The Le Bernardin Philosophy
I have a fairly rigid theory about great chefs: If you didn't grow up with food, you will never be one. When I say food, I don't mean Pizza Hut, bologna sandwiches, and Chicken McNuggets. I mean great, home-cooked stuff, food that sets your mouth wateringthick, garlicky stews; mounds of potatoes, steaming hot, mashed with butter and cream; summer fruit tarts warm out of the oven.
This theory might seem harsh, but ask any chef you know about the foods of his (or her) childhood and he'll start rhapsodizing about some secret family recipe or regional delicacy from his hometown. Gilbert, for example, drew on Brittany and the sea for inspiration. Me, I turn to Andorra, that blip of a country wedged between Spain and France where I grew up, a lucky child of two cuisines. I got Spanish from my mother, an excellent cook, who for dinner would pair filet mignon with crepe purses stuffed with porcini mushrooms, stun us with a twenty-five-ingredient salad, and finish with flan in a rich caramel sauce. From my grandmothers, who lived in Nîmes and Nice, I got country Provençal, loads of olives and sun-ripened tomatoes, anchovies and onions. By the time I was five, I had the palate of a gourmet; by the time I was a teenager, all I wanted to do was eat.
What amazes me still is that I turned those taste buds into a profession. I remember my first job, at the four-star Tour d'Argent in Paris. I started on a hot day, and when I was told to make hollandaise sauce, I refused. I couldn't beat so many eggs in such heat. Even though I'd graduated from culinary school, I was clueless about what it meant to be a chef. I learned on the job, starting with Tour d'Argent, where I suffered a two-year-long lesson in discipline. When I moved on to Joel Robuchon, working as a line cook, I learned about the power of amazing ingredients and acquired the right technical skills. Later, with Jean-Louis Palladin, I learned from an artiste how to open my mind and be creative, to express myself.
Everything came together with Gilbert. When we met, Gilbert wanted to get out of the kitchen, to pursue other things, and I wanted to get in, to have a kitchen of my own. Yes, the timing was right, but more important, Gilbert and I made sense together because we shared the same philosophy. "Do whatever you want, just do it in Le Bernardin's style," he'd say, which for me was a code: Understand the products, respect the differences, be disciplined.
I wouldn't do it any other way. In my kitchen, as in Gilbert's, every fish gets treated according to its personality. Salmon, for example, is excellent rare; skate is better well done; tuna is lovely raw. What I do is look for the right sauce and the right vegetable for each fish. That way, everything goes together, and the fish is the star of the plate. I also feel what I do. It's in my blood, passed on to me from my grandmothers in Provence and my mother in Andorra. When I cook a carrot, I become that carrot. If I don't feel the food, I will only be a great technician, never a great chef. For me, food is about memories, feelings, emotions, and so is Le Bernardin. That's why it's not just a restaurant, but a great one.
Start With Quality Products
At Le Bernardin, we only buy the best ingredients for every dish, starting with the saltwe import ours from Europefor a very simple reason. Amazing cuisine is made only with amazing products. You have to know and respect your products, know what's good, what's best, what's possible, and act on that knowledge. Researching the best can be a time-consuming processI regularly dig through crates of soft-shell crabs to come up with a single platterfulbut it is the only way to be sure you end up with incredible food on the plate. Remember: No dish is better than its ingredients.
To get started, you need help. Befriend your suppliers, your local greengrocer, fishmonger, butcher. You can't live without them. Suppliers will be able to give you advice and suggestions. These people will insure that you get the best products available. They will be able to special-order for you, to set aside choice items you might like. You want these sellers on your side.
Memorize or jot down this rule on every shopping list you make: There are no bargains. If a product costs $100, you're not going to get it for $20. Cheap rice makes lousy risotto. At Le Bernardin, we don't bargain the price of a product; in fact, we often pay a premium.
Now, about storage. Until recently, I kept our truffles in jars of rice like everyone else. Then Leon Pinto told me they keep best under water. Not for three months, but for a week or two, they stay incredibly fresh. When something is stored properly, it retains its flavor and freshness longer. Ask your grocer for storage tips.
