Thursday Night Smackdown: Thomas Keller is a hardcore motherf*cker.

The news said there was a 65% chance of vampires, so I figured better safe than sorry.

Tonight: Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry Cookbook (cue foreboding music)

I tried to keep the title clean, in case, you know, your frigging kids are reading over your shoulder (go to bed). I’m in a bit of a mood, you see, because Thomas Keller has roundly defeated us with his precise ways and time consuming techniques and bizarre use of hard-boiled egg yolks. How does the man get a single dish out of his kitchen – a phalanx of oompa loompas? Because we’ve been working for 3 days here; we’ve used every dish and pot in the house and I believe several workers may have died of cholera during construction.

Six of one, half a dozen of the other. No, really.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m sure as hell not turning down a trip to the French Laundry and I continue to be ragingly jealous of French Laundry at Home and cook eat FRET‘s trip to Per Se, which you should read about and then cry because it didn’t happen to you. But I’m EXHAUSTED over here.

The dish: Red Mullet with a Palette d’Ail Doux and Garlic Chip, or as Keller preciously calls it “Fish n’Chips.”  Individual components include a parsley coulis, beurre monte, parsley salad, the aforementioned garlic chip, the garlic and egg cakes (palettes) and the fish. If you don’t know what some of those things are, you’re not alone.

I’m completely in awe of this cookbook and of Thomas Keller’s dedication to and love of making food the best it can be. It’s almost less cooking than purifying: clarifying and intensifying the flavor of the excellent ingredients being used; straining, reducing and tweaking until the essence of the food is sharpened and deepened. It’s quite the process, and not for the faint of heart or short of time.

Puree of brains with yellow hi-bounce balls: haute cuisine.

Since I don’t live the life of a bohemian expatriate writer in Paris, I started some of the components last night so we wouldn’t be eating dinner at 2am. The palettes are cakes made of softened garlic mashed into a paste, hard-boiled egg yolks, butter and a pinch of salt. You may think you know how to soften garlic, but I bet 10 palettes that you really don’t.  How would you do it?

1. Wrap it in some foil and roast at low heat in the oven.

2. Gently toast unpeeled cloves in a hot skillet.

3. Smash it with a rubber mallet.

4. Talk to it all sweet-like.

5. Peel it and put it in a small saucepan with cold water. Bring the water to a boil. Drain the garlic and return it to the pan with more cold water. Bring it to a boil again. Drain it again and return it to the pan with more cold water. Bring it to a boil again and cook until soft.

If you picked anything other than (5), you are WRONG.

Would it be okay if I just skipped captioning this one? Thanks.

The mashed garlic, yolks and butter go for a joyride in the food processor before getting spread in a thin layer in a pan and banished to the freezer. Once frozen, it’s cut into circles that are coated in flour, cream and panko breadcrumbs and is re-frozen before ultimately being sauteed. When I explained the process to Brian, he asked, “But what’s in it?” So I explained again, and he asked, “No, but what’s the cake part?” Because the garlic and yolk is the cake part, and who the fuck comes up with this shit?

Thomas Keller is who.

Also, who the hell blanches parsley? It’s fricking PARSLEY.

I also worked on the parsley coulis ahead of time. Three enormous bunches of flat-leaf parsley are blanched (“the water should taste like the sea”), blended with a splash of water and strained to yield one half-cup of extremely concentrated parsley juice. I was supposed to have pressed the puree through a tamis, a drum-shaped extremely fine sieve. But I don’t have one of those because I need the space in my kitchen to store other things, like plates and food. So cheesecloth and my finest plain ol’ strainer saved the day (I think the mesh part is made of ALUMINUM. The horror!).

Not dog vomit. You know, because they eat grass and then puke, and it’s green and…never mind.

I knew last night that the texture of my coulis would not be up to Thomas Keller’s exacting standards. As he states again and again and again, “no liquid should move from one part of the kitchen to another unless it’s through a strainer.” In my kitchen, liquids move about all willy-nilly. And I’m fine with that.

Things that are deep-fried = things that are good.

The rest of the components come together relatively quickly, if not cleanly and easily. Oh, wait, I take that back; I’d momentarily blocked out the process of making the garlic chips. Which you’d think would involve little more than slicing up some garlic and frying it, but again you’d be WRONG. You slice it up (painstakingly by hand in my case, since I still haven’t gotten a damn mandoline) and do the whole boil-drain-boil-drain-boil-drain dance as with the first batch of garlic. Except you do it with milk. Fresh milk for every boil. And then you dry them, and then fry them.

Oh, Thomas Keller.

While the garlic was gently frying, I tossed together the salad of parsley and shallot and finished off the parsley coulis by heating it and whisking in the beurre monte. Beurre monte is melted butter that stays emulsified (so the milk solids won’t separate out) by virtue of being mixed with a very small amount of water. A few teaspoons of water are heated, and then butter is whisked in; as much butter as is needed can then be added, and the emulsion can be held over medium heat and used to enrich sauces, poach proteins or hold cooked meats at temperature. (Didn’t that sound like I know what’s what? Fucking A!)

