I forget how I came to follow Patrick; it was likely through reading an article about his craft. Patrick and his wife Zandra live in rural Sweden where they produce butter that’s used by some of the world’s best cooks, most famously Danish chef Rene Redzepi.
I understood Patrick’s fascination with the omelette, whose scant ingredients and simplicity would shine a bright and delicious light on butter, so I was compelled to begin a conversation with him. I reached out, not on behalf of the omelette — as delicious as it sounded, but because the mere mention of Escoffier elicits in me a Pavlovian response and makes my heart glow warm.
Escoffier’s seminal work, Le Guide Culinaire, was a basic text in my first year of chef school, and he played an important part in the first tentative steps I took in a professional kitchen. Escoffier’s cookbook gave me the basic tenets of cooking and that warm glow reflects a sentimental mix of respect and admiration for a man —long gone—who was a great teacher.
Le Guide Culinaire is not a straightforward read; Escoffier wrote in a professional shorthand which I recall struggling with. Each entry consists of a number, a recipe title, a list of ingredients with measurements, and a very sparse instruction. A recipe generally has a root cooking method — sometimes more than one — and more detail is to be found in the preface to each chapter, where a lengthy descriptor breathes life into that list of ingredients.
Patrick was drawn to entry number 1502, Omelette Grand’mère (an apt name for such a humble dish.) The parsimonious instructions — plenty unnerving to a cook in first blush — are as follows:
Add to the beaten eggs a pinch of chopped parsley and whilst still hot 25 g (1 oz.) small dice of bread fried in butter. Make the omelette immediately.
The preface to Escoffier’s omelette chapter reinforces the idea that omelette-making is simple — disconcertingly so. (I do admire his flourish in drawing a piece of butter over the finished omelette to give its surface gloss.)
Omelette technique is at once basic and skilled. It will reveal flaws in a cook, which is why it’s so often used as a test of skill. To witness mastery in action watch chef Jacques Pépin’s omelette-making on YouTube. Trust me, it looks far easier than it is.
If all this seems quaint or old-fashioned, it’s important to note that I studied cooking not that long ago (at least, it seems that way to me), when chefs like Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Marco Pierre White were redefining modern French cooking and blazing a trail — now a super highway — to international celebrity chefdom.
There are two other historic chefs I carry in my culinary heart: Fernand Point and Eugénie Brazier. Colleagues from the Rhône-Alpes region, both cooked in Escoffier’s receding shadow, and each had a turn at professionally shaping a very young Paul Bocuse.
One of the first menus I oversaw as a student executive chef was a tribute to Fernand Point. It was an elegant, French dinner and included a signature dish, poularde en vessie Marius Vettard, chicken cooked in a pig’s bladder with foie gras, truffle, Madiera and brandy. Maybe it was the evening, the unbridled luxury, or my first run at overseeing a kitchen, but I fell head-over-heels for M. Point’s culinary joie de vivre. I also fell hard for French cooking that night and its attractions have never faded.
Not too long ago, I found myself on the boulevard Fernand Point in Vienne on a quiet, grey September day. I had long wanted to make this pilgrimage to the chef’s restaurant La Pyramide, to know a little more of this man and that extraordinary moment when modern French cooking was born at his stoves.
I came to know of Eugénie Brazier later, during a period when I made regular trips to Lyon. It should come as no surprise that I have a keen interest in women working in professional kitchens. Eugénie was a grande dame among the legendary Mères Lyonnaises, at one time owning two restaurants, each with three Michelin stars, and carving for herself a delicious — and rare — spot in French culinary history.
I ate twice at her restaurant, La Mère Brazier on the rue Royale. The second time, the kitchen was under the skilful command of chef Mathieu Viannay, and all was a tribute to Eugénie. I was filled with that exquisite mix of wonder, gratitude, and delight when served one of her most famous creations, vollaille de Bresse demi-deuil, tableside. I did not want the meal to end, and hold out hope that the gastronomic gods will indulge me with a return.
Is it strange and sentimental that I feel this deep and enduring connection to long-gone masters? Am I drinking too deeply from the well of romanticism? Or worse, is this the type of nostalgia that comes with age and is barely tolerable to the young?
It’s trite and utterly insufficient to say that I’m drawn to these culinary greats because their passion has stood the passage of time. So I’ll stay with the mystery, and continue to pay my respects to the masters who shaped me. What I do know with great certainty is that I can’t imagine who I would be without them. That’s as simple as omelettes and great butter.
Whose shoulders do you stand on?