Tuesday, 23 July 2013

David Chang: The Chef Who Makes the Weather

This piece was originally part of my recent post on the Momofuku Pork Bun, but I decided to cut it as a) I was rambling on for far too long (in writing, less is almost always more) and b) last last thing the world needs is another "Hey look! I've figured out David Chang!" piece.

Nonetheless I'm quite fond of it, so I thought I'd whack it up separately. After all I had spent quite a long time figuring out David Chang. Bet no one's written about that before... :-p


Get with the Chang

Pork Buns are taking over the world.

And it’s all down to one man.

David Chang.

Chang is a chef who divides opinion like no other. For the food bloggeratti of New York, home of his Momofuku empire, he can do no wrong. Having conquered the Big Apple not once, but thrice, he has earned that ultimate accolade: an entire blog devoted to his cookbook.

But it's not all plain sailing. For sniffier members of the establishment like Antoinette Bruno of Star Chefs he is "overrated". London's Jay Rayner didn't think much of him either. And San Francisco was unimpressed when Chang dissed their entire culinary subculture as "serving figs on a plate with nothing on it" .

For me, I'm in the yea camp. When I look today at the cutting-edge trends which dominate 2013 London, it's hard to deny the influence of Chang and his Momofuku brand of “fuck-you” haute cuisine.
  • Hot & dirrty food joints like MEATliquor blast the music as they turn out gourmet staples (just like Momofuku).
  • Pitt Cue has them queuing round the block for bar-stool dining (Momofuku pretty much invented the queue).
  • Bone Daddies' brand of gourmet ramen is the hottest ticket in town (Momofuku wrote the manual on this one - more on this below!).
  • Bubbledogs has migrated fine dining from the hotel dining to a round-the-counter degustation (the Momofuku Ko format).
  • ... Not to mention Yum Bun and the other pork-bun rip-offs, op cit.
Now why didn't I think of all that?

The Fury

For those unfamiliar with him, David Chang is the Korean-American founder of Momofuku restaurant group. It started in 2004 with the Momofuku Noodle Bar – originally a Japanese ramen joint which mutated into a no-holds barred Korean-Asian-American-Fusion monster. After a fair bit of trial and error he repeated the trick with the Momofuku Sssam Bar, before branching out into haute cuisine (albeit served to diners seated around a kitchen counter) with the impossible-to-book Momofuku Ko.

He also oversees Sydney’s Momofuku Seiobo (similar style to Ko but marginally easier to book), sort-of-bistro Ma Peche, a chain of spin-off bakeries, a Momofuku dining complex in Toronto and a bunch of stuff I’ve probably forgotten to mention.

And along the way he’s also reinvented global fine dining.

I could carry on about the man, but I won’t. Instead I will simply point you towards the excellent profile featured in Tony Bourdain’s Medium Raw entitled, simply, The Fury:
… the simple fact is that David Chang is the most important chef in America today. It's a significant distinction. He's not a great chef-as he'd be the first to admit-or even a particularly experienced one, and there are many better, more talented, more technically proficient cooks in New York City. But he's an important chef, a man who, in a ridiculously brief period of time, changed the landscape of dining, creating a new kind of model for high-end eateries, and tapped once, twice, three times and counting into a zeitgeist whose parameters people are still struggling to identify.
For the moment let us simply conclude that David Chang is a badass.

The Perfectionist

How do we define his food? Momofuku could be called Asian-fusion. It could be called modern-American (after isn't America's melting-pot the original fusion cuisine?). But it’s actually simpler than that.

It’s defined by being delicious.

You see, Chang is absolutely ruthless in the pursuit of deliciousness. Yes the cooking at Momofuku was shot through with his Korean heritage (kimchi with brussel sproutskimchee consomee with the oysterskimchee as a parting gift at Seiobo). But then he goes and breaks the rules, for one simple reason: He understands what delicious is, and will let nothing get in the way of achieving that.

Take the shaved foie gras on lychee which is the signature at Momofuku Ko. You know what? The cheaper and nastier the tinned lychees are, the better the dish tastes. So make it with tinned lychees. Even if you’re charging $175 for lunch. It’s not the provenance of the ingredients that count, it’s what they taste like.

Take the bacon dashi. Dashi is traditionally made with konbu and bonito flakes. But you know what? Like most things it tastes better with bacon. So make it with bacon.

Take the dish that started it all – the Momofuku Ramen. Chang realised that if he had the same noodles and eggs as everyone else, it would taste just like everyone else’s. So he embarked on a quest to find the the ultimate ramen recipe. It looks something like this:

Yup, that's eighteen (count 'em) pages dedicated to all aspects of Ramen. To be more specific: Ramen Broth, Tare, Dashi (and Bacon Dashi), the perfect Alkaline Noodle (the result of a multi-year quest), the iconic own Pork Belly (and shoulder), slow-poached Onsen Eggs (sous-vide by any other name), and a battery of toppings (nori, bamboo shoots, fish cakes, veggies).

It's probably the longest single recipe in my cookbook library. It's a monument to one man's obsession.

You see, when it comes to the pursuit of flavour David Chang respects no boundaries, and takes no prisoners.

The Thinker

But Chang is more than a cook. Like all the best chefs – from Escoffier to Adria – he doesn’t just cook. He also thinks deeply about what he’s doing.

