The fish specialty is reasonably priced, and the place got two stars in the Times. Why not go for it? If you like four-day-old fish, be my guest. Hereâ€™s how things usually work. The chef orders his seafood for the weekend on Thursday night. It arrives on Friday morning. Heâ€™s hoping to sell the bulk of it on Friday and Saturday nights, when he knows that the restaurant will be busy, and heâ€™d like to run out of the last few orders by Sunday evening. Many fish purveyors donâ€™t deliver on Saturday, so the chances are that the Monday-night tuna you want has been kicking around in the kitchen since Friday morning, under God knows what conditions. When a kitchen is in full swing, proper refrigeration is almost nonexistent, what with the many openings of the refrigerator door as the cooks rummage frantically during the rush, mingling your tuna with the chicken, the lamb, or the beef. Even if the chef has ordered just the right amount of tuna for the weekend, and has had to reorder it for a Monday delivery, the only safeguard against the seafood supplierâ€™s off-loading junk is the presence of a vigilant chef who can make sure that the delivery is fresh from Sunday nightâ€™s market.
Generally speaking, the good stuff comes in on Tuesday: the seafood is fresh, the supply of prepared food is new, and the chef, presumably, is relaxed after his day off. (Most chefs donâ€™t work on Monday.) Chefs prefer to cook for weekday customers rather than for weekenders, and they like to start the new week with their most creative dishes. In New York, locals dine during the week. Weekends are considered amateur nightsâ€”for tourists, rubes, and the well-done-ordering pretheatre hordes. The fish may be just as fresh on Friday, but itâ€™s on Tuesday that youâ€™ve got the good will of the kitchen on your side.
People who order their meat well-done perform a valuable service for those of us in the business who are cost-conscious: they pay for the privilege of eating our garbage. In many kitchens, thereâ€™s a time-honored practice called â€œsave for well-done.â€ When one of the cooks finds a particularly unlovely piece of steakâ€”tough, riddled with nerve and connective tissue, off the hip end of the loin, and maybe a little stinky from ageâ€”heâ€™ll dangle it in the air and say, â€œHey, Chef, whaddya want me to do with this?â€ Now, the chef has three options. He can tell the cook to throw the offending item into the trash, but that means a total loss, and in the restaurant business every item of cut, fabricated, or prepared food should earn at least three times the amount it originally cost if the chef is to make his correct food-cost percentage. Or he can decide to serve that steak to â€œthe familyâ€â€”that is, the floor staffâ€”though that, economically, is the same as throwing it out. But no. What heâ€™s going to do is repeat the mantra of cost-conscious chefs everywhere: â€œSave for well-done.â€ The way he figures it, the philistine who orders his food well-done is not likely to notice the difference between food and flotsam.
Then there are the People Who Brunch. The â€œBâ€ word is dreaded by all dedicated cooks. We hate the smell and spatter of omelettes. We despise hollandaise, home fries, those pathetic fruit garnishes, and all the other clichÃ© accompaniments designed to induce a credulous public into paying $12.95 for two eggs. Nothing demoralizes an aspiring Escoffier faster than requiring him to cook egg-white omelettes or eggs over easy with bacon. You can dress brunch up with all the focaccia, smoked salmon, and caviar in the world, but itâ€™s still breakfast.
Even more despised than the Brunch People are the vegetarians. Serious cooks regard these members of the dining publicâ€”and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegansâ€”as enemies of everything thatâ€™s good and decent in the human spirit. To live life without veal or chicken stock, fish cheeks, sausages, cheese, or organ meats is treasonous.
Like most other chefs I know, Iâ€™m amused when I hear people object to pork on nonreligious grounds. â€œSwine are filthy animals,â€ they say. These people have obviously never visited a poultry farm. Chickenâ€”Americaâ€™s favorite foodâ€”goes bad quickly; handled carelessly, it infects other foods with salmonella; and it bores the hell out of chefs. It occupies its ubiquitous place on menus as an option for customers who canâ€™t decide what they want to eat. Most chefs believe that supermarket chickens in this country are slimy and tasteless compared with European varieties. Pork, on the other hand, is cool. Farmers stopped feeding garbage to pigs decades ago, and even if you eat pork rare youâ€™re more likely to win the Lotto than to contract trichinosis. Pork tastes different, depending on what you do with it, but chicken always tastes like chicken.
In this week’s episode of “Billions,” Axe has a Last Supper, prior to facing prison, described by Sean T. Collins, at the New York Times:
Axe and Wags, sitting at a table with cloth napkins draped over their heads, faces obscured, â€œfor two reasons,â€ as Wags puts it: â€œto keep the aromas from escaping, and to hide this shameful and depraved act from God.â€
Like the dying Mitterand, they are eating ortalans.
Cooking with Little Buddy explains the French custom of ortolan eating.
