Take Stock of Your Bistro Chops

By Herb Gardener.

“This book is a field manual to strategy and tactics,” Anthony Bourdain, executive chef of the “best (expletive) brasserie/bistro in the country” proclaims in the introduction to the Les Halles Cookbook. Nevermind that he peppers instruction with language heard at a longshoreman’s bachelor party. Whether you simply dodge, or appreciate, Bourdain’s signature irreverence and snark — stay with his regimen. You will arrive at that transformative juncture where passion, craft, and savvy conjure wonders on a plate. For Bourdain, the magic often involves stock.

Bourdain’s answer to why your beef stew falls short of satisfying is stock, a foundation of French cuisine. Restaurant chefs (or more precisely lowest caste kitchen initiates) make their own, and Bourdain devotes a chapter to home production and storage. There is strategy — simmer but never boil — and tactics, “cheat” by adding tomato paste and flour to bones before roasting. Chef encourages the reader by saying “you can train a chimp to do it.” Since the process of making stock consumes many hours, pots, and considerable counter and freezer space you may feel like calling Jane Goodall. No denying, however, that made-from-scratch stocks and demiglace infuse Bourdain’s recipes with sumptuous depth and character.

I consider other general principles in the Les Halles Cookbook to be unassailable axioms. “As a cook, your meez (mise en place) is…your belief system, your religion, your Tao.” Thorough preparation and organization in the kitchen IS finer than prayer. One must follow the meez with complete attention to survive, say, the three-day off-road adventure that is “tripes ‘Les Halles’”.

Just like your dad Bourdain insists that you take care of tools. A dull knife is the emblem of “complete ineptness and uselessness as a cook.” Nurture a relationship with a butcher, find connections in ethnic communities, and respect seasonal variations in produce to score the good stuff. By all means, make mistakes and learn from them.

I think it was Alexander Woollcott who said to never trust a chef who doesn’t tipple. Bourdain takes it further: “I am deeply suspicious of any cook who is less than enthusiastic…about sex, music, movies, travel—and LIFE.” If that philosophy rings true, then I am confident you will find the Les Halles Cookbook‘s wisdom and idiom rewarding.

(Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook: Strategies, Recipes, and Techniques of Classic Bistro Cooking by Anthony Bourdain. Bloomsbury. $23, paperback.)

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