Do yourself a favour and watch this talk he gave at Google. The discussion about authenticity (32' 18") will make you rethink everything you believe about your local New-York style pizza (unless, of course, you live in New York!):
Just think of it vice versa. You've probably been abroad, like you go to say, you're in Shanghai. Right? And you see some ex-pat serving authentic New-York style pizza. And your reaction is gonna be what? No. That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard. There like, you know, soy sauce on the pizza. What the fuck are you talkin' about? So that's the thing. I think it's easier to understand authenticity when you take an ex-pat's point of view. 
It's like, I always use the, 'cause I did meet a German guy from Munich that wanted to make American barbecue. He's like "I'm gonna make it authentic. It's gonna be just like Memphis style barbecue." And  I was like "No, it's not gonna be Memphis style barbecue. 'Cause you're number one not using the beef that's coming from, or any of the meat that's coming from America. You're not using and of the wood from America. You're not even using any of the workers, the hands, the invisible stuff. All the things that make something special, that taste the way its does at a unique area. So don't tell anybody you're serving authentic American barbecue."
Also check out his take on the MSG-myth (38' 52")
Fear of MSG. Which, people say they're allergic to. And I'm not saying thy're, I just believe that it happens to be possibly more psychosomatic than anything else. 'Cause there's nothing that proves that MSG. In fact all the studies, there have been many that are, try to prove that MSG creates this Chinese Restaurant Syndrome. There's no evidence at all. In fact, everything supports that it's psychosomatic. 
And we serve Asian food in part, I'm particularly interested in it because we serve a lot of Asian ingredients and people say "Oh, I can't eat your food because there's soy sauce in it." But they're happy going to Babbo and eating a plate of pasta with tomatoes and Parmesan cheese. Glutamic acid, which equal umami. You know. And the only difference between that and artifically made MSG is they add one molecule of sodium so you can disperse the glutamic acid. Your body digests and breaks down glutamic acid in the same way as one would eat a bag of Doritos or anything else. Soy. Like, Doritos. You know, a plate of Parmesan is extraordinarily high in MSG. .
(Bottom line: the Italians gorge themselves on Parmesan and they don't get Chinese restaurant syndrome. What gives?)

Then there’s Lucky Peach, the attempt to create a digital food magazine which ended up as an entirely analogue food journal. Issue 1 (The Ramen Issue) has already become one of the most sought-after rarities in the cookbook world – a "Culinary Unicorn" if there ever was one.

Most amusingly is the take-down he issued against the anti-foie gras lobby. His glorious “fuck-you” note to the Duck Liver Liberation Front (bottom line – from now on we will guarantee there is at least one foie-gras based dish on every menu we serve) is hilarious not only in its chutzpah, but also because he tackles their argument head-on.

The Chef Who Makes the Weather

In short Chang is one of those chefs with the rare ability to reshape the world around them by sheer force of will. That puts him into exalted company:

  • Paul Bocuse was another one, slaying on the ghosts of Escoffier with one hand, creating the modern celebrity chef with the other.
  • Ferran Adria was another, challenging and testing every rule about what is possible in the kitchen.
  • Alan Yau is arguably a third, redefining Asian dining with the clattering-benches of Wagamama before repeating the trick with the achingly cool Hakkasan.

It takes a curious mix of ego, bravery and luck to do this.

David Chang has all that and more:

Yeah, David Chang can probably do that too...

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Signatures: Momofuku Pork Buns (David Chang)

The latest post in an occassional series exploring famous signature dishes, and the cookbooks where you can find them.

Edit: I also put up a companion piece profiling David Chang, originally part of this post but cut for reasons of brevity. Less is more an' all that. But in case you're interested...

The Pork Bun Supremacy

The bun that conquered the world.

Like Nobu’s Black Cod, the steamed pork bun from David Chang's Momofuku's is a dish the world can’t get enough of. It may have started in New York but today the steamed bun has gone defiantly global.

Yum Bun's hommage a la Momofuku
London is one candidate for steamed bun central. Exhibit one is Yum Bun, an achingly trendy food-cart now transformed into an aching-trendy hole-in-the-wall. They have built an entire business  on unashamedly ripping off the New York original. Imitation, flattery, sincerity and all that...

And on the other side of town new opening Flesh and Buns is preparing to unleash an avalanche of steamed buns on the denizens of Soho - not just traditional pork but also slow-roasted Korean lamb, chicken with yuzu and seabass and coriander.

And from New York the juggernaut has moved south to Mexico, where Deli Bao is bringing Pork Bun Goodness to the denizens of Guadalajara.

Then leap across to the other side of the world to Melbourne’s Wonderbao (the clue’s in the name) which offers a range of buns: roasted pork belly (Momofuku-style), braised pork belly (the Taiwanese classic) or fried silken tofu (for misguided vegetarians).

Hirata McBuns from Ippudo
And while you’re in that part of the world stop off at Sydney the branch of world-spanning ramen-ya Ippudo, which offers their own Hirata Pork Buns pairing roast pork belly with crisp lettuce and mayo – basically a Momofuku pork bun crossed with a McChicken sandwich.

We live in the age of the Pork Bun Supremacy.

The Dish

Steamed buns and red herrings

It's oh-so-simple:

Take a slab of pork belly. Slow-roast it in its own fat til its almost confit. Cool, slice, fry, crisp.

Split a freshly steamed Chinese bun and slather the inside with hoisin sauce. Stuff it with slices of pork belly, quick-pickled cucumber and add a dash of sriracha hot sauce.

And there you have it – fatty, salty, meaty, sweet.

The Pork Bun served at Momofuku Seiobo

If you believe David Chang's book, the buns were last-minute addition to the restaurant menu. A take on a “pretty common Asian food formula: steamed bread + tasty meat = good eating”. If you believe the book, there were three big influences for the dish:

1) Char siu bao buns stuffed with “dark, sweet roast pork” he ate in Beijing
2) Niku-man steamed buns (very similar to Chinese baozi) from Tokyo convenience stores, and
3) The Peking Duck served at Chinatown’s Oriental Garden, which is served with folded over steamed buns rather the traditional thin pancakes.

A Niku-man bun: Nothing like the
Momofuku version...
Actually I suspect this list is a complete red herring.

For one thing you don’t get char siu bao in Beijing. It's a Cantonese dish. yes there are plenty of steamed bao in Beijing but they're stuffed with minced pork and scallions, not roasted char siu. Also both the char-siu and niku-man buns are nothing like the Momofuku dish. They are stuffed buns with the filling steamed inside the raw dough, rather than being loosely-assembled sandwiches.

The real story (or at least, my version)

I want to suggest two alternate inspirations for the Momofuku pork bun:

A Taiwanese Guabao, painstakingly dissected (it was a tough job, but someone had to do it...)
The first is the Taiwanese guabao (刮包), a common fast-food staple. Like the Momofuku pork bun it’s a steamed Chinese bun, split and filled with pork belly. However there are some ciritcal differences. In the guabao the pork belly tends to be braised rather than roasted and it's often shredded. Also rather than cucumber and hoisin, it's topped with pickled mustard greens and crushed peanut. The result is a slightly sloppier tasting product without the delicious sweet-fatty punch of the Momofuku version.