Anthony Bourdain, in his book, Medium Raw, describes a life-altering meal he was lucky enough to be invited to. Many great chefs were invited to a top flight restaurant for a late night dinner. No names are mentioned as they are about to taste forbidden fruits. I will not discuss the preliminary food other than to say that the dishes were old French standards, largely out of favor in todayâ€™s â€œhipâ€ culinary environment.
But, the main course, the reason they were invited in the first place, was something called Ortolan. Francis Mitterrand ate Ortolan for his last meal as he was dying. It is illegal in the US and illegal to sell even in France, although you can make it and eat it. The only reason it is illegal is that the bird is a threatened species. The ortolan for this New York dinner was smuggled in, according to Bourdain.
So, what is this life altering meal? It is Ortolan, a small bird in the bunting family. It is a traditional French delicacy going back to Roman times. The birds are caught in nets and placed in cages covered to make the bird think it is night all the time. They are fed millet, oats and figs and gorge themselves as they feed at night. When they are two to three times their normal size, they are killed, plucked and roasted.
Bourdain describes this orgasmic meal as follows:
The flames in the cocottes burn down, and the Ortolans are distributed, one to each guest. Everyone at this table knows what to do and how to do it. We wait for the sizzling flesh and fat before us to quiet down a bit. We exchange glances and grins and then, simultaneously, we place our napkins over our heads, hiding our faces from God, and with burning fingertips lift our birds gingerly by their hot skulls, placing them feet-first into our mouths â€“ only their heads and beaks protruding.
In the darkness under my shroud, I realize that in my eagerness to fully enjoy the experience, Iâ€™ve closed my eyes. First comes the skin and the fat. Itâ€™s hot. So hot that Iâ€™m drawing short, panicky, circular breaths in and out â€“ like a high-speed trumpet player, breathing around the ortolan, shifting it gingerly around my mouth with my tongue so I donâ€™t burn myself. I listen for the sounds of jaws against bone around me but hear only others breathing, the muffled hiss od rapidly moving air through teeth under a dozen linen napkins. Thereâ€™s a vestigal flavor of Armagnac, low-hanging fumes of airborne fat particles, an intoxicating dekicious miasma. Time goes by. Seconds? Moments? I donâ€™t know. I hear the first snap of tiny bones from somewhere near and decide to brave it. I bring my molars down and through my birdâ€™s rib cage with a wet crunch and am rewarded with a scalding hot rush of burning fat and guts down my throat. Rarely have pain and delight combined so well. Iâ€™m giddily uncomfortable, breathing in short, controlled gasps as I continue slowly â€“ ever so slowly â€“ to chew. With every bite, as the thin bones and layers of fat, meat, skin, and organs compact in on themselves, there are sublime dribbles of varied and wonderous ancient flavors: figs, Armagnac, dark flesh slightly infused with the salty taste of my own blood as my mouth is pricked by the sharp bones. As I swallow, I draw in the head and beak, which, until now, have been hanging from my lips, and blithely crush the skull.
[S]talking deer in the Scottish Highland is the hardest, most physically demanding single activity Iâ€™ve ever done on camera. It doesn’t look like much. A nice walk up some hills, across the moors, in traditional Scottish kit, carrying nothing more cumbersome than a walking stick. You donâ€™t even have to carry your rifle. The gamekeeper does that for you. The hills and peaks, the mountains of the Highlands are incredibly beautifulâ€”the footing alternately firm and hard against flinty rock and hard packed soilâ€”then soft and spongy among the heather and scrub of the moors, then steep, near vertical inclines. The idea is to walk up, at a reasonable pace, higher and higher, the incline gradual, legs fine, then not so fine, then burning with exertion. After a few miles, by which time, youâ€™re congratulating yourself on having made it so far, the gamekeeper might spot a suitable animal through his binocularsâ€”about a mile away. â€œIf we sneak around the back that wayâ€”behind that mountainâ€”and make our way quietly across that ridgeâ€”pop out over there-â€ he suggests, pointing at a harrowingly steep range of what sure as hell look like mountains to me, â€œwe might just surprise him.â€ This is yet another climb requiring some skill and no small amount of exertionâ€”and at least another hourâ€”all in the cause of sneaking up on an animal who, more than likely will be gone by the time we arrive at our position. We spend a lot of time crawling through wet heather and brush. Itâ€™s raining in that kind of omnipresent, thin drizzle kind of wayâ€”almost a mist that the French used to call â€œLe Crachinâ€. Which is to say, by the time I finally manage to successfully shoot an old stag in the brain, I am pretty happy at the prospect of walking downhill for a change. But, no. Downhill, it turns out, is worse. MUCH worse. A couple of miles of relentless incline and my knees, deprived of the kind of shock-absorbent cushioning of my younger years, are in full rebellion. Iâ€™m hobbling like Long John Silver, making little grunting sounds with the impact of each step, trying, somehow to take it sideways all the way home.
Hat tip to Vanderleun.