It’s the equivalent of jamming with the Stones or feeding a bounce pass to Michael Jordan. I’m in Las Vegas, where I’ve been invited to cook with not one, two, or three, but seven of the country’s top French chefs–the best in the business.
The seven-course meal, replete with suitable wines (including three first-growth Bordeaux and the renowned Chateau d’Yquem), is being held to benefit the New York-based James Beard Foundation, and is taking place in the Rio Hotel and Casino’s ultra-swank Napa Restaurant. Napa, the jewel of the Rio and one of the best-appointed restaurants in the United States, is run by Jean-Louis Palladin, former chef at the Watergate and generally acknowledged to be the guru of the current generation of French chefs cooking in America. More than 100 people have paid between $200 and $250 each for the meal of a lifetime; by the end of the evening, that seemingly steep price is generally agreed to be a bargain.
From my perspective, the event really began with the over-the-top meal prepared the night before by Palladin and his staff for the chefs and their hangers-on. To fully comprehend that meal, which began at about 11 p.m., after the restaurant had closed, you must understand that one top chef never hosts another without trying to blow him away. Since impressing a four-star chef with your cooking is not easy (note: don’t try this at home), and since among his guests were seven such chefs, even Palladin had been worked up for weeks in advance, planning the menu and procuring ingredients that you can’t find at Safeway.
The meal’s luxury level became apparent the minute the waiters began pouring a ’63 Port, generally considered the vintage of the century and almost never served as an aperitif. This accompanied a soup based on fresh porcini, the most coveted of the world’s wild mushrooms, and “garnished”—chefs use the term very loosely—with an incomparably creamy marrow flan. The meal went from there, with rare wines accompanying rare ingredients, such as a cold steamed Dungeness-like crab from Brittany that had the chefs in up to their elbows.
The piece de resistance was a pair of suckling pigs that Palladin had boned and stuffed with a mixture of porcini, $200-a-pound truffles, sweetbreads, foie gras (the liver of force-fed ducks), and other delicacies, then roasted to a perfect crispness. Slices of the pig were perfect mosaics, so beautiful it was difficult to mar them with a knife. We managed.
The chefs began to trickle in to work about six hours after dinner ended. They first checked in with their sous-chefs about the status of ingredients and any last-minute needs, then consulted with Palladin about the plate on which their given dish would be served. Since much of the food would be prepared a la minute (just before serving), the day would be spent in “prep”—washing, drying, cutting, peeling, dicing, shredding, boning, mixing, and so on.
For me, the morning work is straightforward; I can’t mince like Martin Yang, but I can get the work done. During these hours, I dice leeks with Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the chef at Restaurant Jean Georges, minced truffles and foie gras with Daniel Boulud (Restaurant Daniel), and assembled a sample plate of Spanish mackerel tartare with caviar with Eric Ripert (Le Bernardin). I am in good company: The restaurants run by these men comprise three-fifths of New York City’s four-star establishments.
After a quick break for lunch, the serious work begins. I check in with Michel Richard, the cherubic, ebullient chef of Los Angeles’ Citrus and a number of other restaurants. Richard had agreed to prepare the dessert, the most difficult dish at this event because, unlike the six savory dishes, it stands on its own. He had taken the challenge seriously, preparing an apple charlotte with poached pear and chocolate-Port sauce, along with a host of petits fours, each of which was a mind-blower.
Richard’s reputation precedes him; he’s known as a wizard of technique, able to create dishes that would not even occur to others. Incredibly, he puts me to work using beaten egg yolks as glue in cementing pairs of small pastry circles together. That done, he demonstrates how to deep-fry them, splashing their tops with hot oil until they puff into small balloons. (These, in turn, will be rolled in butter, sugar, and nuts, and baked until crisp. Impressive as they are, they are essentially another “garnish.”) Fascinated, I try a few, and although I screw up plenty, my success rate is evidently high enough, for he leaves me alone. I work at producing these small miracles for about an hour.
By now, some of the other chefs are being forced to apply themselves, and my labor—unskilled as it may be—is in demand. I join Hubert Keller (Fleur de Lys, San Francisco) in putting the finishing touches on his foie gras with herbs and black pepper. It’s a terrine, or loaf, that makes beautiful slices. Although the cutting could be done at the last minute, Keller prefers to do it in advance, so that he can spray each slice individually with a liquefied duck aspic; chilled, this will put a lovely glaze on the meat. I proceed to spray 130 slices (we’re making extra, figuring either the crowd will grow or the cooks will eat) while he turns to the garnish, a radicchio salad with truffle vinaigrette.
For some of the other chefs—Ripert, Vongerichten, Keller, and the lone woman, Ariane Daguin—most of the hard work is over by late afternoon. They walk around checking out each other’s dishes, and stand in awe as Michel Richard works his magic. Richard generously allows me to demonstrate how to make a few fried pastry balls, and for a moment I feel a bit like part of the gang.