I know not everyone is going to be as rigorous about ingredients as we are at Le Bernardin; but just recognizing quality is important, because once you know and respect your products you can preserve their integrity. Then, when the ingredients are all perfect, your job is practically done. All that's left is the cooking.
Why Seasons Are Important
I don't know why and I can't prove it, but to me basil tastes better in the summer than in the winter. Maybe it has a memory and likes the summer sun better than the winter sun. Maybe it's our bodies, which are different in December than they are in July, telling us what we need. All I know is that if I serve a pot au feu in the summer or gazpacho in winter, my customers revolt.
As a cook, if you want the best, freshest flavors, you have to work with the seasons. Now, in the United States you can get almost every product all year round, but I don't care. Some items will always be winter items, some will always be summer items. Just by looking, I can tell the difference between farm-raised fish and wild fish, between hydroponically grown vegetables and seasonal vegetables grown where they belong, in the dirt. There's a huge difference. So, do yourself a favor, make tomato dishes in the summer, use asparagus in the spring, cepes in the fall. Serve shad roe in the spring, oysters in the winter and fall.
The truth is, the seasons give us something to look forward to. I'm always excited to see the first zucchini blossoms come up, to try the first soft-shell crabs. If I had to serve the same menu all year long, it would be boring.
About Fresh Fish
At Le Bernardin, we are such fanatics about fresh seafood that we discard any fish that is in the restaurant more than twenty-four hours. My rule of thumb is that from boat to plate should be no longer than three days, maximum. Not everyone has this luxury, but you should always buy as fresh as possible. If you have a fishmonger you trust, your job will immediately become easier. Though I'm opposed to frozen fish, I'd rather have good-quality frozen fish than mediocre fresh fish. Here is what to look for:
Turbot, Halibut, and Other White-Fleshed Fish
A fresh fish reveals itself to you pretty quickly. You just have to know what to look for. I always recommend buying the fish whole. That way, you get more information. Start with your nose. If a fish is bad, you'll know it immediately by smelling the belly. And don't be afraid to touch. The flesh should be firm and spring back; if the fish is in rigor mortis, that's even better. It means it is very fresh. The eyes should be clear, not cloudy; shiny and nicely colored, not green or white. When you rub the scales, they shouldn't come off easily, and if you check the gills, they should be red, not brown.
If you can't buy a whole fish and must buy fillets, which I don't recommend unless you trust your purveyor, make sure the store is very clean and the fillet doesn't smell. If it's white meat, it should be translucent and shiny. Salmon is a little trickier. At the least, it should be a nice orange-pink color, shiny, and odorless.
It's pretty unlikely you will buy an entire swordfish, so it becomes even more important to inspect the quality of the fish you're getting. The fillet itself should be between ivory and translucent. If you press the flesh with your finger, the meat should spring back. If it doesn't, it means the fish is either very old or has been frozen. There will be blood in the middle of the fillet. It should be red, not black or brown, and there shouldn't be too much of it. If there are red spots on the fish, that means it has broken blood vessels. Ask for another piece. In the center bone, there should be a little gelatin.
This is the only tuna we use at the restaurant, and we use only sushi quality. As with swordfish, you will be buying fillets. Inspect the meat. It should be odorless, oily to the touch, and should spring back when you press into the meat with your finger. Tuna naturally has a pink-ruby color, but if there are red marks, it means the fish has been damaged and suffered broken blood vessels. If the overall color is too red, it means the tuna doesn't have enough fat; if it's brownish, it's old. When you spot what looks like stringy white cartilage, you've identified nerves. This can't be chewed. That tuna will only be good for tartare, if ground.
Fish should never smell, and this is doubly true for clams, mussels, and oysters. Their shells should be clean and not sticky. If they are covered with barnacles, it means they're from the bottom of the barrel. You don't want them. Always buy your shellfish live. To make sure, open one. The shell should be full of water, the animal plump. When you touch the animal with a knife or squeeze a little lemon juice over it, it should retract. If it doesn't, it's dead. Send it back. Another suggestion: Don't buy frozen oysters. They're disgusting.