The second inspiration is the famed Sichuanese tea-smoked duck (zhangcha ya). Fuschia Dunlop's Sichuan Cookery has a wonderful account of the dish. A whole duck is marinated with Sichuan pepper, hot-smoked over dried tea-leaves and then steamed for an hour. Then the whole this is deep-fried, chopped up and served up like a Peking Duck, with scallion, cucumber and hoisin sauce.

Tea-smoked duck with lotus-leaf buns - the fluted shape of
the bun supposedly resembles a lotus leaf (Source: Yelp)
The key difference though is that while Peking Duck is served with thin pancakes, tea-smoked duck is served with fluted steamed buns known as lotus-leaf buns (heye bing), so named because the shape of the bun resembles a lotus leaf. These are folded up at the table with crispy duck, hoisin and cucumber.

Think about it - that’s pretty much the Momofuku recipe. Swap confit pork for the duck and you have a perfect match. Different meat, but the same salty-fatty-smoky-crispy hit.

So take these traditional dishes, throw them together, and amp them up in the pursuit of ultimate deliciousness. A guabao can be a bit tame. Tea-smoked duck a little faffy. But add them together and you have a modern classic.

The Recipe

Of course you don’t have to travel to NYLON or Australia to sample these delights. Thanks to the wonders of modern publishing, the recipe is right there in the Momofuku cookbook:

The recipe from the Momofuku cookbook.

Let’s dig in.

The Meat

The most important part of the recipe is undoubtedly the meat. The recipe is on page 50, a beautifully simple one that demands only three (count 'em!) ingredients.

The belly is marinated in a rub of equal parts salt and sugar (6 – 24 hours; I would advise the lower end of the range), blasted in a hot oven for an hour to brown and then cooked on the lowest-possible setting until tender and pillowy. It’s then chilled and pressed, before being sliced finger-thick and heated in a pan for service.

The Pork Belly Recipe.
A few cook's notes:

  • This recipe is unusual because its uses skinless pork belly (the skin can be a little hassle to take off if you’re knife isn’t sharp enough so ask the butcher). Most roast-belly pork recipes obsesses over keeping the skin on and getting the crackling just-so (you known… shock with boiling water, shock with cold water, rub with vinegar, score to buggery, rub with salt, crisp in the oven, crisp under the grill… the list goes on). Having tried them all I've now decided that actually the Momofuku approach is the best. Leave the perfect crackling to the pros – if you trim off the skin and leave a nice rind of fat it crisps up equally well with the minimum of fuss.
  • I personally think the salt-sugar rub is a stroke of genius – Chang also uses it to prepare the pork shoulder for his Bo Ssam. I’m not sure where this comes from (traditional recipes for Bossam are completely different) – possibly from American-style bbq rubs?
  • While the recipe tells you to roasting the pork belly, scuttlebutt suggests (e.g. the see comment from Rarrgarr at the bottom of this article) that in the restaurant they actually go the whole hog and confit the belly completely submerged in lard. I wouldn’t be surprised...
  • How much you want to heat up your belly slices at the end is a matter of preference. I like them slightly crispy on the cut surface, but at the restaurants they are sometimes just warmed, rather than crisped (see the Seiobo pork bun pictured above). 

The Buns

The steamed bun recipe.
I’d wouldn't lose sleep over your buns. After all Momofuku started off by buying theirs in from the nearest Chinatown outlet – I suggest you do likewise. The most important thing is that it has that little bit of sweetness – traditional Chinese steamed bread has a tablespoon of sugar slipped in to give it that edge. As long you have that covered, you’re laughing.

If you are going to make the buns yourself, the recipe in the Momofuku book looks as good as any. One tip - do make sure use you lard for your shortening (something Yum Bun also copy in their recipe). Using lard in bread is less common in the West, but its the magic ingredient in much Chinese bread making, most notably the ineffably flaky shaobing griddle-cakes of Northern China.

As a subversive alternative, I tend to use brioche buns for this recipe. While not quite as soft as steamed buns, they have the same slight sweetness, and are a lot easier to find.

The Sides

Sriracha on  the side
at Seiobo
Momofuku adds quick-pickled cucumber into the buns (p65). Thankfully there’s not need to muck around with pickling jars or three month waits – sliced cucumber is simply tossed with a mixture of 3:1 sugar salt for 5-10 minutes and rinsed off.

I noticed many imitators such as Yum Bun tend to simply throw in freshly-sliced unpickled cucumber. I find the pickled option to be vastly superior, or alternately substitute thickly-cut slices of pickled Japanese daikon (it has the same sweet-vinegary-crunchy hit).

Hoisin sauce is self-explanatory. If you want a similar salty-sweet hit you might also want to try playing around with Nobu-style miso as a substitute.

Nowadays Momofuku also serves Sriracha hot pepper sauce on the side (e.g. at Seiobo in Sydney). I don’t think this adds much to the dish, but each to their own…

Once you have your meat, steamed buns and sides all you need to do is put them together. Voila!

The Book

An Ode to the Pig

To finish off, a few thoughts on the Momofuku cookbook:

If I had to sum this book up it would be: Ode to the Pig. Just as Alain Ducasse books bang on endlessly about truffles & foie gras, Chang bangs on about pork and everything you can do with it. From the Bo Ssam (roast pork shoulder in lettuce wraps) to the pork buns to the English muffins smeared in bay-leaf butter (made with lard), this book yells: COOKED PORK PRODUCTS.

What’s not to like?

Every chapter tells a story

But beyond that it’s a great book because it tells a story – a strength it shares with the Nobu cookbook.

That book was the story of how Nobu struggled back from the fire that consumed his original restaurant to fame, fortune and multiple-Miami-based spinoffs. This book is the tale of how David Chang (if you believe the hype) blundered from short-order soba chef to world-spanning culinary deity.

The story is told via three restaurants, which make up the three chapters of the book (Noodle Bar, Ssam Bar, Ko). Each chapter starts with a great intro which basically runs 1) initial struggle to start restaurant, 2) stroke of genius involving cooked pork products, 3) success and moving on to next venture. Above all though it’s a story about Chang and his struggles – with his audience, with the his critics but above all himself. As he wryly comment on Ko, his failing burrito bar: “I was Ahab, and the burrito was my white whale”.

