Quirky cooks—they’re everywhere, if you look. Read Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe detective series and you contend with chef Fritz Brenner, whose kitchen is like the Pentagon—impenetrable. Turn to Madeleine Kamman’s book, In Madeleine’s Kitchen, and you hear James Beard saying, in the preface (and in an understatement), that Madeleine “is a very outspoken person on the subject of food.” And that is the secret: a true cook is one tough customer and nothing but the best will do or else.
Or else what? Well, you could start with the seventeenth-century letters of Madame de Sevigné, a sort of French “telephone” in the days before telephones. In one of her 1300 letters, sent to her friend Françoise, she details the suicide of the great Vatel, the inventor of Chantilly cream. Vatel wanted fish for a grand feast held by Monsieur le Prince de Condé and he wanted it fast. Unfortunately, the supplier had had a bad day and could come up with only a few fish. And that was it: Vatel ran up to his room, placed his sword against the door, and threw himself upon it.*
Kitchen dramas did not originate in France, however. The Romans, perhaps the first true gourmets, at least toward the end of the Roman Empire, were sticklers for perfection in food. Roman chefs were slaves, more expensive than victory parades. And any chef who did not perform up to par invited being publicly spanked after a bad meal. Or even worse, he might be sold off as a common slave. Anything to improve the food!
Quirky cooks remind us that good food cannot be had without good ingredients. Consider the shopping habits of a Chinese cook in London:
“When Ah-Hei shops at Loon-Fung’s, the owner automatically brings out the freshest bean sprouts from the barrel in the back room–not for her the ready-wrapped ones in a plastic bag. She rejects a dozen Chinese cabbages before finally accepting one that still glistens with morning dew.”
A bad cabbage, no matter how it is prepared, will still taste bad.
And consider the kitchen of Madame Ollangnier, M.F.K. Fisher’s landlady in 1930′s Dijon, France:
“And from that little hole [the kitchen], which would make an American shudder with disgust, Madame Ollangnier turned out daily two of the finest meals I have yet eaten. But cooks found it impossible to work with Madame Ollangnier, impossible to work at all. She was quite unable to trust anyone else’s intelligence, and very frank in commenting on the lack of it, always in her highest, most fish-wifish shriek.”
Demanding tirades, bad tempers, and raised voices. Anything goes, as long as the food is good. Quirkiness does have its merits, after all.
(*Note: Famed French chef Auguste Escoffier, when asked if he would have committed suicide in Vatel’s situation, responded with “‘No, I would have made a mousse of young chicken breasts and covered it with a fish velouté, and nobody would have known the difference…!’” Bien sûr!)
Chicken with Velouté Sauce
6 skinless, boneless chicken breasts
2 T flour
Pinch crumbled sage leaves, chopped fresh thyme
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 T. butter + 1 T. vegetable oil
Makes about 2 cups
5 T. butter
4 T. flour
1 cup chicken broth
1 cup cream
¼ t. salt or to taste
¼ t. white pepper or to taste
Chopped parsley for garnish
Mix flour with herbs, salt and pepper. Dredge chicken in flour mixture. Cook chicken in butter over medium heat until golden and cooked through. Reserve in warm place until serving.
To make Velouté Sauce: Melt butter over medium heat. Stir in flour. Reduce heat to low and cook until slightly golden and bubbly. Remove from heat. Stir in broth and cream. Return to heat and cook until thickened, stirring constantly. When thickened, season with salt and pepper. Pour sauce over chicken, sprinkle with parsley and serve immediately. Small potatoes and green beans make excellent side dishes.
More about cooks and their quirks:
Becoming a Chef, by Andrew Dornenberg and Karen Page (1995).
Culinary Biographies, edited by Alice Arndt (2006).
From the Tables of Tuscan Women: Recipes and Traditions, by Anne Bianchi (1995).
A History of Cooks and Cooking, by Michael Symons (2000).
In Nonna’s Kitchen: Recipes and Traditions from Italy’s Grandmothers, by Carol Field (1997).
Kitchen Secrets: The Meaning of Cooking in Everyday Life, by Frances Short (2006).
The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America, by Michael Ruhlman (1997).
The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection, by Michael Ruhlman (2000).
When French Women Cook, by Madeleine Kamman (1982).
© 2008 C. Bertelsen