whether you think you’re ready or not. Work clean and you’ll be okay.”
we start with rouxes. a roux is a foundational aspect of classical cooking, a mixture of cooked fat (typically butter) and flour. chef mike pulls the sautoir pan toward us and demonstrates the quickly changing properties of the same two items, butter and flour. after a minute or two of cooking, the mixture takes on a slightly deeper color, roughly that of my pale hair, and looks like wet sand.
"this is blond roux. this is the most common and it has the most thickening power and the least amount of flavor." he puts it back on the stove, cooks and stirs a little bit longer. the color deepens, the butter liquifies more. now, it runs like organic peanut butter, similar color and consistency. "this has more flavor but less thickening power. this is a brown roux. these are the two you will use the most often." but then, he puts it back on the stove and cooks it a few minutes longer. the liquid is gone. the roux is nearly black. it crumples like ground beef. "and this," he said "is a black roux. you'll see this in creole and cajun cooking, like down in new orleans. try it, taste it."
I do. it tastes like slightly burnt popcorn.
the other foundation of classical cuisine are the five french mother sauces.
- sauce bechamel: milk thickened with a blond roux, generally seasoned with a pinch of nutmeg, onion, clove, and bay leaf.
- sauce hollandaise: emulsion of lemon juice, butter, and egg yolk.
- sauce veloute: chicken stock thickened with blond roux or buerre manie.
- sauce tomate: tomato puree, pork salt belly, thyme, garlic, onion, bay leaf, roux.
- sauce espagnole: veal stock, brown roux, beef bones, mirepoix, sachet d'espices.
with the exception of the hollandaise, enjoying popularity as the sauce of choice for benedict breakfasts, most of these sauces are showing their age. they're not common in modern cooking, so reliant on rouxes. Modern cooking prefers alternate, lighter ways to thicken sauces - such as reductions and cornstarch slurries. we learn this too, chef mike ever careful to give a balanced education between the traditional french cookery of the lesson and the current industry trends.
it's relatively uncommon to actually use a mother sauce directly - more commonly, we learn, are the derivative sauces. variations on the mother sauces that provide flavor and variety. there are hundreds of variations - like sauce bearnaise (hollandaise with shallots, chervil, and tarragon) and sauce mornay (bechamel with a mixture of parmesan and gruyere cheese).
we huddle over our stoves and the kitchen, after two weeks of butchery, is suddenly flooded with an intense, welcome warmth. it smells like food finally. chef walks around and tastes our sauces. "I want you to plate your rouxes. i want to taste them and see them."
midway through the lesson, the realization dawns on me that I am sick. truly, actually, completely ill. i prop myself up between the ceramic-tiled wall and the stove. focus on each stir of the pot. stir, stir, stir. i swallow. you can do this. focus on the task. you'll get home soon.
we clean up and change, quietly, in the locker room. there is the nervous rapport of new acquaintances. i leave quickly and dart out to catch the 6 train, wanting nothing more than to crawl into bed and sleep the world away. i settle my bags around my feet and grip the pole, leaning my forehead to the cool metal. the train lurches to a halt.
"ladies and gentlemen, we are experiencing a train delay due to a sick passenger at grand central." internally, i groan. the passengers next to me start trading nervous glances. five minutes pass. ten. a baby cries. someone offers milk. seats are traded, for women with children, tired after standing for so long.
new yorkers are not nearly as hardened as we like to pretend.