This is undoubted lubricated by his co-writer and partner-in-crime Peter Meehan. As Anthony Bourdain points out, journalist Meehan is a mix of thermostatic regulator and consigliere for the notoriously volatile Chang. I suspect many of the books finer moments from Meehan’s pen as much as from Chang’s mouth. But at the end of the day there’s no difference.

Brussel sprouts, chicken wings, and other things

And like all great books this packed with iconic recipes, and remarkably approachable ones. “Molecular” touches such cryofiltration or transgultaminase feature, but they’re there for a reason rather than just to show off. Mostly it’s just good old-fashioned cooking.

For example the Momofuku Ramen recipe on page 39 goes on for a good seventeen  pages – the most comprehensive treatment of the subject this side of Tokyo (although the upcoming Ivan Ramen book might give it a run for its money). The Chicken Wings on p86 and the Fried Chicken over the page have spawned a generation of down & dirty gourmet chicken imitators. The Brussel Sprouts Kimchee Puree & Bacon on p94 are pure Chang and proof that his fallback strategy runs “If in doubt add bacon. If that doesn’t work add kimchee”.

The Bo Ssam on p168 is a monster of a recipe which has received its own separate write-up in the NY Times. I’ve cooked it for 40 people. It works. The Ghetto Sous-Vide set-up on p170 is the forerunner for any number of DIY sous-vide set-ups (from Cooking for Geeks to the upcoming Codlo). Also noteworthy is the caprese salad on p95 which subs tofu and shiso for mozzarella and basil. Jean-Georges Vongerichten says it’s the best dish Chang ever came up with.

If there’s one weakness it’s that the book has very little in the way of dessert and sweets (apart from the Momofuku Shortcakes and an homage-to-McDonalds hot apple pie). This has of course been remedied with Christina Tosi’s Momofuku Milk Bar book, although I personally don’t find that volume nearly as engaging as the original.

Appendix: The following buns were harmed in the production of this article...

Field work for this article was primarily conducted whilst on a trip to Sydney. Preparatory research had already taken place in London and New York.

  • Momofuku Noodle Bar (New York): Original and best.
  • Momofuku Seiobo (CBD, Sydney): Slightly out of place in a multi-course tasting menu. Felt daintier than the original - pork just warmed through. Cucumber fresh not pickled.
  • Yum Bun (London): Three trips. The first time (from the market stall) underwhelming. Second time much improved - bigger and juicier all round. Third trip pork ugh overcooked with a bark-like exterior. Needs to be more consistent. 
  • Leong's Legends (London): Slightly skimpy Taiwanese Guabao (listed on the menu as "Taiwanese Mini Kebab with Pork"). Pork much more pulpy and shredded + could be more of it.
  • Ippudo (CBD, Sydney): Distinctly different variation with lettuce and mayo. Makes it lighter and soft-sweet, but still very more-ish.
  • Bao Dao (Chatswood, Sydney): Superior version of the Taiwanese Guabao. Meaty and filling.
  • Ryo's (Crow's Nest, Sydney): Peerless Niku-man Japanese bun with a minced pork filling. Juicy and tasty, but more a traditional Chinese baozi than an actual pork bun.
  • Peking Inn (Pymble, Sydney): Somewhat thuggishly prepared tea-smoked duck and buns at the local Chinese. A touch overdone, but it gets the general idea across.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Cookbook Hunting, Sydney-Style.

On Cookbook Safari in Oz

Just back from Sydney. As ever, I was out hunting for cookbooks. The bookstock at Dymocks (the Foyles of Australia) was somewhat underwhelming. The surplus bookshop in the St Ives Shopping Village was a bust. But thankfully I was saved when my wife pointed me toward the bibliophile awesomeness of Books Kinokuniya, sprawling across the top of the Galeries Victoria mall.

As you can tell from the name Kinokuniya is a Japanese outfit, packing a decent selection of manga and associated paraphernalia [note to self: stop pigeonholing an entire nation’s literary output in terms of comic books. It’s enough to drive any self-respecting playwright to suicide]. But they also have an outstanding Food & Drink section, sprawling across five generously stocked aisles:

Let’s dive in!

A Taste of Australia

Zumbarons by Adriano Zumbo: My first target is, of course, the Australian Cuisine section. In London we get a fair share of the big name chefbooks coming across (Quay, Origin and anything by Bill Granger), but back at base there are a piles more books which never make the import quota.

A good example is Sydney-based Patissier Adriano Zumbo. A cynical might say he’s a big fish in a small pond, but I find his wacky style quite endearing. His gaudy first volume Zumbo received a low-key release in the UK, which is a shame as if you can get past the nursery-school typography it’s a lot more fun than the stentorian style of Pierre Herme’s ego-liths. And here’s his latest book: Zumbarons, a slim volume which is a credible addition to the how-to-bake-macaron sub-genre. The fun is in the wacky flavours he comes up with for his macarons: Hot Cross Bun, Pancake and Maple Syrup, Gingerbread House or Fig, Burnt Honey & Red Wine. There’s even a Satay-flavoured macaron.

Listen carefully and you can hear Mr Laduree turning in his grave.

Fine Family Cooking by Tony Bilson: If Zumbo is the man of the moment, then Tony Bilson is the utter opposite, a bow-tie toting chef of the old school. He is the Godfather of Sydney fine-dining having trained many of today’s stars, from Tetsuya Wakuda to Quay's Peter Gilmore. So I was pleased to see at least one of his books represented, a recent reprint of his 1995 Fine Family Cooking (although annoyingly there was no sign of his recent autobiography).

I’ll say straight up the presentation of this book is old-school 1980s (viz Raymond Blanc’s original Le Manoir cookbook) and the recipes aren’t much more evolved. But amidst the utter Frenchness of Garbure and Duck Liver Mousse you see hints of what later involved into modern Australian cooking. Coconut Bavarois with Pureed Tamarind. Fillet of Kangaroo with Glazed Shallots. Or Braised Brisket with Star Anise. Bilson reminds me of California Alice Waters / Jeremiah Tower generation. If you read their cookbooks they still talk a lot of Escoffier, but you occasionally see flashes of something new.

