Soho Diarist

Michael Anton
Chef X’s Brigades
Winter 2010

Michael, what is the difference between glacé and étuvé?” The voice belongs to Chef X, and the question is directed at me.

“Sugar!” I announce, trying not to look up, lest I lose a digit.

“Which one has the sugar?”

“Um . . .”

It is only Day Two of Culinary Techniques at the French Culinary Institute at Broadway and Grand, yet the Marine-drill-sergeant routine has already begun. My fellow students and I are not even in the professional program. We are amateurs, dedicating 22 Saturdays to learning classic French cooking in a real school that trains real chefs. We receive no quarter. As we learned on the first day, cooks in a professional kitchen have been called a “brigade” since the time of Auguste Escoffier, the great French chef who systematized centuries of culinary tradition. The military connotation is no accident. There is a strict hierarchy and chain of command.

Part of the experience, apparently, is answering rapid-fire queries about information you may have learned scarcely an hour earlier. Chef X directs these salvos, seemingly at random, at anyone he wishes to torture at the moment. You may have a knife poised over your brachial artery, but by Carême, you had better answer—correctly.

Chef X—for Xavier—was born and trained in France and has worked in some of Manhattan’s top restaurants, including the legendary La Côte Basque. What’s he doing spending his Saturdays teaching amateurs? “The school asked me to do this. I never taught an amateur class before. They said I had to go easy on you. I’ll try.” Probably he did try, but that didn’t prevent him from becoming a legend at the FCI. One morning, he sent me down to the storeroom for extra ingredients, and on the way back up, I overheard one career student lament to another, “On my way to get yelled at by Xavier.” (He pronounced it “egg-ZAY-vee-air.”)

Chef X didn’t yell at us amateurs much, but we exasperated him a lot. It’s not that we weren’t any good (though we weren’t); he could accept our incompetence. It’s that he thought we were lazy. “Once I teach you something, you know it. I don’t want to explain over and over. Study your books. Write everything down on three-by-five cards. Memorize. When I say, ‘Cut into julienne,’ you know. Don’t ask.”

But we did ask. Over and over. One way he got back at us was to bark more questions. “What are those cracked peppercorns called?” he asked another student. No answer. “Come on!”

“Mirepoix?” Mirepoix is a combination of chopped vegetables—typically carrot, onion, and celery.

“You put mirepoix in béarnaise? I don’t know what planet you are living on.”

The correct answer was mignonette.

But the class wasn’t just a cooking quiz show. It was a serious course of hands-on instruction. We learned, or rather Chef X attempted to teach us, to make all the basics of French cooking, dishes—from onion soup to demi-glace to puff pastry to steak frites to Lobster à l’Américaine—hardly seen in haute cuisine any more but variations on which still form the foundation of the restaurant repertoire. This was emphatically not health food. “Salt is good! Butter is good! Cream is good!” were among Chef X’s maxims.

Still more important than the recipes were the core techniques that we practiced, mastery of which will, in theory, enable any cook to make anything. “Practice” being the operative word. Learning to cook well is like learning to play an instrument. If you don’t hone your skills with numbing repetition, you won’t get anywhere. Chef X would often ask what we had done at home during the previous week. I always made sure to have something to report, if only to be spared his evident contempt.

Chef X’s truculence served us—or at least me—well. I saw no point in paying to be coddled. After 22 weeks, I am hardly ready for the hot line at Le Bernardin, but dinner at home has gotten a lot better. Glacé, by the way, is the one that uses sugar. It’s right here on my three-by-five card.

Michael Anton is an author and a speechwriter based in New York.

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