I know you’re saying: that doesn’t look so bad! What are you complaining about?

But it is that bad. Because at the very end, things just didn’t come together. The devil is in the details, and if Thomas Keller is one thing it’s detailed. Not that I’m suggesting Thomas Keller is the devil or anything. But there are a lot of details, that’s all I’m saying.  I’m not responsible for whatever conclusions you draw.

Problem #1: The fish. Red mullet is not a commonly found fish ’round these parts. So when Brian went to Whole Foods, he asked the friendly fishmonger to recommend a good substitute and was provided with flounder. Which had no skin. And fell apart into many little pieces when we tried to fry it up.

Problem #2: The palettes. Let me tell you, once those fuckers hit a hot pan they turn into a pile of mush really fucking fast.

Problem #3: The coulis. Which I hadn’t passed through the tamis that I don’t own, so the texture was uneven liquidy-grainy instead of perfectly smooth.

So, every major element had a problem. Since the fish fell apart and was not skinless, there was no contrast between crispy skin and moist flesh. The palettes ended up mushy piles of warm goo instead of crisp little well-formed cakes with melting insides, so there was no texture to speak of in the main components of the dish. The parsley coulis tasted intensely of parsley, but I discovered that I don’t actually like intense parsley as a major part of a dish.

It was all a damn shame, because the flavor of the palette mix was amazing. The triple-boil process leaches all the overly-pungent compounds out of the garlic leaving it’s melting sweetness behind, and since the garlic hasn’t been caramelized at all there’s nothing to interfere with the pure garlic flavor. The egg yolks add an impossible richness. We did make one mini-palette out of leftover mix that cooked up fairly correctly and crunchily, and it was outstanding.

Not so outstanding? My intense shame at this resounding defeat.

Final Score: Us 0, Food 1. Our first outright defeat, but I can’t be ashamed to have been defeated by Thomas Keller. Unlike last week’s risotto, for which I blame the French as a people, this week’s failures were 100% our fault. However, I will return to this cookbook after a suitable period of wound-licking .

My hat is off to Thomas Keller, the mad genius of Yountville.

0 thoughts on “Thursday Night Smackdown: Thomas Keller is a hardcore motherf*cker.

  1. Failures are a gift. They only make you want more! Bravo for trying. I think it is Fabulous! I have seen Thomas Keller in person and he has devil horns under his hat……they are nubs but they are there….he always wears a red chef smock also. Fuck all muther fuckers that don’t want their kids to see/hear/or speak muther fuckers. If mutha fucka is the worst thing my kid does while growing up then I will be majorly fucking proud. I mean, it IS just a word mutha fucka.

  2. Don’t let it get you down, honey. He may be all things to some people, but he doesn’t make people have to reapply makeup after reading his blog because he’s so damn funny and a damn fine cook as well. Like you. So, shake it off, chick and get back to what you do so well. Cussing and cooking!!!!

  3. I give you extra points for using the term willy-nilly in your post and making me laugh out loud so that I spit a little bit of coffee on my desk.

  4. I feel exhausted just READING this — kudos for actually going through it all! I laughed out loud at ”the water should taste like the sea”… sometimes you read a line like that in a recipe and know it’s time to stop. XD

  5. stacey: i always had a feeling about the nubs. thank you for substantiating this undisputed fact.

    claudia: i AM going out for dinner tonight (belgian fries and beer…yum), i’m still wiped out. those garlic things are cute, but i have the alton brown hangout about “kitchen unitaskers.”

    mary & jodi: that makes it all worth it.

    indigo: right? i mean, i know i’m supposed to bow before thomas keller…but come ON.

  6. Haha, FAIL! Not only is the devil in the details, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Fuck a French Laundry. (Charlie Trotter trounces my ass into a bloody pulp, so I feel your pain)

  7. I think I need a Xanex just reading this. Frankly I’m surprised that one of the steps wasn’t …and catch the fish yourself on a crisp clear night from a pond where magical Mermaids reside.

  8. heather: indeed. the road to hell is already partially paved with the good intentions when i made this godawful terrine. (i was but a wee grasshopper then)

    robin: don’t get me wrong, it was good. you need a lot of time, and strong organizational skills. creating a spreadsheet might be a good way to start.

    erin: i had to skip that part, because i didn’t have time to make my own fishing pole from the sacred wood of an ancient dogwood that only blooms in even-numbered years. i’m so inadequate.

  9. I’m sorry that you were disappointed with how the dinner turned out. You definitely get props from me for trying this. Frankly, if I had to work that hard for a meal, I don’t think I could enjoy it. I made an authentic cassoulet for my daughter’s French Club last year and it took two solid days to make! I slept for three days after! Food should be fun!