Plus there was one recipe that was very interesting – Coddled Salmon with Red Wine Sauce. As I’ve written before – this was the direct inspiration for Tetsuya’s Confit of Petuna Ocean Trout. Salmon is confited at 70c in duck fat (one of the first uses of-temperature cooking in a chefbook) and served (unusually) on a red-wine sauce. I’ll let you decide whether Tony came up with the idea or if he nicked it from Pierre Koffmann…

Kitchen Coquette by Katrina Meynink: But Oz isn’t just about professional chefs – if you want proof of that just look at the unstoppable onslaught of Australian Masterchef. The number of books written by former winners (and non-winners) is absolutely straight-out terrifying. It got to the stage where I would spot to a book and tell it was by a Masterchef contestant without even picking it up:

- Young photogenic author? Tick.
- Their only book on the shelf? Tick.
- Vaguely pan-Asian tilt? Tick.
- Reference to “my journey” “my food” “my kitchen”? Tick.

This is what I found in a quick five-minute sweep. I’m pretty sure missed some:

With all due respect, I mostly found them glossy, repetitive and rather pointless. I’m sure their homespun pan-Asian recipes are delicious, but there are only so many versions of crispy Asian-spiced pork belly a man can take. Even me.

Which makes it even more bizarre that the one amateur effort which was interesting was this one: Kitchen Coquette by Katrina Meynink. This book should represent everything I hate about the “prosumer generation” (think: any cookbook written by a food blogger). It’s a first-time cookbook from a vaguely photogenic Aussie foodie. The recipes are group not by course or ingredient but by life event (Recipes for meeting in-laws! Recipes for meeting with your ex!). The food-style is Domesticated Fusion.

But I have to say it’s an excellent cookbook.

It’s very efficiently laid-out with a no-nonsense workbook-style. And the weird recipe categories actually grow on you – case in point Stealth Food: snacks for eating in places like libraries, lecture theatres or art galleries where you aren’t supposed to have food. Actually quite useful…

But above its the recipes which strike a perfect note – she deploys Fusion for the sake of deliciousness rather than for the sake of fusion. Mexican Smoky Pork Cheesies. Pork and Rhubarb Pies (to be served at a Wake!), Drunken Scallops with Ponzu Granita (for “The Make-Up”). For meeting potential in-laws she recommends slipping them Fig, Raspberry, Pistachio and Burnt-Butter Cake with Mascarpone.

This women should go on Masterchef.


And before we leave the Australian section, let’s not forget the revered output of the Australian Women’s Weekly (Tripled-Tested for Guaranteed Success!).

Foreign Gems

But what I love about Sydney bookstores isn’t just the local stuff. It’s that you also get the best of London and New York thrown in. For one thing, the selection of UK chefbooks is as good or better than London, with hot titles like David Everitt-Matthias’ Beyond Essence, The Square Cookbook and Polpo all on show. For another, there’s also a great line-up of imported US books – something I’ve sorely missed in London since Borders went bust.

In short: There are stores with a better range of UK books and ones with a better range of US books, but I can’t think of any which beat Kunokuniya Sydney for the two combined.

Plus there’s all that Aussie stuff thrown in as well.

Putting the UK books to one side here are a few of the international books which caught my eye. These aren’t necessarily the newest or the trendiest books – just ones that got my cookbook-antennae twitching:

LUDOBITES by Ludo Lefebvre: Classically trained French chef (Gagnaire, Passard, Grand Vefour) hits LA, quits restaurant, starts a pop-up kitchen. Basically it’s the I’ve-Jumped-on-the-Street-Food-Bandwagon-And-Here’s-My-Cookbook cookbook, but by someone who can actually cook. It’s street/dude food with a Hollywood vibe (including jumping on a private jet to lunch at the Fat Duck). But when you have Cabbage-Wrapped Foie Gras with Kimchee Consomee (Alain Senderens meets Momofuku!!), Bouillabaisse Milk Shake and Foie Gras Miso Soup on the menu, who’s arguing?

Mission Street Food by Anthony Myint & Karen Liebowitz: Still on the Street Food theme, recipes from San Francisco’s original gourmet street food collective (you know the idea – multi-course tasting menus and two hour queues). The book is a few years old (though new to me), but it still reads and eats great.

The first half is the fascinating story of the SF food collective which set out to apply haute-cuisine technique to food with a broad appeal (not surprisingly Momofuku co-author Peter Meehan provides a pull-quote). There’s a lot of smart commentary and discussion here which is very applicable today’s Twitter-fuelled-culture “hot” new restaurants (e.g. feature on the “Sportification of Food” – how new restaurants have become a form of entertainment).

The second half provides recipes for how they did it – reinventing Street Food with haute techniques. Burgers for 200 done Heston-style, Peking Duck reinvented from confit meat and duck cracklings, and of course lots and lots of pork belly. If you loved Momofuku you’ll love this.

In the Kitchen with Alain Passard by Christophe Blain: Only the French could turn a haute cuisine cookbook into a bandes-dessine graphic novel [note to self: Again, STOP pigeonholing entire nations literary output on their comics. French novelists also produce excellent novelisations of cheesy musicals :-p]. Basically graphic novelist gets invited to hang out with Alain Passard at this three star restaurant L’Arpege (and associated vegetable garden). In return he renders a bunch of the master’s recipes as comic strips. The Arpege Egg is included here, although unfortunately not the smoked potatoes or 12-spiced tomato dessert.

As I said, only in France…

100 Vintage Treasures from the World's Finest Wine Celler by Michel-Jack Chasseuil: Fabulously well-connected Frenchman amasses 35,000 bottle wine cellar. Writes coffee-table-book headlining up his top-100 bottles. This book should reek of worthless vanity-piece but it’s actually utterly engrossing, particularly in its coverage of pre-war (or even pre-20th century) vintages. Where else can you vicariously enjoy an 1811 Yquem (a wonder-vintage overseen by Halley’s Comet), a 1901 Tokay (from the cellar of Otto of Habsburg), a pre-phylloxeria Constantia and a selection of the legendary stickies from the Tsar’s vineyards in Massandra? Oh and he also has a ’71 La Tache and a ’45 Mouton if you’re into the younger stuff.

