An Homage To An Egg

An excerpt from Manresa by David Kinch

The best chefs relentlessly pursue perfection, even while knowing it’s unattainable. Yet for me, there is a perfect dish, one that embodies all of my ideals about cooking. We pay homage to it at Manresa as The Arpège Farm Egg, to honor and credit the chef who has most inspired me: Alain Passard of L’Arpège. The first time I tasted his farm egg at his restaurant on the Rue de Varenne in Paris, I was stunned into silence. A small spoon dipped down through the white surface and brought up layers of gentle yolk, salty-savory cream, and the sweet and sour of maple syrup and aged sherry vinegar. Each of the two bites contained an explosion of sweet, salt, sour, slight bitterness, umami, and hot and cold temperatures. It had everything, and in perfect balance. It was presented in one of nature’s most perfect shapes, the eggshell, with all its simplicity and understated elegance. I have to admit, I got a bit weepy with joy. With that first taste, my culinary world made sense: this dish brought together everything that I believed cooking should be. It embodied the deep understanding of the magic of cooking and the emotional connection that a chef can orchestrate between food and diner. Some chefs are good because they’re great technicians who do their job well. But the great ones are those who are thought provoking (and thoughtful) and capable of making you connect to an almost childlike joy. Anyone can feed you; few can make you feel. To this day, I am mesmerized by the perfection of the Arpège farm egg—not only by what chef Passard created but also by the feelings and inspiration that it continues to evoke. It is a dish that swings. As we’d say in New Orleans, it can play. Some might wonder why I would serve another chef’s dish in my restaurant. To those who ask if I’m copying, the answer is yes . . . and no. The Arpège Farm Egg represents what we strive for both in and out of the kitchen: two spoonfuls symbolizing all of the wonder that a great dish can provoke and the emotional response it can trigger. And so I decided to pay my respects to it—and its creator—every day. It’s my way of thinking of and thanking Alain Passard.

Over the years, as I ate at Passard’s maison de cuisine, read anything I could find about his philosophy (from his thoughts on roasting to how vegetables came to the fore in his kitchen), and eventually got to know him personally, his way of cooking resonated even more deeply. Even though I’ve never worked for him, my vision of what he stands for has had an incredible effect on how I think about food. Passard is a grand chef who has chosen a less-traveled road. He has one restaurant. His literary output consists of a children’s cookbook, a graphic novel, and a vegetable cookbook featuring his own collages, which are often the starting point for his dishes. He cooks in a dress shirt—no chef’s coat—and spends his free time learning to play saxophone. He is visibly moved by beauty of all kinds. In short, Alain Passard is a sincere cook and a free spirit, preparing a cuisine that is uncluttered and profound, with no place to hide. He takes his cues from the ingredients at hand, relying on his knowledge of the beloved vegetables that arrive daily from his magnificent farms and gardens in the French countryside. His kitchen is one of a knife and a controlled fire, of color, aroma, intelligence, beauty. It is a kitchen of working with light and deft movements, what protégé Pascal Barbot of L’Astrance described as an “elegance of gesture,” of touching and of knowing when. Passard has taken many dramatic steps in following his own path. His embrace of vegetables has been seen as a rejection of red meat, modified starches, and other “modern pantry” items. His lack of interest in eating in other chefs’ restaurants, as though he didn’t want to be influenced by other ideas, has been taken as an arrogant affront. And his hiring of women in both the kitchen and dining room is still in stark contrast to other fine-dining establishments in France. (He also cultivated a relaxed atmosphere in the dining room long before other temples of gastronomy considered loosening their waistcoats.) As a result, he has sometimes fallen out of fashion with and perhaps tweaked France’s culinary “authorities.” At the height of the molecular gastronomy movement in the early aughts, Passard—talking dreamily of his vegetable gardens and his “breaking away from animal tissue”—was seen as passé by his peers, while the French media viewed it as a cynical response to the mad cow disease that had entered Europe at the time. He was portrayed as a man so in love with a cuisine made from mere beets, carrots, spinach, and heirloom tomatoes that he stubbornly ignored the sophisticated technology and equipment being developed and utilized elsewhere to great acclaim. The fact is that Passard refused to focus on technology not because he had been left behind, but because he rejected it. In his mind, sous vide cooking makes the consistency of every ingredient the same, giving it the soft, false “texture of luxury.” But his food didn’t need technology in order to make an emotional connection with diners. Instead he pursued texture and a natural concentration of flavors while eliminating what was not needed in the kitchen or on the plate, a gentle journey to the very essence of a product. Recent years have seen a return to more authentic tastes and flavors of place, whether it’s the New Nordic cuisine, the resurgence of the American South, or the rise of our very own California. Passard, who recognized the importance of a cook’s relationship to the land and those who work it long before it became fashionable, is now rightly considered a visionary by the best chefs in the world. His philosophy helped change the course of gastronomy by inspiring chefs to reflect their immediate natural environment in their dishes. Although his food is French, his cuisine remains unclassifiable and timeless, growing in stature with each year. There is a search for perfection in his cooking, knife work, and seasoning. And—very important—if you want to find Alain Passard, you look in the kitchen of his one restaurant. He is the only chef I’ve met that I can unequivocally call a true artist.

