Thursday, March 17, 2011

Burgers in Bouludland

I'm kind of busy but also feeling kind of dopey and allergetic (instead of energetic), so this week let's dip into the well for a food story I wrote a few years ago for enRoute magazine that ended up being featured in the "Best Food Writing 2008" anthology. I was reminded of this story recently, when I read this amazing piece in the Atlantic, which basically calls out the Best Food Writing anthologies as a blight on humanity. Even so, I agree with about 81% of B.R. Myers' argument.

Someone’s in the Kitchen with Daniel

A private cooking lesson with Daniel Boulud shows why he’s cut out to be a French chef – and you’re not.

Here’s why Daniel Boulud’s burger is better than yours: Ordering the original DB Burger served at the chef’s Manhattan restaurant, DB Bistro Moderne, buys you ground sirloin stuffed with succulent braised short ribs, foie gras and preserved black truffle, made to order on a freshly baked Parmesan bun. The accompanying pommes frites, served in a parchment-lined silver cone, taste more potatoey than any fries I’ve had before.

Momentarily lost in the reverie that is love at first bite, meat juice dripping clear past my watchband, I realize too late that I’m actually meant to use a fork and knife to eat the thing, like the businessmen surrounding me who also wisely removed their suit jackets in anticipation. “Yes, that is what most people do,” volunteers my waiter as I lick my elbows clean.

Bottom line: Daniel Boulud is an evil genius – and if this burger were single and Jewish, I would marry it. In what must be a culinary first, the superthick stuffed patty sees the shredded short ribs actually cutting the fattiness of the foie and sirloin. What’s more, the short rib stuffing involves numerous steps, the most impressive being pouring three bottles of dry red wine into a saucepan and then setting it aflame. Boulud has taken an essential yet basic piece of Americana and spirited it into a technique-driven masterpiece.

Boulud’s pantry is stocked, like most in his culinary bracket, with the cream of the seasonal crop, a legacy perhaps of being raised on the family farm in Lyon. But it’s the way the chef handles his raw materials with a neurosurgeon-like attention to detail that must be the secret ingredient. This becomes clear after witnessing him at work during a private cooking lesson, post-burger. I’m here to learn how he transforms something even more pedestrian than the humble beef patty. I mean, it’s one thing to make an easy crowd-pleaser like his oft-copied haute burger, but it’s another thing altogether to make a potato and leek soup into, well, soupe.

I meet him in the small catering kitchen of Daniel, his flagship restaurant, just down the hall from the gleaming service kitchen. Boulud arrives wearing a pristine chef’s jacket, a perfect suntan and a Cheshire grin. I instantly deem him charming, creative and meticulous. In short, he’s a French chef. (And no offence to the burger, but if he were single and Jewish, I’d marry him too.)

We set to work on a cold potage Parisien purée with sorrel. “First, you make a soup with potato and leeks and good chicken stock. And then, separately, you blanch Boston lettuce and sorrel in salted water.” He squeezes out the water. “Then you boil a little bit of cream. Et voilà. ” Boulud pours it all into an industrial-grade blender and sticks his spoon into the running blender, which ranks as the second most dangerous thing I’ve ever witnessed. He adds salt and pepper – “always be seasoning” – a little more stock for that bull’s eye consistency, and then he sticks his finger into the moving blender for a taste, which is, hands down, the most dangerous thing I’ve ever witnessed. After the chartreuse-coloured soup is strained and cooled, he dollops a fluffy cloud of whipped cream atop the bowl, explaining that the quality of the ingredients, the seasonality and the technique make even a simple dish sublime.

But he’s not done yet. “And now we have some caviar floating on the cream,” he says (of course we do), at which point he starts spoon-feeding me his own line of Caspian osetra straight from the tin. Then the chef employs such gravitas while meticulously arranging fresh sorrel leaves and wee homemade melba rounds around the bowl’s outsize rim that I’m just waiting for him to pull out a ruler and calipers. Meanwhile, the cream and caviar gently loll atop the soup before slowly creeping over it like delicious sea foam. “ Et voilà! ” We both sneak a spoonful. Mmmm.

Sensing the caviar boosts the bottom line and recalling the price of my lunchtime burger ($32), I ask the chef how much he would charge for this lovely potage if it were on the menu. And with that, he laughs the laugh of a man who’d charge $90 for a bowl of soup.

I’m capping off my day in Bouludland on the other side of the kitchen door. The look of Daniel is that of a typical Park Avenue building built in the 1920s: columns and pilasters, velvet settees in the lounge and well-spaced tables in the dining room. It’s like entering a fancy restaurant scene in a big-budget movie, and, before long, I start to feel like Marie Antoinette as a stable of liveried servers refolds napkins, refills champagne flutes and presents us with a three-tiered silver tray of amuse-bouches to start. I half expect them to slip off my boots and start fitting me with bespoke Parisian footwear.

Following a remarkable dinner and the chariot des fromages, a series of desserts is upon us, including a vacherin à la violette, canneberges et litchis that is almost too beautiful for words. Dressed in a pastel-coloured frock of teardrop meringues, it is delicate, sweet and crunchy… By my count, it incorporates no fewer than seven textures, three temperatures and a dozen delightful flavour components, including, I suspect, marshmallow.

Just as I’m marvelling at the artistry of the thing, Daniel Boulud, who’s been working the room in his chef’s whites, approaches the table, still sporting that Cheshire grin. All I can think is, this is one happy man. He’s using an impeccable foundation of technique and inherent talent to turn meringue into magic and burgers into bliss. Something like that would make me happy, too.

Especially if I could charge 90 bucks for a bowl of soup.

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