Grand Finales Series by Tish Boyle & Timothy Moriarty: To finish a sight I thought I’d never see again: A complete set of the short-lived Boyle/Moriarty Grand Finales series on ridiculously over-plated pro- restaurant desserts. Probably wildly outdated by now but always fun, and very hard to find nowadays (I own a copy of the one of the right).

Bon app!

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Les Recettes Originales de Alain Chapel: Looking for Alain

Over the last few months writing this blog one name has been a recurring theme in the books I have read: Alain Chapel. A chef acclaimed by his contemporaries, but whose greatness I have always struggled to understand. So I spend two months doing some serious digging about what made him tick. And this is what I discovered...

What if The Fat Duck closed and nobody cared?

Restaurant closes. No one cares.

Well that's exactly what happened last year, when Restaurant Alain Chapel in Mionnay quietly announced that it would not re-open after the winter break.

The news was barely reported. It made the diary columns of the French press - just. A few old lags in the foodie world commented. A couple of chefs mourned.

After over forty years in the highest echelons of French Gastronomy, the name of Alain Chapel was no more.

It wasn't always like this.

In the 1970s Alain Chapel was at the forefront of French gastronomy. If Bocuse was the Ferran Adria of the day (i.e. Chef Most Likely To Be Profiled In The In-Flight Magazine), then Alain Chapel was the Heston of the era. Operating out of his dolled-up auberge on the outskirts of Lyon, he was the mad scientist creating weird dishes with strange ingredients (stuffed pigs ears! braised chicken tripe!). It's no wonder that even today, Heston has a dish the menu named after him

At the height of his powers, with three Michelin stars and restaurants in France and Japan, Chapel was a man in demand. He flew Concorde to New York to cook for millionnaire customers. The Morocco royal family hired him to run a week-long pop-up in Fez (and you thought pop-ups were something new...). For people in the know, the greatest chef in the world wasn't Paul, it was Alain.

Then Alain dropped dead in 1990 - heart attack at the age of 53.

The culinary world mourned, but swiftly moved on. The restaurant endured under his trusted number two Phillip Jousse, losing a one macaroon but keeping a respectable two stars until the end. The master's two sons Romain And David (seven and ten when he died) went away, apprenticed and returned to take up the mantle. But unlike at Troisgros or Bise or Azak, a glorious second act was not to be. In February 2012, as L'Express noted, "Restaurant Alain Chapel closed in indifference".

Looking for Alain

But even though Alain is gone, you cannot escape his shadow. Leafing through my collection of cookbooks, I find him in all sorts of places

Alain Ducasse is one. After all, he trained at Mionnay and acknowledges that "Alain Chapel taught me to taste". Flick (okay, crowbar) your way through his Grand Livre de Cuisine and "facon Alain Chapel" is a recurring subtitle - here applied to a roast veal chop, there on a lobster and pigeon salad. And finally on a ragout of cockscombs, crayfish and mushrooms.

Then of course there's Heston. In the Big Fat Duck Cookbook he talks about how he was awed by Chapel - first by reading his books (problem - they were only in French and Heston only spoke English), and later by a sublime meal at Mionnay. And it was Chapel's signature pigeon jelly which inspired his Jelly of Quail which sprawls across eight pages in the centre of the book.

For a more personal angle try Michel Roux Jr. His autobio-with-recipes Life in the Kitchen recounts the two years he spent as a youthful apprentice chez Chapel. Amidst the stories of teenage japes and foie gras terrines, his respect for the Master is clear: "He was an extraordinary chef, an inspiration and very formidable."

The menu at Alain Chapel (click here for a more legible version)
And of course there's a whole chapter devoted to him in Blake And Crewe's Great Chefs of France. Set amidst a galaxy of star chefs (including Bocuse), it is Chapel's "supreme inventiveness" which makes him stand out:
There is no other menu like it... there is not a dish on Alain Chapel's menu which does not reveal an inventiveness and imagination which lift him into the rare class of supreme chefs. There is no dish which does not surprise.
And this isn't just rose-tinted-regret. Even before he died he was hailed by chefs and critics alike - just look at the galaxy of stars below who gathered in 1977 for his fortieth birthday:

"Everyone with more than two michelin stars say CHEESE"
Yet the real Alain Chapel remains elusive.

People still remember him, however dimly. But ask someone exactly what it was that was so great about him and a quizzical look descends. Set against today’s standards his food looks rather dated. Reading the carte today it sounds like a pretty traditional French restaurant. Foie gras with that. Truffles with this. What’s all the fuss?

You can find out though. You just need to look hard enough.

How to make a silk purse out of a calf’s ear

Let’s start with some of the recipes.

Stuffed calf's ears with fried parsley

Dinner time! :-p
The recipe is found on page 172 of Les Recettes Originales de Alain Chapel (of which more later). Ears from veal calves are blanched an braised for three hours in a casserole with a white wine bouillon. Meanwhile veal sweetbreads, chicken wings and truffle are sauteed with butter and mushrooms and bound into a forcemeat with egg yolks. The ears are stuffed with this mixture, rolled in more egg and breadcrumb and then fried  until golden. This dish is then served piping hot, garnished with crispy fried parsley.

This dish is Chapel's refinement of traditional bourgeois cuisine - in essence taking a humble ingredient and making it stretch further with a bit of stuffing (albeit a truffle and veal sweetbread stuffing). It's not a dish you normally see in a three star restaurant; there are echoes here of Pierre Koffmann giving the humble pigs trotter a similar treatment. If you do want to try it though I recommend you high-tail it to Troisgros in Roanne, which has recently started serving this dish as a tribute to Chapel. Be warned however, they are charging a stonking €110 for the starter of "Oreille et ris de veau a la truffe, inspires de Mionnay".

Pigeon jelly with chicken oysters and young vegetables

Quail jelly with langoustine cream -
Heston's Blumenthal's homage
In his book (p294), Chapel calls this his favourite dish and one of his true "grands plats" of his maison. I'll leave it to As Heston Blumenthal to  describes this one:
His pigeon dish had a few spoonfuls of delicate jelly surrounded by an artful arrangement of chicken oysters, mullet fillets, crayfish and their eggs - shades of pink and red offset by the glistening green of peas, spinach and lamb's lettuce, chives and chervil - bordered by a pale yellow crescent of creamy fish stock with orange zest and lemon juice. He had taken the elements of classical cooking and put them together in a very modern and innovative way that I found really exciting.

