The Royal Star – The SRP

The Royal Star
220 City Road
London, EC1V 2PN

I had forgotten just how good parsnips are in this country. Sweet and just a little spicy, they’re delicious. I haven’t had many roasts this winter, so I’ve been missing out on all the amazing parsnips. Also, roasted potatoes. The British way of cooking potatoes is really very nice. It’s a two-step process that Americans don’t bother with: First a few minutes in boiling water to par-cook them, then into the oven tossed with fat (ideally goose or duck fat). It’s a method I’m totally adopting into my repertoire.

The roast today was pretty good, above average, but the thing that stood out was the music selection. It seemed to be all 80’s one-hit wonders and other forgettable 80’s tracks, including “Drive” by the Cars, something by Crowded House, a flaccid Phil Collins song (Another Day in Paradise), Heart (who I’ve always detested), and one of Boy George’s few hits. Talk about the perfect opportunity for a forty-something (me!) to have a perfectly bad sing-along session, this was it!

Worms in salmon

Recently, tapeworms have been found in our wild salmon, and it’s causing quite a brouhaha. The wild salmon in the Pacific Northwest is one of the hallmarks that makes this region of the world unique and special, and as a chef, I have a double obligation to protect this amazing resource.

The “salmon” we get here in the UK is not salmon. It’s pink trout.

Real salmon are born in streams and lakes then migrate to the ocean. They generally eat only while living in saltwater and they breed only in fresh water. After a four-year lifespan in the ocean, they make a migration to their original birthplace(!), they spawn, then they die. As that they don’t eat during their migration, they eat before they make their start, which means that the longer the river they have to travel, the fatter and bigger they will be when they start off. Which is why Copper River salmon are so prized; that river is about 290 miles (or about the distance from Trafalgar Square to Dublin as the crow flies). Finally, wild salmon’s flesh is red/pink/rose from their diet in the wild.

The Atlantic “salmon” (or Scottish salmon as it’s known here in London) are part of the genus Salmonidae, I concede. But they have much more in common with lake and river trout than my mystical Pacific salmon. Atlantic pink trout don’t have a regular 4-year life cycle, and they don’t die after spawning. Worse, their flesh is grey. It’s only pink because of the food dye in the pellets that they’re fed while in their pens.

Worms in fish
But back to the issue at hand: Worms.

Tapeworms are a very common parasite found in fish. In fact, if you buy large fillets of halibut, you will almost always find at least one worm in every single fillet. They’re that common.

But while worms are common, they’re also stupid-easy to deal with. Simply freeze the fish for a couple days, then slowly defrost in your fridge before you cook it (or serve it as sushi). Better still would be to buy Frozen At Sea (FAS) fish, which is fish that’s frozen right there on the ocean trawler right after the fish has been gutted and cleaned. These boats have huge commercial freezers and can do a proper job freezing the salmon, much better and faster than your little consumer-quality freezer.

Fresh vs Frozen
Freezing has a really bad rap amongst consumers, and it’s undeserved. I would never buy “fresh” fish because within my industry, “fresh” equals “not frozen” which means that fish is likely to be just one short day from going bad. If the FAS fish is still frozen when I buy it, all the better, because now I can keep it and serve at my convenience.

To consumers (non-chefs), “fresh” means “is it still good to eat”? So if you buy into the romanticism of buying “fresh” fish, at least ask: “How many days ago did this particular “fresh” fish come out of the water?” If the seller can’t answer that easily and honestly, then don’t buy that fish. You might find it’s not so “fresh” after all.

There is one problem with freezing: For maximum quality, it can only be done once. We all know that water expands when frozen. Meat is mostly water, so those meat cells rupture when frozen and it feels mushy when defrosted. The more times you freeze/defrost, the more meat cells you’re rupturing, destroying the quality of the meat. And the slower the freezing process, the more damage you’re causing, which is why commercially frozen fish is likely to be the highest quality, as long as you don’t freeze it again when you get home.

Incidentally, this freezing policy also works for pork, which is why eating pink (medium-rare) pork is perfectly safe. Trichinosis can’t survive freezing, so if that chop has been frozen before you cook it, you can serve it with a nice tender pink center, instead of the dead grey curled piece of shoe leather we all had to do in the 1950’s (apparently).

Too long, didn’t read?
Buy whatever fish you want, just make sure that somewhere along the line it’s been thoroughly frozen. Then you’ll be ok. But if you’re still worried, make sure you cook it to an internal temperature of 145F.

Finally, if you must have something fish-related to get worried about and lose sleep over, it should be tuna and its mercury content. Tuna are at the top of the fish food chain (relatively speaking) so they accumulate all the mercury of all the fish it eats, and all the fish they ate, and all the fish they ate, so on and so forth. When the tuna gets to your kitchen, unlike tapeworms, there’s no cooking out the mercury.

What I’ll do for a free dinner

Fete des Rois
Fete des Rois

Tonight was Fete des Rois, a French Christmas tradition, and in honor of the celebration, several local French restaurants were giving away free dinners to anyone wearing a crown. London is not a cheap place to live, so you get good at finding the bargains. Shout-out to Denise for discovering this fantastic deal (as she always does!).

I didn’t have a crown of my own, so I borrowed Denise’s pink boa-lined tiara. I got several glances as I walked in, but I also got my free dinner, so it was worth it!

