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Chefs a-plenty

Friday, 1 May 2009

Itís been a fascinating and stressful week in the A&K Test kitchen. This weekís line-up meant we were cooking for not one, not two, but FOUR world-class chefs!

First up, Daniel Boulud. He is arguably the kingpin of the New York food scene. Deeply rooted in French cooking, the holder of four coveted Michelin Stars and "The Best Cook in New York" according to the New York Times, he sits at the helm of the DB restaurant chain, authors many cookbooks, and is generally very important, very well respected and very, very intimidating.

And to make matters worse, we decided to do something different this time, we tested one of HIS books. (Typically when we test a cookbook, we have a different chef than the one who wrote it come to dinner.)

It was such a big deal that this guy had agreed to come and try our cooking, we wanted to do something different. Now, I can’t tell you exactly what happened — you’ll have to wait til it airs on W Network in a couple of months (sorry!) — but did I mention he brought two of his own chefs? Dale Mackay, who trained with the famed Gordon Ramsay, and Stephan Istel, who has run several of Daniel’s restaurants.

Mon Dieu, what were we thinking?!

I can also tell you a few of the interesting things I learned from these world class chefs about the recipes we tried. You don’t get these guys in your kitchen everyday, so I paid close attention and took lots of notes:

Lobsters
There are girl lobsters and there are boy lobsters. Girl lobsters have coral, or eggs, which are a delicacy, and give your lobster bisque that extra oomph. You can spot the girls because the feathery bits on the mid-section are softer and they tend to have shorter, broader tails.

Lobster Bisque
The key to getting this one right, regardless of what the recipe says, is to throw in a few lobster shells when you’re pureeing. The shell is where most of the flavour is! It gets all ground up and then you strain the whole thing anyway, so I promise it won’t be crunchy.

White Asparagus
The stalks have a thicker casing than green asparagus so you absolutely must peel them. Don’t skip this stage! Also, when cooking asparagus, tie them in bunches with kitchen twine. It makes it easier to grab them out of the water all at the same time. Cook in batches just in case you over or under cook some. And put LOTS of salt in the water when you boil.

And then there were four…

 This week we also tested a book called The Chinese Kitchen, and for that we invited the famed TV chef Martin Yan to travel from San Francisco and try our attempts at traditional Chinese cooking. Remember Yan Can Cook? I used to watch that show as a kid. This guy has been cooking on TV for decades.

He is highly opinionated and animated about doing everything in the traditional Chinese way. After every dish he tried, he would clear his throat and say "Well, traditionally…" and go on to tell us how we got it wrong.

On this day, we tried making everything from Hot-and-Sour Soup, to Beggar's Chicken, to your basic rice. Chef Yan was only too happy to pass along ways to improve our cooking. He had great tips that I will take with me:

Rice
Figure out whether you’re cooking with old rice or new rice. Rice that’s been sitting around for a long time has less moisture in it and therefore requires more water for cooking.

Hot and Sour
Many recipes, like soup and pork, call for a balance between hot or sweet and sour. Chef Yan said the most important thing is to make sure you’ve got this balance right. Recipes should be “obviously” sweet and “obviously” sour. And what’s great is that it’s an easy fix if your flavours aren’t pronounced enough. It’s as simple as throwing in some extra rice vinegar or dried chilies at the end.

Food preparation
The Chinese are very particular about chopping. Chef Yan actually picked apart a few dishes, pointing out how my julienne pieces weren’t all the same size and shape. Sigh. Spend time getting this part right before you start cooking and, not only will your final results be better, your guests will be impressed.

And now I would like someone to cook for ME please!

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