And this is of course the inspiration for Heston's Jelly of quail, langoustine cream, parfait of foie gras, truffle and oak toast, scented moss - Homage to Alain Chapel. It's a very different recipe of course but the clear jelly (quail, as he was already using pigeon in another dish) flavoured with star anise is straight out of Chapel's playbook.

What's striking to me is how modern this recipe feels (the Chapel version I mean). Its actually a dish which wouldn't feel out of place if it was served up at Noma - a melange of contrasting arranged ingredients on a plate, bound together with a textural contrast (the jelly) and sauced with a very light dressing. This is precisely the sort food being served up by modernist chefs at places like Noma, Viajante or Dabbous (albeit with a little more sous vide and parmesan snow thrown in).

Chicken tripe a notre mode

This dish (p390) is Chapel's reinvention of the classic tripes a la mode de Caen, except he started with chicken tripes, an ingredient I've never seen used elsewhere. The tripes are blanched for twenty seconds and then gently cooked, along with some veal tripe, with chicken stock, white wine and half of a calf's foot. They're then finished with mustard and Calvados (a tribute to their Normandy origins) and served in a cocotte.

Now if modern food is about getting down and dirty with your ingredients, this dish showed Chapel could mix it with the best of them. As Michel Roux Jr recounts in A Life in the Kitchen the tripes had to delivered warm, minutes after the hens were killed, and blanched within the hour. It was an incredibly difficult and fiddly dish to prepare.

The greatness of Alain

Having looked at a few of Chapel's signature dishes, there is something mildly disconcerting about then. Read about him on the surface and everything looks very as-is. Pigeon. Veal. Chicken. That’s all very traditional French. Very bourgeois.

But Pigeon jelly? Calf ear? Chicken tripe?

Something strange is going on.

Then there are other hints. He had own vegetable garden (I thought that was something that started with Passard). He put Japanese dishes on the menu (long before Robuchon’s zen master act). Asian spices like star anise and ginger were turning up on the carte (at a time when Jean-George Vongerichten was still making foie gras terrines in Alsace). And this was all in the 1970s.

The simple fact is that Chapel was doing things that were fundamentally different from all of his contemporaries. I believe he was operating at least ten years ahead of everyone else. And probably more.

So what made Alain so great? I would say three things:

First, he built on tradition

That chicken liver parfait (from Michel Roux Jr's

Life in the Kitchen)
One reason he doesn’t seem as revolutionary to us as a Heston or an Adria is his food wasn’t as dramatic a break with the past. That was partly the point – he always claimed his cooking was evolutionary, not revolutionary.

For example, one of his great signatures was a warm chicken liver parfait (which Craig Claibourne called one of the absolute cooking glories of this generation) – in many ways traditional Lyonnais bistro fare, taken to the nth degree.

Also, as we have already seen the calf's ear and the chicken tripes also had their roots in bourgeois country cuisine. Of course this was gussied up, truffled up and generally moved on. But Chapel was very much cooking with tradition, not against it.

Second he embraced innovation.

But make no mistake, no matter what he claimed, Alain wasn’t just an evolutionary chef. He was also doing things that were profoundly revolutionary:
  • Ingredients: He took humble and unusual ingredients like chicken tripe and calves ears, and refashioned strange (but strangely familiar) combinations.
  • Asian techniques and flavours: Chapel's work in Japan opened him up to Japanese cuisine long before it was fashionable, something evidenced in his famed Crepe Japonaise. His made unheard-of use of Asian spicing, spiking his pigeon jelly with anise and deploying ginger in his savoury courses (don’t laugh. In those days that was really wild).
  • Pioneering ingredient-led cuisine: Decades before Alain Passard got religion about his vegetable patch, Chapel has his own garden (le jardin de cure) where he grew baby salad leaves and vegetables for cooking. Rather than touring the market each day so see who had what we good, he would seek out the single finest producer for each item and place all his confidence in them. Nowadays chefs make a great song and dance about being close to their producers (check out the Phaidon Noma book or the Rockpool book for examples). Chapel was ahead of the game
  • Innovating with technology: Chapel was keen to incorporate space-age gadgets like ice-cream machines, ovens with different temperatures at the top and bottom (for breads and pastries) or robot-coupes for chopping fine herbes. Again with the passing of time this sounds incredibly hum-drum but in post-war France this was twenty-first century gear.
  • Inventing new techniques: The frothed-up soups that were all the rage in the 1990s started with his mushroom cappuccino. And this wasn't just a fad. Remember that this underlying principle - that foaming up a sauce increases its surface area and flavour, also lies behind El Bulli's espumas and sponges in the 1990s. A more unremarked innovation was his jus perle – instead of a smooth cream- or butter-based sauce he would leave his jus unemulsified with droplets of flavoursome fat floating in the mix. This is something Heston makes a great song and dance about as “flavour encapsulation” – to Chapel it was just another everyday innovation.

Third he was the perfectionist

I don't think its a coincidence that Ducasse - who has built an empire on laser-like culinary precision, learned his trade with Alain Chapel. Contemporary accounts all point to an incredible quiet and concentration in his kitchen. As one stagiere writes:
I have been in libraries that were noisier than that kitchen, where everyone seemed so concentrated in work that an earthquake might have passed unnoticed. I do not think one single plate escaped M. Chapel's final inspection, and, believe me, he would have detected the slightest flaw.
In Great Chefs of France Crewe and Blake also remark on the incredible calm in the kitchen - different from any of the other three star kitchens they have seen:
So everybody moves, calmly and without haste; yet all is done at amazing speed. Gradually you become aware of the power of this kitchen, It is like one of those beautiful nineteenth-century pumping-engines, moving majestically and silently, seemingly without effort, yet delivering immense power, smooth and everlasting.
There is a picture in the book of Chapel putting the finishing touches to a dish, the tip of his tongue sticking out in concentration. It is this intensity which made Chapel a man apart - and perhaps contributed to his early demise.

Chapel - a study in concentration

A cuisine that changes your life

The result was a kitchen that blew - your - mind.