Passard is a leader obsessed with excellence—both his own and that of his cooks. Not only does he recognize talent and use it for the benefit of L’Arpège, he allows cooks’ talents to bloom after they leave his mentorship. They go on to create their own style while remaining stylistically in his family. Take Pascal Barbot’s exploration of Asian flavors through seasonal ingredients at L’Astrance, or the reverence for vegetables highlighted in Mauro Colagreco’s cuisine at Mirazur in the south of France. I have been fortunate to get to know Passard, as well as some of the long line of gifted cooks who have worked for him. In speaking with the likes of Colagreco, Barbot, and Claude Bosi of London’s Hibiscus, I’ve come to realize that Passard acted like their parent: his ego never got in the way of encouraging their talents. As a result, he has created a legacy in which he is cited for being a guiding spirit in their careers (though they did not know it when they were in his grueling kitchen). You can also see and taste their mentor’s philosophy in their own cuisine. It’s fashionable for famous chefs to complain about the quality of cooks that are being produced these days, lamenting how these kids weren’t trained like they had been and are motivated by fame, money, and succeeding in what they perceive as a glamorous profession. (You need only to read a chapter of Marco Pierre White’s White Heat to realize that this is an old argument. The French chefs in the kitchens where I worked said, “Cooks nowadays. If you hand them a live chicken, they’ll run screaming.”) If the next generation’s cooks are so worthless, why hire them? Or rather, if you have your pick of elite talent, maybe you should be looking beyond those who show up at your door. Cooks are different now, and they are motivated for different reasons, good and bad. But they can be taught. As Passard has shown, it takes a true chef to recognize that running a great kitchen is about nurturing and mentoring, not threatening and diminishing. Fear, intimidation, and discipline show on the plate. When food is prepared by people who really care and enjoy what they’re doing, you can taste the difference. As simple as it sounds, happy kitchens make happy food. When we’re hiring in the kitchen at Manresa, we, of course, look for skills and the ability to work as part of a team. But there are some young cooks who simply radiate intelligence. And so, thanks to Passard’s example, we strive to develop their natural talent. Respecting a cook as a person with his or her own ideas and not just some cog in the machine of your cooking greatness will only benefit you, so we train people properly and try to provide a great work environment. It gives me great pleasure to challenge a creative young mind, and the restaurant benefits substantially from the talent and collaborative contribution that they make on a daily basis. Whenever someone leaves Manresa with success on the horizon, I think, “I know that I’ve done my job correctly.”

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RECIPE

Farm Egg with Coriander

Ingredients

For the Meyer Lemon Crème Fraiche:
3ea Meyer lemon zest, no white pith at all
Juice from 3ea meyer lemons
Lemon vinegar
1pt Crème Fraiche

For the Meyer Lemon Cream:
One part heavy whipping cream
One part Meyer lemon crème fraiche
TT Salt

For the Eggs:
4ea Fresh farm eggs
TT Sea salt
TT Chives, freshly cut

To Finish:
Coriander honey
Coriander flowers

Directions for Meyer Lemon Crème Fraiche: 

  1. Boil and drain the lemon zest three times in water. After the third boil is completed, combine the zest and the juice in a pot. Reduce until au sec. Add the lemon vinegar enough to barely cover, and reduce to au sec once more. Chill over an ice bath. Once chilled, blend the lemon mixture with the crème fraiche in a blender until smooth. Pass through a fine strainer.

Directions for Meyer Lemon Cream:

  1. Combine all ingredients in a stainless steel mixing bowl set over ice. Whip gently with a whisk to soft peaks. Reserve in a piping bag.

Directions for Eggs:

  1. Use an egg topper to cut open the eggs. Gently pour out the egg white and yolk, being careful not to break the yolk. Submerge the shell in warm water. Use your finger, and tweezers, to clean out the inside of the shell. Once clean, drain the egg shells and place on a cloth to dry for a few minutes. Using your fingers, carefully separate the yolk from the white. Gently place the yolk back into the shell. Season with salt. Add the chopped chives. Place the egg shell in a water bath that is at 185F for 3-5 minutes, until the outer edges of the yolk are just set and the middle is still fluid. Remove from the bath and gently dry the egg shell with a cloth. Garnish immediately with Meyer lemon cream.