At about 7 p.m., everything is calm. The chefs are joking and even the cooks—who do the real grunt work, who sweat and get yelled at—are relaxed. This is so brilliantly organized that momentarily there is little to do. Daguin sends out her assorted charcuterie; her company, D’Artagnan, supplies meats to many of the chefs here, and she specializes in the earthy cooking of southwestern France. Her platters contain all the parts of the duck on one plate: salt-cured duck, which is akin to prosciutto and taken from the breast; smoked breast; smoked wings; the meat from the legs cooked down to a rich spread called rillettes; and her showy specialty, the “French kiss”: prunes, marinated in Armagnac and stuffed with foie gras and truffles.
Since her food is served at room temperature, Daguin was ready hours ago and needs no assistance. But I have offered to help each chef finish his dish, and as we swing into action and the mood turns deadly serious, I realize this is no joke. (If I had not already realized it, the dressing down Palladin gives me after hearing me make a wisecrack—”You don’t make jokes during service”—clued me in.)
Perhaps, like me, you have never considered what it means to serve 120 plates containing the same food all at once. If you have, you certainly haven’t thought about what that means when all the plates must arrive hot and look beyond beautiful, all the way to perfect. This is not a school lunch assembly line. For the cold dishes, the plates are lined up on the tables in an unfinished cement-block room behind the kitchen; the hot ones will be dealt with right at the stove.
So, as Daguin’s charcuterie circulates with cocktails, I help Ripert assemble his small cylinders of Spanish mackerel. We have 125 molds, and fill them all with the mackerel mixture, top them with caviar, and place each on a tray. Then we move the trays to the back room and carefully plate each one, gently sliding it from its mold and topping it with a spoonful of the caper-laced vinaigrette known as ravigote.
Suddenly there’s a crisis: The food is ready but the waiters are still seating the guests. Since the tartare can’t sit even for a few minutes, Ripert begins to freak out. Fortunately, the quick-thinking Vongerichten seizes the day and announces that we—the two chefs, two sous-chefs, and me—should start carrying the dishes out. As each of the other four men grabs five or six dishes, I take two—there’s no way I can handle any more than that.
That crisis resolved, we immediately cover the long tables with another 120 plates and begin doling out slices of Keller’s foie gras terrine and garnish. Foie gras is so delicate that it begins to melt if you touch it with your warm finger, so you must slide it onto the plate with a fingernail. Like the mackerel tartare this cannot wait, but now the waiters are ready. Everyone–this includes Ripert and Keller, now done for the night–breathes a sigh of relief and moves over to the stove where chef Jean Joho is working.
Joho’s Everest Room is probably the best restaurant in Chicago, featuring his assertively personal but distinctively Alsatian style. He’s serving lobster with an intensely flavored meat, red wine, and marrow sauce–an unusual combination to say the least–on a bed of cabbage braised with bacon; it amounts to the most complex peasant food imaginable. Unfortunately, with its “garnish” of shallots braised in red wine, this dish is not easy to assemble.
The action becomes furious. There are two cooks working on each stage of Joho’s dish: plating the cabbage, adding the roasted lobster, saucing the dish, garnishing it and, at the end of the line, Joho and…me (!), making sure that each plate is properly assembled and that no stray drops of sauce land where they should not. At this moment, it feels like the most important job in the world.
Boulud’s magnificent dish—squab stuffed with foie gras, porcini, pig’s foot, and truffles, with a “garnish” of shallots, porcini, squab liver, truffles, and a touch of garlic—follows the same pattern, and, again, I find myself in the position of quality assurance.
At this point I have evidently gained some trust, so for Vongerichten’s elegant lamb loin dusted with black trumpet mushrooms on a bed of leek puree—a gorgeous combination of red, black, and green—I am given the job of “working the line.” This means searing each lamb loin, transferring it to the oven as it browns, and keeping an eye on it, while seasoning the garlic-scented meat sauce and heating the leek puree. I work with Vongerichten’s sous-chef Chris Beischer, while the chef himself explains the assembly of the dish to the waiting troops. Beischer, of course, is accustomed to moving searingly hot saute pans in and out of 700 degree ovens; I am not, and burn myself twice—once while rescuing the leek puree from scorching, another while frantically grabbing a pan to remove it from the oven while the lamb is still rare. In the heat of battle there is no time to dress wounds, so I do my best to ignore both.
When the lamb is done, Beischer and Vongerichten turn to slicing it and I am directed to the head of the serving line. Here, I am given the all-important job of saucing each dish, then sprinkling it with a tiny bit of fleur de sel—$50 a pound sea salt from France. (And, since you asked, yes—it is worth it.) Halfway through the service, the chef comes around the counter to check on the amount of salt I’m using. It makes me nervous; too little, and he considers the dish underseasoned. Too much, and the customers might begin to gag. Evidently he approves, because he gives me a smile and a pat on the shoulder. It’s all been worth it.
Technical wizard Richard needs no help; his team has been working steadily since early afternoon, and their plates, pastry balls and all, are ready to go. So as the last of Vongerichten’s lamb is being cleared, I wander out into the dining room to ask a fellow journalist how the meal was from the diner’s perspective.
He looks glazed, dumbfounded, starstruck. He sighs and says, “You guys did a great job.” Us guys. I love it.