Don’t take my word for it. Ask David Kinch of the great West Coast restaurant Manresa. For him it was Chapel’s pigeon with fresh peas and braised lettuces that changed his life:
I was 23, and of course I knew everything. But after that dinner I realised that all my training was wrong, that  I had completely missed the point of what makes great food. I went back to my room and cried! What this guy could do with a handful of peas and some lettuce, and how the purity of the flavours could be maintained and yet come together, was something I had never learned.

Or ask Michel Roux Jr - I emailed Le Gavroche while I was researching this post and they were kind enough to send me the following:
Alain Chapel was a great man, had respect for local ingredients and dishes such as Chicken Tripe, Crepes Japanaise, which were very avant-garde. He was using fresh ginger which was unheard of in France in the 70’s. The man was a genius, his dishes tasted heavenly and were shockingly straightforward.
Michel Roux 
Maître Cuisinier de France & Managing Director 

Alain Chapel in Print

Parlez-vous Francais?

Alain Chapel's only cookbook,
now happily back in print

Which makes it even more of a tragedy that Alain Chapel put very little in print before he died, and virtually nothing in English.

The only major book was Les recettes originales de Alain Chapel, originally published in 1980 as part of Robert Laffont's long-running Les Recettes Originales... collection.

(The Editions Laffont series is a fascinating endeavour in its own right - 23 volumes detailing the recipes of the major chefs of the day (Senderens, Robuchon Girardet and Guialtiero Marchesi all feature), starkly printed in black and white with the barest of illustration. It's the sort of project which would be unthinkable today in a era of celebrity chefs, publishing agents and multi-million dollar book deals.)

Toady these volumes are hard to find. Books for Cooks in Notting Hill used to stock them but haven't had then for years. Thankfully though a few of the volumes (by Chapel, Troigros and Michel Guerard) were recently reprinted in paperback, which means that for the first time in many years Alain Chapel is now only an Amazon.fr click (and a French dictionary) away.

The Recipes of Tradition...

The book starts with a lengthy introduction, where Chapel expounds on a variety of topics - tasting menus, the evolution of cuisine, flavour and place... (I have to admit my French falls down a bit here - if anyone fancies chipping in with an English translation I'm all ears). A lot of it is summed up though in the subtitle of the book: La cuisine, c'est beaucoup plus que des recettes. "Cuisine is more than recipes".

After a brief section on basic recipes (stocks, sauces, pastries etc) we then pile into the heart of the piece. One of the great things about this book is that its actually two pretty much self-contained cookbooks in one. The first part Les Recettes de la Tradition is his book on traditional French cusine. He kicks off with an eight-page account La saint-cochon, which details what to do when you slaughter a whole pig. Starting with what do with with the blood, he then ploughs into recipes for faggots made with the pork rind, liver & kidney, a head-cheese incorporating the ears and feet, rillettes, saucissons, boudin blanc, pork scratchings and the belly, salted with thyme. It all feels very St John.

Chicken kidney, cockscomb and
crayfish ragout - the Ducasse version
He than details numerous traditional recipes, split into the usual categories - starters, soups, fish, poultry, desserts etc. Many of his signature dishes feature here, including the famous chicken liver mousse (p136) served with a crayfish sauce, and the stuffed calf's ears I've already mentioned.

Bear in mind traditional does not mean boring! He also features the exuberant ragout of chicken kidneys, cockscombs, crayfish, morels and chervil - a dish repeated (and name-checked) in Alain Ducasse's Grand Livre de Cuisine. There's also a rather extravagant beef bouillon (p144) which incorporates a pound of caviar (and another quarter-pound of pressed caviar) and recipe for a roast Bresse capon flanked by ten larks and ten snipes (not recommended if your guests are members of the RSPB!). And finally I have to mention the Oeufs poeles a l'assassin on page 150 - actually quite a pedestrian dish of friend eggs deglazed with wine vinegar - but you gotta love that name.

... and the Recipes of the Imagination

More example's of Chapel's food - click to zoom
(from Great Chefs of France)
However that's only half the book. Because then you get to the second section, entitles Les Recettes de l'Imagination. Again its pretty much a standalone work, with sections on starters, meat, dessert etc. Except this time these are Chapel's dishes, rather than rehashed French classics.

So you have the iconic pigeon jelly and the chicken tripe. Or a featherlight dish of Langouste steamed with verbana, girolles and chicory leaves (p340). Or his famous Crepe Japonaises (p454). Actually this is basically an okonomiyaki pancake (street food! how on-trend! :-p), scented with ginger and served with beef, pork, gambas and squid.

The section on desserts contains the recipe for a praline tart, much praised by Heston Blumenthal and (just to show that no-one's perfect!) a slight dubious concoction of yogurt, cucumber and tarragon supposedly inspired by Balkan cuisine.

Touched by genius

I'm left in two minds on this book. Set against the modern arsenal of chefbooks, its always going to feel dated. There are no pictures. The dishes clearly come from another era. And being in French doesn't help. If you pluck this off the shelf and read it cold you're going to be left wondering what the fuss is all about.

But having put in the time to try and understand Chapel and his cuisine, you start to see that there's so much more. The book is stuffed with iconic recipes like the pigeon jelly, the chicken tripes and that chicken liver parfait. These are historic recipes which no chef should be without.

And when you put Chapel into the context of what everyone else was doing at the time the achievement is even more staggering. He was as far ahead of the chasing pack as El Bulli was in the nineties. His only point of reference was himself.

My only regret is we don't have a good version of this book in English. The best we can do is the chapter in Great Chefs of France, but that hardly tells the whole story. Remember, this is a guy who David Rosengarten rates as the second greatest chef of his lifetime - the fact there is virtually nothing by him in English is the whole food world's loss.

Afterword - Another Chapel in London

One little postscript - as I mentioned Chapel's two kids had it worst of all. Not only a famous father, but the pressure of tryng to take on the mantle of one of the greatest chefs of his era (I call this trick "doing an Arzak"). In that context the decision to close the restaurant must have been absolutely traumatic.

But on this side of the Channel there is some sort of silver lining, as the youngest son Romain has recently resurfaced in London - cooking as chef de cuisine as Pierre Gagnaire's two-star outpost Sketch.

So if you want a hint of the old Chapel magic do rock along and try it out (the weekday set lunch in particular is an absolute steal). The good thing is that the boy's still young, so I hope it isn't the last we've heard of the Chapel name in the kitchen.