Eat Your Heart Out
Cooking with Albert: My brief, wondrous culinary adventures at Chez Roux
"Good job, girls."
My mother has an entire filing cabinet of my various awards and accomplishments from birth on forward, but this might be the most exciting affirmation of success I have ever received.
When the representatives at La Torretta Lake Resort & Spa offered me a chance to attend an intimate cooking lesson and meal with Chef Albert Roux and his handpicked staff at Chez Roux, I leapt at the chance. After all, it's not every day you cook with a legend of the British culinary world. Roux, with his brother Michel, opened London's Le Gavroche in 1967, which transformed British dining and was the first UK restaurant awarded three Michelin stars in 1981.
The only drawback? I don't cook. Like, at all.
So, figuring that two clueless novices are better than one, I bring along my friend and co-worker, Caroline. Arriving at the special chef's table adjacent to the kitchen, Roux and executive chef Matthew Gray give us the menu and basic game plan and introduce the chefs we'll be working with in groups of two. Rejecting the seafood course (smelly) and the dessert trio (boring), Caroline and I elect to make the main course, roast breast of duck with parmesan polenta, pearl onions and braised mustard greens. We also pick the duck because the junior sous chef, Damien Rice, seems to have a sense of humor, which I think he'll need trying to work with us.
We are handed large knives and shown how to trim the fat from the breasts—we complete the task decently but slooooooowly; eventually Damien gives us several additional tutorials so that the course will be ready in time. Chef Roux is also watching and gives me a stern warning when I'm about to remove too much of the duck. Since I am not bleeding and did not accidently ruin anything, I consider the knife portion of the lesson an overwhelming success.
Caroline is given responsibility for the duck sauce while I handle the pearl onions. This comes down to stirring and feeling accomplished while Damien scurries behind our backs, handing us pre-measured ingredients and leaving us to pour them in and watch the pots. After I totally own the caramelized onions, Damien decides I'm ready to whisk the polenta. It turns out I have no clue how to use a whisk, but I pick it up. What no one told me is that whisking is exhausting. I fully expect to have whisk elbow tomorrow.
The last phase is seasoning the duck breasts and watching them cook on the stove. Damien gives us advice while watching the clock—it's clear he really wants us to be able to recreate this at home. Caroline tells him at her house they store books in the oven.
The last to finish, we grab our champagne flutes and join Roux and the others at the table. Silvano Giraldin, the longtime manager of Le Gavroche, gives us a brief lesson about our wine pairings. Roux makes polite (and funny!) small talk to the amateur chef/diners, while occasionally barking an order to the kitchen staff as they prepare for the dinner service.
At last, the moment of truth arrives. The main course, our duck has been sliced and plated with the polenta, onions, mustard greens and a parmesan wafer. I take a bite and, oh my god, it's really good. At least, I think it's good. Duck is not exactly a staple of my diet. So I watch Chef Roux—as he takes a bite, his face doesn't light up in wonder at our excellence, but neither does he choke or spit it out. "Mmm, very tender," he proclaims. "Good job, girls."
Forget the wine, I'm drunk with glee. Albert Roux ate something I made and said nice things! Sure, it's his recipe to begin with and maybe (probably) he's just placating us. But I still plan to inscribe the quote on my tombstone. I finish the three-course dinner (the other students also performed well, but I like to think the duck was the standout) emotionally and gastronomically satisfied.
Am I encouraged to take to the kitchen more often? Definitely. I never thought I'd ever create anything gourmet, but with patience and preparation, I know it's possible. Still, it's tempting to never cook again and go out with this class, this moment, as my crowning achievement.