When I was fresh out of culinary school and living in the North End of Boston I pleaded with a well-known Chef to work under him at a new restaurant across from Boston Common. There were two restaurants in one. Downstairs consisted of Cajun Creole and French Country fare. I was the day head-cook. Upstairs was a classical French Bistro that The Chef ran. He was a thin, wiry man, stern and unpleasant, but I admired him greatly. He was only ten years my senior, highly skilled and educated at the Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. I wanted to pick his brain and learn all he knew about food. I wanted his approval of my skills and did everything in my power to impress him.
Each day before lunch started the chef would come strolling downstairs to taste my soups and specials in the small, cramped kitchen I worked. I’d hear the clacking of his clogs on the steps, my belly rolling with apprehension. He’d taste my food and say things like, “Needs salt” or “Fix this, its bland” then he’d be off upstairs with his Sous Chef making his butter sauces, stocks, demi-glace and rabbit pates.
As each day went on, I craved to be by his side and learn, but in the restaurant business you have to pay your dues first and I was frustrated as hell, patients is not my greatest virtue.
In the two years working under the Chef he complimented my cooking only three times and I remember it well. The first compliment came when I made Oyster stew with oysters from Wellfleet that I shucked myself (I still have the scar.) While opening an oyster the oyster knife I was using slipped and jammed into my hand right below my thumb in the fleshy soft section of my hand. I was petrified The Chef would find out and so I wrapped up my bleeding hand and struggled to opened more oysters. I was in dire pain, but I had to get the job done, there was no way I was going to fuck this job-up. When the Chef came down to taste my Oyster Stew, nervously I hid my bleeding wrapped-up hand from his view by shifting my hand with his every move; behind my back, under a rag and beside a pile of dishes.
When the Chef dipped his spoon in the pot of creamy oyster goodness and tasted it, he squinted his eyes in a funny way, my heart sank.
“This is quite good. How did you do it?” He asked. I perked up. I stuttered as I do when I get nervous.
“Chopped Oysters, warm cream, salt white pepper, a touch of sherry. I cooked it very slow.”
“Oh, yes, and butter.” “
“Why isn’t it in a bain-marie?”
“I was going to do that, Chef, before you came down.” I said. I quickly put water in a pan, poured the Oyster Stew in another pan and put that pan in the hot water. (It’s just a double boiler) He looked at me squarely, took a bowl and before he left he said to me, “If you need stitches in your hand make sure you get them.”
Later that day I went to Mass General Hospital to get two stitches and while I was being sewed-up, I cursed The Chef, who I then referred to as “The bastard” for no real apparent reason but immaturity.
Another time, another compliment, I made a fantastically creamy, rich fish chowder with all the scarps of fish that I could find in the large walk-in and in the small frig by my work station. I found sole, cod, sword and a piece of salmon. I chopped celery and onions and cooked it in clarified butter and for extra flavor I used rendered fat from salt pork. I added flour and made my roux with all veggies inside. Next I added my fish stock. I had made a tremendously flavorful one with fish heads the chef had given me that morning. I used plenty of bay leaves. I love the combination of bay leaves and fish. As a quick side note, never boil fish bones and heads for a long time it can become bitter it should be a rather quick steaming of bones and heads, a nice potent stock is sure to come of it. After I thickened my stock with the roux I added cubes of potatoes that I had par-boiled and gently stirred in the minced, uncooked fish gingerly and loving. I didn’t bother to poach the fish first, my idea was to cook the fish in the thicken chowder to get more flavor (it proved to be a great idea.) I knew from my core this chowder was going to make me proud. The pink of the salmon embellished the creamy white chowder perfectly and its taste was sublime. As usual at 11:30 Am The Chef came down, he ran a spoon through my chowder, “Did you put salmon in this?” He asked. My stomach contracted, his dark pensive eyes shifted, “Yes, I was–” I started to blabber. He held his hand up to indicate to me to be quiet. I bowed my head in shame and drained a pot-full of turtle meat that I had put to boil earlier that day. From the corner of my eye I saw him taste my fish chowder…. oh fuck…..
“This is fantastic, great job, I like the salmon inside. It offers a new dimension and it’s pretty.”
