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It's all French to Me

Gail discusses the importance of knowing the basics of French cooking.

To understand the gravity of tonight’s challenge, it is vital to consider that French cuisine and its history provide the foundation for all other Western cuisine. Without this “grandpère” of cooking, we probably would not have the rich American culinary traditions we hold so dear. A truly well-rounded chef must be well versed in the fundamentals of French haute cuisine – or the high art of French cooking – laid out by the likes of Marie-Antoine Carême and Auguste Escoffier over the past few centuries. The language and structure of the kitchen in America is still very much dominated by French terminology – sauté, mise-en-place, brigade, brunoise, crème anglaise, even the word chef itself – all indispensable French terms used constantly in any fine-dining kitchen. So too are the basic techniques of “cooking protein” and making sauce, which we chose as the focus of this week’s show. More on that in just a moment…

After the sudden elimination of poor Jesse in the Quickfire Challenge – an escargot battle judged by none other than the king of French cuisine in America and my former boss, Daniel Boulud – the chefs were told they would be cooking a six-course dinner for a table of the most successful and renowned French chefs in the country. As if this were not traumatic enough, the dinner was to be hosted by Joël Robuchon, a legendary French chef known by many as the “Chef of the Century,” who, a few years ago, came out of early retirement to open an exceptional 54-seat restaurant at The Mansion of the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino, in Las Vegas, his first venture in the United States.

Here, I must interrupt my own train of thought to tell you that under the makeup and calm veneer I was sweating bullets this entire Elimination. The atmosphere was never more stressful than it was during the shooting of this single episode. How our producers devised a scenario bringing together the most celebrated and accomplished French chefs on the planet at one table, I will never know. Upon screening the episode a few days ago, my husband, seated on the couch beside me, laughed out loud, saying, “I cannot believe that little you are seated at a table with these culinary giants! How did you ever manage that?” All I can say is that I am one of the luckiest girls in the world. I eat wonderful food, meet outrageously talented artists, and have the privilege of dining with them. Occasionally, they even ask my opinion, and seem to appreciate it! Rest assured, I do not take my job for granted.

But back to the challenge: 12 of our cheftestants drew knives with either a protein or a classic French sauce and were asked to work in teams of two based on which sauce they believe went best with each protein. The 13th contestant, Kevin, who had won the Quickfire, impressing Daniel with his Escargot Fricassee and Candied Bacon Jam, had the privilege of dining with us. This unusual circumstance was a first in Top Chef history. While the other chefs slaved in the kitchen that day, members of the crew took him to buy a new suit for the occasion.

First in the multi-course caravan came Ron’s Frog’s Legs and Robin’s Meunière, a brown butter sauce traditionally served with lemon and parsley. Although both the sauce and the frog’s legs had decent flavor, the meat was overcooked and the plate lacked the refinement we had hoped to see. Next up was Brian’s Warm Cured Trout, accompanied by Mike Isabella’s deconstructed eggless Béarnaise. This is certainly one of my favorites of classic French cooking, a smooth, creamy reduction of white wine, vinegar, tarragon and shallots, mounted with egg yolks and lots of butter. Their version was absolutely perfect in this modern incarnation. Each component could be tasted on its own and also melded together to form a stunning replication of the sauce as a whole. Served alongside the beautifully filleted and plated trout, it was a revelation to us all, Robuchon included.

Lobster with Cauliflower, prepared by Laurine, along with Sauce Américaine by Eli, was next on the menu. This classic sauce is actually quite arduous and complicated to prepare, but when done right is one of the most glorious sauces of all. It is made using lobster shells as a flavor base, then adding wine, brandy, herbs, tomatoes and lots of butter (butter plays more than a passing role in French sauce-making, as you may have gathered by now). Their version was actually quite well-prepared, albeit slightly flat. It lacked a brightness we expected, but did show a sense of skill. My question: Why present the cauliflower, apparently without reason, in the middle of the plate? This was followed by Mattin and Ashley’s Seared Poussin (young chicken) & Ravioli with Sauce Velouté and Green Asparagus. Sauce velouté is one of the “mother sauces” of French cuisine, meaning it is classified as one of the main sauces from which all other sauces in French cooking are derived. It is made by whisking equal parts of flour and butter, together forming a “roux,” with a light stock (chicken, for example), and seasoning it generously with salt and pepper. From there, you can add other flavors to give it dimension. It is known for its creamy, velvety texture, hence its name. Mattin made the sauce successfully, but proceeded to add far too much bacon, detracting from its delicate texture and leaving a lingering layer of fat on the tongue. Although Ashley cooked the poussin well enough, I found it under-seasoned and her ravioli extremely heavy.

Thankfully, Michael V.’s Rabbit was another showstopper. Rabbit, a very lean animal, can become dry very quickly if not cooked by experienced hands. His was handled flawlessly in both its butchering and the technique used. Served with Jennifer’s sauce, the dish was, for me, a triumph! Chasseur is a sauce often referred to as “hunter’s sauce,” made with white wine, rich brown stock, mushrooms, shallots and tomatoes. They added a most inventive twist by topping the dish with a perfect, playful noodle made entirely from mustard; a nod to another classic rabbit preparation. It gave the whole plate an intense, savory undertone, another dish that thoroughly impressed our esteemed diners.

Finally, Hector and Ash served their Chateaubriand with Sauce au Poivre. What should have been one of the more straightforward of the dishes served that day, was in fact the most poorly prepared. Clearly, timing was a huge issue for them. They did not get their meat in the oven early enough to allow it to cook, rest and be sliced properly. This caused the meat to bleed all its jus, which in turn thinned out the already scant sauce on the plate. We all felt Ash was not to blame for this mistake, as he was in charge of the sauce and could not control when the meat was plated. Hector’s sloppy, rushed slicing job was the reason for the dish’s failure, so he, subsequently, got the ax.

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