We went to Bellanger, a high-end Alsatian restaurant in our neighborhood. We couldn’t get reservations since this was a crazy-popular event, but we figured we lived close enough, we could just drop in to see if they had any last-minute cancellations. Sure enough, thanks to the TFL strike shutting down a good portion (all?) of the Underground, many people had to cancel. So in walked the Joneses! Probably the first time anyone’s ever said this, but “Thank you, TFL!”

Dinner was a three-course affair with a glass of wine. We had a smoked duck terrine, white wine coq au vin, and a slice of galette des rois (a tart made with puff pastry and frangipane). I have to guess the price tag would normally have been at least £35/pp. All I had to do was wear that tiara.

The food was amazing and to top it all off, I found the baby figurine in my slice of the galette; it was a little baby jaguar that reminded me of Hazel Grace. Since I was the lucky one to find the baby, it meant I was the king for the day, and responsible (apparently) for buying next year’s cake. I’ll make my own galette, of course!

After dinner, on the way out of the restaurant, still wearing my tiara, I had several women offer to trade me for it. I was tempted, because one woman had a really nice authentic looking crown, but I think I need to keep this tiara for next year’s dinner. It’s a tradition now!

There are two types of chefs

Ah, Top Chef. I show I really want to enjoy but gets under my skin nearly every episode, and we’re only four episodes in so far this season.

The personalities are usually pretty annoying and quite full of their own misplaced confidence. The host has such an annoying flat affect when she speaks. The head judge is turning into an old curmudgeon. The challenges themselves are all microwaved left-over concepts from 10 seasons ago.

But the one thing that will get me riled up like a micro-aggression on a college campus is the propagation of the myth that it takes a pastry chef to make desserts. There is no such thing as a pastry chef: There are chefs who can make desserts and then there are people who wear chefs’ jackets thinking they’re chefs.

Yes, that’s the flag I just planted.

A real chef seeks to expand their knowledge and improve their craft every single day, in all aspects. And yet, episode after episode of this show I see “chefs” shake in their toques about having to make a fucking cake or some other baking project. They claim to not know how, or that they’re not pastry chefs, or that they have other chefs to do this for them. In no other aspect of cooking will you ever hear a chef declare their willful ignorance and lack of skill so proudly.

Imagine if you will, a chef who walks into a kitchen and is asked to make a mayonnaise. What do you think would happen if that chef said “Oh, I don’t make mayo, I’ve never done that before, I’m not a mayo chef.” Or maybe not mayo, but how about roast a chicken? Or skin a fish? Or make mashed potatoes? Any chef who says that will instantly lose their “chef card”.

So why is this response tolerated (and even endorsed) when that same chef says this shit about making a cake or a pie or a mousse or ice cream or any other dessert?

I’ll tell you why some chefs say this. It’s because they’re intellectually and professionally lazy.

Yes, that’s the flag I just planted.

It’s not about skill. It’s not about a completely different technique set. It’s not about a unique way of looking at the world. And it certainly is Not. Just. Fucking. Chemistry.

Being a specialized chef is not what I’m referring to here, so don’t mistake me. We have chefs who specialize in charcuturie, sauces, meats, vegetables. And that’s fine. It’s what we chefs do when we find a skill we enjoy that we want to master. We dedicate a significant portion of our lives and career to exploring and learning this specialized area.

But I’ll bet you dollars to well-crafted doughnuts that these specialists could easily fill in for a day if the Poissonier, for example, calls in sick. How many chefs could fill in if the Patissier couldn’t make it to work? Apparently only about 30% of the current Top Chef roster… And they all call themselves Executive Chefs.

I firmly believe to my professional core that anyone can cook. It takes dedication, practice, sacrifice, and some amount of smarts. But it doesn’t take a genius. It barely even requires true talent. So most people don’t bother honing their culinary skills beyond the annual Thanksgiving dinner or Fourth of July barbecue. And that’s fine. They’re not professional chefs.

But if you call yourself a professional chef, you better fucking learn how to make a cake, a mousse, pie crust, a damn fine cookie, a simple baguette. You don’t have to be the next Poilâne, but you have to be good at it. You don’t have to dedicate your entire life to it, but you have to be conversant. Because if you can’t do these things, you’re not a chef, you’re just somebody in a white jacket standing in front of a stove.

Dining in Nice, France

We were in Nice, France over the Christmas holiday, and we had some really great food at some amazing restaurants. I might put up longer reviews at some point, but here’s the short version for future reference:

12/22 – Le Tire Bouchon (address): A special candlelight dinner along with a set menu for the evening.
12/23 – Comptoir du Marche: A nice little modern casual bistro (casual bistro)
12/24 – Au Moulin Enchante: Very welcoming owner and delicious food
12/25 – La Femme Boulanger: A more modern-style bistro with delicious food and a helpful host. She didn’t speak much English, but recommended a day trip to Vence which we absolutely loved.
12/26 – Cote Marais: A more intimate little restaurant, but casual. As always, delicious food and great service.
12/27 – Marcel Bistro (lunch): Found it wandering around on our last day, one of the few places offering a set menu for lunch. An astounding bargain at the price.

All these restaurants were wonderful; I don’t think we had a bad meal in Nice. If I could only pick one, though, I think my favorite was Le Tire Bouchon. It had it all: great food, warm ambiance, good service, affordable prices.