Announcing: a new edition of The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America. With, bien sur, a new introduction from yours truly, about changes in the world of culinary schools and the kitchen. It's genuinely gratifying that this book, which changed my life, continues to motivate others. I can walk through downtown Cleveland and no one knows who I am (or cares, in fact), but I set foot on a culinary school campus and I'm treated like a poet-laureate, an experience for which I am profoundly grateful, every time. This book was published in 1997, and I am certain, from the email I get, that it remains a compelling record of a culinary education every bit as pertinent today as when it was published, and that it continues to inspire those who hope to put their lives not only into the work of preparing, but more importantly, into the work of serving, food.
The following is an excerpt from the book (a story that would have been completely different had I not been put into the K-8 with Chef Pardus, at my left here, out of code I might add), and it is with something of a chill that I relive this single encounter with a wily chef named Uwe (pronounced oo-vay) Hestnar. We sat in his office, talking about cooking and learning to cook. The idea of stock came up and we discussed two different ways it was being taught at the CIA. Little did I know what a powerful seed this single event was to be. I'll show you the tree on Monday.
From The Making of a Chef in the chapter "You Understand What I Am Saying?"
"Is one way better than the other?" I asked. "Which do you prefer and why?"
He was quiet a moment and then answered, "It's very interesting."
He smiled. And it was here that it occurred to me that Chef Hestnar had a vaguely reptilian look. There was something hard and wily and mischievous, the way his eyes would narrow to slits and his mouth likewise would spread thinly across his broad square face. His accent also enhanced his elusiveness. I grew accustomed to his style and waited. Eventually he said, "Let's see what Escoffier says, the bible." He scanned the index and flipped to the pages for white stock, dragged his finger down the page as I followed along. "It says bones and water. It doesn't say begin with cold water or boiling water," Hestnar said. "Zo."
He paused again, then checked Hering's Dictionary of Classical and Modern Cookery. This recommended blanching the bones. Hestnar's copy of La Repetoire de la Cuisine called for bones, mirepoix, and salt. Last he pulled from his tightly packed shelves a book held together by a rubber band. It was a German book by Ernst Pauli, the title of which Hestnar translated for me as "Book of Learning of the Kitchen." Removing the rubber band, Chef Hestnar said, "My schoolbook." Pauli suggested one begin with cold water.
Hestnar closed this last book, sat back in his chair and shrugged.
All right, there are many ways of making a stock, I thought. But he was still avoiding my question. "What about adding tomato?" I asked.
He said, "Tomato, bay leaf—that's art."
"But using tomato to denature the protein in order to create a cleaner stock in less time?"—as we'd been experimenting with in class.
He smiled and said, "That's applied theory."
Yes. Excellent! I thought. He didn't miss a beat.
Such was the nature of our conversation. It rambled; he sprinted, strolled, cut left, cut right. I wondered aloud why we were taught the dated cauliflower polonaise, a bread-crumb-and-egg mixture sprinkled on cauliflower and baked. He responded that he supposed they could do cauliflower with cheese sauce instead. I told him my question remained, why teach something so old fashioned as that, so infrequently used, polonaise or cheese sauce?
He agreed that cauliflower was not often used anymore. "People don't want to pay five dollars for two ingredients." And yet a more complex dish, one with twenty ingredients, he said, was in fact simpler because it was much easier to cover a mistake; with two ingredents a cook had no room for error. Therefore, cauliflower with bread crumbs or with cheese sauce was a true test of a cook.
This led him to the proliferation of cookbooks, a situation he scorns. "The shelves are bulging with cookbooks," he said dismissively.
"You don't like that?"
He said that everything any cook could possibly need to know was contained in five books: Escoffier, Larousse Gastronomique, Hering's Dictionary, La Repertoire. I told him that was only four. "And Careme," he said. Then he said, "No one wants."
Another long pause before he tacked again: "What makes the culinary arts tick?"
I didn't know if he was actually directing this to me or offering it rhetorically. He had more or less lofted it into the air. He lifted his index finger, then spun in his chair to a file behind him, as if quickly reaching for a bat to knock his question into the bleachers. He riffled manila folders and turned to me with two sheets of paper. He handed them to me. They contained a chart or grid covering a page and a half. This, he said, was all one truly needed. Here were the fundamentals of culinary arts—all of Escoffier, Larousse, Careme, as well as Julia Child, James Beard, The Joy of Cooking and the TV Food Network—in their entirety, distilled to a page and a half. "I would like to sell this for fifty dollars," he said, "but no one would buy." Then he chuckled heartily.
I examined the sheets—a list of twenty-six items and their ratios. Along the top ran the numbers one, two, four, six, eight, and sixteen; these columns were divided by base products, such as aspic, pate a choux, sabayon, court bouillon ordinaire. Here, on this sheet was his answer to an earlier question: one quart water, two pounds bones, four ounces mirepoix, equaled stock. "For a quart of stock, you must use two pounds of bones," he said. "Will it be stock if you use three pounds of bones?" He shrugged: You see what I am trying to say? Do you understand?
I found the sheets mysteriously thrilling. For hollandaise sauce, the sheet listed six egg yolks and one pound of butter. Nothing more. We had learned to make hollandaise sauce by reducing cider vinegar with cracked pepper and adding this, strained and with lemon juice, to yolks whipped with clarified butter. But on Chef Hestnar's grid of ratios, he had reduced everything to its essence. Take away the vinegar, pepper, and lemon and you still had a hollandaise. Take away yolks or butter and it was no longer hollandaise. I found the ratio sheet beautiful. Like a poet chipping away at his words, polishing until his idea was diamond, Hestnar had removed every extraneous element of cooking.
I asked Chef Hestnar if I could hang on to the ratios and thanked him for his time.