Gleefully, I watched as the Chef fixed himself a big bowl of chowder, grab two rolls and slathered them with the unsalted butter that I whipped each day. (The rolls were from a bakery on Charles Street, they were perfectly round with a crunchy outside like a French Baguette and I ate about six of them a day) The Chef stood across from me eating the soup, dunking his bread into his chowder as I picked turtle meat off knuckle-like-cartilage (It was for the turtle soup I made weekly. I was not a fan.) Each time I looked up at him, his eyes met mine, I think he knew I was intimidated by him and looking back, I think he was playing me. When the Chef was done, he nodded toward me, “Good work. Nice. Nice.” And he was back to his kitchen upstairs.
The last compliment came one day when The Chef slammed a huge package wrapped in white paper in front of me, “Wild Boar. Make a gumbo. Not too spicy. The last gumbo you made was too spicy.” Off he went upstairs and I got busy, huffing and puffing, mumbling. After two years and only two compliments I was getting sick of him. I knew my food was good because the waiters were always coming back and telling me of pleased customers. All the same, I got busy making the Wild Boar Gumbo. I have to admit that It came out so rich and lively and strong and deliciously full-bodied I swear I can still taste it when I think of it. Here is how I did it,
Wild Boar My Dear
3 pounds of Wild Boar
Any kind of fun and interesting sausage (optional and browned before used)
1 cup vegetable oil, lard or bacon fat
1 heaping cup browned flour
1/2 pound bacon
2 minced green peppers
2 minced medium onions
6 minced celery stalks
5 minced cloves garlic
1 teaspoon black pepper Salt to taste
3 tablespoons paprika
½ cup red-hot sauce.
1 tablespoon dried thyme
2 tablespoons garlic powder
1 teaspoon celery seed
1-2 quarts chicken stock
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1 lb okra, sliced into rings
2 tablespoons file powder
2 green onions
Before you start, read what I have to say about brown flour. Browning the flour for this recipe and for all gumbo recipes is important and you cannot skip this step or even consider to not use brown flour, it is not an option, it would be like making chocolate chip cookies without the chocolate chips. Browned flour gives the gumbo that deep, dense nutty flavor essential for a good Gumbo. —It’s simple to brown flour. Grab a sheet pan and place whatever amount you need on a sheet pan and bake it in a 350 oven, as the surface of the flour browns, remove the pan and mix the flour and return to the oven and do this until the flour is an even brown, like the color of peanut butter. While the flour is browning cut up all your vegetables and reserve, keeping onions separate because you want to cook them first. Cut up your wild boar into chunks, dry each piece with a paper towel and then coat each piece with flour (you can use some of the brown flour if you want, but be careful not to burn it, I say, safe to use white flour) and brown meat on all sides in hot oil inside a soup pot. Take the boar out when browned and reserve. The bottom of the pan should be nice and brown with little bits of crispy goodness. Add more oil to make about a cup (or a bit more) heat the oil and add the onions until translucent, then add the other vegetables and tomato paste, cook until veggies are done, add brown flour and stir continually, cook for a few minutes and add hot stock and stir quickly with a heavy whisk to workout lumps. Add cooked wild boar (and cooked sausage if using) add seasonings and simmer, adjust flavors (add pickapepper sauce if you like it, I always do!)
Three times is a charm as they say, when The Chef tasted my Wild Boar Gumbo, he called his Sous Chef to come down to taste it, this was a huge compliment and in my mind I had arrived. The Sous Chef came into the kitchen, ate it, raved, and asked me how I made it. I told him in detail. My tone was proud, almost boastful and when I was done speaking the Chef looked at me expressionless and went upstairs, “What a prick.” I said to the Sous Chef and he roared with laughter, “Indeed!” He said. We became instant friends. The Sous Chef was a true gentleman, kind and talented, and I liked him, his stocks and sauces were magnificent, legendary and as months passed he’d show me different things (once a wonderful ginger-buttter sauce, easy and divine with salmon). We’d gossip about The Chef, he’d whisper things to me over his large stock pots, mostly on the state of the Chef’s mood, which in my final days at the restaurant weren’t wonderful, he had gotten a waitress pregnant on a drunken night out and The Chef was not in love with her, but she was madly, deeply in love with him and did everything in her power to get his attention, finally with no avail, she got him fired by the owners and I never saw him again.