  10. OH, I’m in stiches again! Honestly, thank god for blogs as a space to vent these experiences and frustrations that frankly no one understands but the others of us with the same compulsion! Like when I’m making chiles en nogada-chiles rellenos with pulled pork and fruit and walnut sauce, covered in pomegranate seeds, all from scratch, and my friends look at me like I’ve got a third eye sprouting out of my forehead! But you get it, right?:) Don’t you feel like a better person now that you’ve had the TK experience? I think ‘Oh, ThomasKeller!’ is going into my list of favorite names used as swearwords-along with JesusMary, and Jesus Henry Christ!!

  11. OMG: I could never make anything this complex…it would just drive me too batshit crazy to have to go through all those steps for one dish…but I will gladly eat it if you want to cook it!

  12. Hahaha..You’re hilarious. This is madness!
    To tackle a Thomas Keller recipe is always a big project. The guy is a madman! The fishmonger deserves a kick in the a** for recommending flounder as a substitute for mullet. You would have been better off with red snapper.
    What a nerveracking experience! Take a vacation. haha

  13. I have the book, and to date haven’t made anything from it; I like to flip through it for ideas and then make dinner like a human being. His Bistro book is more manageable, and also makes an excellent weapon in a bar fight.

  14. susan: yeah, it was a bit of a bummer. but i never expected to win every smackdown. i’m chalking this one up to a character-building experience.

    rebecca: do i feel like a better person? no, mostly just a tired person. also, i wasn’t thinking about adopting TK’s name as an expletive, but you know, i think i might.

    kitty: you could do it, you’re just sane enough not to try.

    zenchef: glad i could amuse. you know, i couldn’t find any info on good substitutions for mullet, but something in my gut told me snapper…i shoulda listened to myself.

    peter: yeah, i think it may just turn into a nice coffee-table fixture.

  15. Oh my god. I am in awe of your ambition. Thank you for posting about it so that we can laugh at your pain. I’m so sorry it didn’t turn out!

  16. You are a braver soul than I. My score with that cookbook is at exactly two recipes– both very obviously the easiest in the book, and still one of them had me swearing like, well, like myself.

    Loved your post as I am always immensely cheered up by other people’s kitchen nightmares. :-)

    PS/ The gruyere gougeres are stupidly easy.

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  18. This is hysterical!

    I tried to make one recipe out of Bouchon which involved emulsifying a hard-boiled egg yolk with oil. I’ve now gone thru a dozen eggs and quarts of oil trying to make this happen, so far without success. No way would I try anything from the French Laundry. But it sure makes for funny stuff reading about someone else doing it.

  19. This is by far the funniest blog post I have read in months. I honestly feel your pain. I have Keller’s Bouchon cookbook – a little more up my street than the more formal food of French L. Even the bouchon stuff takes a bloody age, and yes, the devil is certainly in the details.

    I would blame the WholeFoods fish guy. I tend to blame Wholefoods for everything.

  20. shari, mallow and sophie: you know, that seems to be the prevailing sentiment. hmm.

    ann: i picked this recipe because i thought it WAS one of the easier ones! now i’m completely scarred! but i will gladly sacrifice myself on the altar of keller for the reading pleasure of others.

    steamy: yeah, despite this painful experience, i would JUMP at the chance to eat at FL.

    beth: i’m seriously taking that under advisement.

    julie: wow, i can’t even theorize as to how one would do that. i’m seriously starting to think that he’s from another planet. maybe eggs behave different in his galaxy.

    matt: thanks! and i completely blame the whole foods guy.

  21. Oh now, pish posh! This is one of the easiest dishes in the world, and I cannot beLIEVE you screwed it up. KIDDING. This dish was a pain in the ass, what with all the garlic nonsense. However, I agree with you re: the parsley – not the greatest when it’s so intense, and yes, never trust the fish counter at Whole Foods. They have no clue — they’re the same guys who stock wht shelves on the overnight shift. Bravo for trying it, and let me know when you’re ready to tackle another one.

  22. Towards the end of cooking school we did a brief module on “Great Contemporary Men and their Great Contemporary Foods”. Boulud, Bayless, Batali, Keller. (I could quibble with the selection, but whatev.)

    We cooked several recipes from the FL Cookbook and despite being fairly well prepared, nearly professional and endowed with the tools of a professional kitchen, almost nothing came out as planned. A lot of it was just plain bad.

    One of my classmates even cried. She was attempting to make the “ice cream cones” of salmon tartare in a crispy tuille cone filled with red onion creme fraiche. I was mad at her like I always am when a grown woman cries at work, but I sort of understood.

  23. You are the funniest person I’ve read in forever! While sympathizing with the pains of your attempt, I was holding my sides laughing. Been there, done that, with much-lesser devils than TK. I know for a fact, though, (sadly due to a friend’s dinner there, not my own) that while his cooking may be perfection, the timing of his dining room is seriously flawed, if that makes you feel any better whatsoever.

    You’ve got my vote for bravest chef AND funniest blogster.

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