Lobster and Spiny Lobster
Always buy your lobsters live, and I mean really alive, not those sluggish, dull ones, but the ones that are squirming, like they've got someplace to go. This is imperative. Inspect your catch carefully: Don't take any amputees, and don't accept lobsters with short antennae. It means they've been in a tank for a long time and have had their antennae eaten by another lobster.
If you have a choice, always take female over the male lobsters. The females have coral, which gives them a richer flavor. The way you can tell is that the female has two tiny crossed legs at the beginning of her tail. They're hairy, not because they didn't shave but because that's where they carry their eggs. The male has clean, slick legs.
To make sure the quality is good, turn the lobster over and stick your finger inside the first ring of the belly. The skin should be taut and you should be able to feel the lumpy meat underneath.
The best way to buy shrimp is live, but I know it's rare to find them that way. If you can't get them live, inspect them carefully. Smell them first, they shouldn't smell like shrimp, but like the ocean, and not at low tide. The shells should be shiny and firm. If you can't find good fresh shrimp, frozen ones are okay. Sometimes they're even better.
Always buy your crabs alive, no matter what the type. They should be energetic and robust, not wobbling around feebly in a crate. Each crab should be heavy, with a clean shell. As with lobsters, the females are better than the males. You can easily tell them apart: The male has a short tail and a thin belly flap, the female's is plumper.
Again, soft-shell crabs should be alive and kicking. Make sure they are wiggling their legs and not just lying there. Touch the shells, they should be soft and velvety.
The best way to buy scallops is in the shell, but it's rare to find them that way, so just make sure they are still alive. (They survive twenty-four hours after being cut from their shells.) Start with the smellthere shouldn't be one. Look at the scallops closelyif they're alive, they'll be vibrating. The best test is to cut a piece to see if it moves. The nerve itself should be meaty and translucent, not white.
You buy sea urchins in the winter when they are in season. They should be in their shells, heavy, with spines that quiver when you rub your fingers over them. That means they're alive. They should be shiny and odorless. The females, which are bright yellow inside, are better than the males, which are dark, yellow-gray.
Buy the baby onesthey're infinitely more tender, and inspect the color closely. If they are very white, they're old and have been in water too long. If they're very red, they're also old. The best ones are iridescent, with a hint of a rainbow in their skin. They should be shiny, not dull, and, as always, odorless.
Storage and Handling of Fish
As I've said before, you should start with a whole fish, not fillets. For longfish (grouper, halibut, bass, etcetera), hold the fish by the eyes so you don't hurt yourself; for flatfish (sole, turbot), use the tail. Be extra careful with skatethey have little hooks on their wings that can be poisonous.
As soon as you get your fish home, rinse it off under cold water and pat it dry. Fillet and portion it right away, then wrap it tight and keep it cold (approximately 33 degrees Fahrenheit) until you are going to use it. (The best way to keep the fish very cold is to place the fish on a plate on top of a bed of crushed ice in a shallow container. If you do this, don't let the fish get wet or touch the ice. Fish should always be stored separately from other items in your refrigerator; if it touches other items, such as vegetables and meats, both tastes will be spoiled.
There are slightly different procedures for shellfish. As soon as shellfish arrive in the restaurant, we wash and clean them, then store them in containers with built-in trays. Crushed ice goes under the trays but never touches the shellfish. Clams we rinse well under water. Oysters, on the other hand, need to be stacked to keep their shells from opening. Place the curved side down, flat side up, on a tray in a box so the water drips down and doesn't flood the oysters. They will keep for three or four days this way. Lobsters should be laid flat, one next to the other, with their tails curled under. They should be stored dry (no water or ice) and will stay alive for two days. Shrimp, too, should be laid flat, or stacked, but not too deep.
To cook well, you don't need a lot of fancy gadgets, but you can't be cheap when you're buying the basics.
Start with your knives, which are the single most important tool in the kitchen (at Le Bernardin, each cook has his own set); they should be as sharp as they are expensive. I guarantee that the investment is worthwhile. Dull knives make you work harder and cut fingers as often as food. To start, I would invest in a good chef's knife, a paring knife, a flexible filleter, and a steel sharpener. Every time you use the knives, clean them well with antibacterial soap and wrap them in cloth so they don't get banged around in the drawer.
Other utensils you will need to make Le Bernardin recipes are: tweezers for extracting