Ever since buying a brand new pressure cooker from a friend for the princely sum of US$40, I’ve been doing slightly more cooking lately. By slightly more, I mean once a week. And by cooking, I mean throwing hastily chopped ingredients into the pressure cooker.
The one-pot wonders that have left my previously purely ornamental kitchen have included spaghetti (where the meat may have clumped together because I was too lazy to brown it separately) and pumpkin soup. My cooking philosophy is simple and twofold. Meals should take no longer to prepare than to eat. So if it takes 10 minutes to eat, it should take no more than 10 minutes to prepare. Secondly, don’t get too fancy and use what you’ve got. Take my Magic Spaghetti, for example. I’d like to think that dumping in whatever spices I happen to have in my pantry, much like the kind Simon & Garfunkel so helpfully set to music, gives it that je ne sais quoi.
Suffice it to say, I was a little out of my culinary element when I attended a Master Class given by Michelin-star restauranteur, Chef Jerome Laurent of Cilantro. His minimalist 40-seat restaurant in Arles, France, serves up Mediterranean fare in what was one of his family homes, situated between the Roman amphitheater and arena in the old part of the city.
I smiled and pretended to know what this strange ingredient was.
(It’s salsify, a root vegetable.)
However, we’re so not different, Chef Jerome and I. He likes to use products in season without a lot of spices to let the flavors shine through; I like to use whatever products I have on hand (nine month old garlic is totally usable, right?). All kidding aside, Chef Jerome aims to keep a balance in his dishes, mixing techniques, a little liquid, texture and acidity.
“People say my food is almost feminine. I don’t use too much oil or cream. I want to keep it light. People can come in for lunch and then go back to work without feeling heavy.”
That marriage of flavors shone through in our first dish – Pan-fried goose liver served in its own juice with a porcini and pear marmalade, a heavenly combination of flavors – the saltiness of the goose liver, with the sweetness of the pear, the acidity of the balsamic chicken jus reduction and the soft, buttery texture of the porcini marmalade. Surprisingly, this amazing dish had only a dozen or so ingredients, but tasted like a comforting fire on a cold winter’s night.
The second dish highlighted our shared love for simplicity. While my Magic Spaghetti also features less than a dozen ingredients which are roughly chopped and ignominiously dumped into a pot, Chef Jerome cored a potato, sliced it into paper-thin discs and then proceeded to meticulously re-create the look of scales on a filet of red mullet before finishing it off with a salad of fennel tossed with balsamic and olive oil and finished off with a bouillabaisse sauce.
A third area where we’re practically culinary twinsies is in our disdain for garnishes. Garnishes for me are simply a no-no. (See previously stated 10-minute rule.) Do I really need a swan made out of carrots to make my food taste better? I was happy to see that Chef Jerome’s pan-fried fois gras was intentionally free from any garnishes. The second dish happened to have a splash of red from the grilled capsicum and semi-dried tomatoes as well as a ring of green provided by the sauteed arugula, but Chef Jerome insisted that they were a happy coincidence. “This dish has many colors but each item has a reason. Use color when you can, but not just for fun”, he says.
“Most of my dishes are ungarnished. They don’t need it. I’m not going to put a piece of tomato on just for color. It has to make sense.”
I’ve always wondered how a restaurant is awarded a Michelin star. Chef Jerome talks of the day a customer identified himself as a Michelin inspector, after having had lunch in his restaurant, two years after it opened. A check of the menu and wines along with an on-the-spot check of the kitchens and products followed. During that year, 10 unannounced inspections were made before the star was finally awarded. Despite the honor, Chef Jerome still lives to cook great food.
“Humans make food. No one’s perfect. Guests expect the meal of the year when they come in so it’s very tough. My first goal is to enjoy people, not for culinary glory, just to please my customers. That’s why I make food. It’s important to keep your feet on the floor.”
Chef Jerome’s top tips from this class were:
- Investigate local ingredients. His dish uses the Asian pear because it keeps its size and texture, even when overcooked.
- Keep the skin on fruits and vegetables to preserve their size when cooking. However, because the skin can leave a bitter taste, counter with a bit of sugar in the cooking liquid.
- Start with cold water for boiling vegetables and fruits, except for greens. Use very low heat to gently boil vegetables, allowing them to keep their texture.
- When cooking proteins, make sure to salt them before. This will help caramelize them for a nice color and also form a crust, keeping the meat juicy.
- Mushrooms are 80% water, so to get the most flavor out of them, you must remove the water by cooking them several times. For his porcini marmalade, he first fried the mushrooms in olive oil before draining them and finishing them in the oven.
- We were all worried that the potato “scales” would come off in the cooking process. But Chef Jerome assured us that the starchiness of the potatoes (along with a dusting of corn starch) and cold clarified butter would act like a glue. Not one of the potato scales came off.
If you’re fortunate enough to be in Saigon this week, catch Chef Jerome’s signature dishes until March 23, including “White asparagus Vichyssoise”, “Pigeon in cocoa sauce” and “Peanut-chocolate mille-feuille served with a sweet pepper ice cream” at the gorgeous L’Olivier Restaurant in the Sofitel Saigon Plaza (tel: 08 3824 1555).