Tokyo Table

Culinary Adventures at Le Cordon Bleu, Tokyo

From Humble Spuds to Pommes de Terre

As Week Four winds up, the first course is halfway completed. Looking ahead at the syllabus, almost every practical has a side dish of potatoes.  Hurray! This should be familiar territory, allowing me to concentrate on more complicated parts, like the main dish.  My heritage is Irish, and the humble spud was an almost-daily dinner accompaniment.  Potatoes were expected; a simple side dish without much thought.  Growing up, I usually peeled, quartered, boiled and mashed them. Though taken for granted, I loved my potatoes and enjoyed heaping spoonfuls of butter on them to get the flavor just right.  And sometimes, for special dinners, I would have potatoes scalloped or roasted in butter.  But today, as I take a closer look through the list of potatoes, I recognize just two dishes: puree of potatoes and Potatoes Duchesse.  The others have beautiful names, such as Pommes Byron, Pommes Boulangere and Pommes Croquettes, but give few clues as to what the final dish will be. 

For the French, it seems, Pommes de Terre, or its translation, “apples of the earth,” are also celebrated, yet formed into creations that are far above the second billing I gave them growing up.   And as I’m about to learn, they take as much time and careful attention as the meat and fish.  Monsieur Auguste Escoffier, the man who wrote and categorized the entire French culinary repertoire in the early 1900’s, includes no less than 60 recipes of pommes de terre.  I wonder how many I’ll learn?

Today in the demonstration, Chef says we are starting at the beginning with potatoes and making a simple Pommes Anglaises.  This is to accompany fish that will be braised in a tomato sauce, and once again, we will begin with the whole fish and then scale, fillet and bone it before making four fillets.  Today I’m ready to embrace the reality that when the recipe says “fillet,” it means that the fish comes whole: head, fins and all.  But the potato is the surprise today.  Chef says it’s easy, it’s a boiled potato.  However, it’s a little more complicated than simply peeling, quartering and boiling.  It’s a process called tourner, which means to turn .

Chef then asks us to turn to the back of the binder to find a list of terms and measurements under Tourner.  It says: 

Cocotte: About 5 cm long (15-20 g), seven sides

Anglaises: Between 5.5 and 6 cm long (35-45 g), seven sides

Château: Between 6 and 6.5 cm long (55-65 g), seven sides

What in the world does this mean?  Each potato gets a different name according to how many cm in length?  And each one has seven sides?  And why seven?  And who thought of this anyway?  Well, the answer to the last question is always: Monsieur Escoffier.  But why seven? 

I can’t contemplate this too long, as Chef is now showing us how to “turn” the potatoes, holding them with the left hand while carving the seven sides with the tip of the knife in his right.  And he is actually turning it with his left hand after completing each side.  This process takes all of 15 seconds to accomplish.  They do look beautiful, and I suppose having everything the same shape would ensure even cooking, but this seems very complicated.  But as I watch him turn potato after potato, I start to wonder if it might be similar to soap carving, which is not so hard after all?

When I was a child, a certain cereal maker would have a surprise toy inside.  One of my favorites was a stick that was curved at the end for carving soap.  I loved this surprise and loved carving soap, though I never thought of creating multiple seven-sided objects that all looked the same.  Now that I’m starting to wrap my head around this tourner concept, Chef demonstrates just how easy a potato is to turn, and in less than two minutes creates a potato in a cage.  Working quickly and expertly with one humble spud, he carves a box with six open sides and a round potato inside.  Thankfully, he explains that I won’t have to repeat this in demonstration, but it confirms my suspicion that turning potatoes began with a bored child who ate too much sugary cereal.

Potato in a Cage by Chef Gilles

On the way home, I decide that a little turning practice would be helpful and I stop by the local produce stand to buy some potatoes.  After they are washed and peeled, I find that indeed it is like soap carving, but my skills are about as refined as they were at age five.  After numerous tries, which take me much longer than 15 seconds each, I’m feeling confident and ready for the next day.

Potatoes on Scale

The kitchen practical goes as expected, the fish is whole, the tomato sauce for braising arrives in the shape of red tomatoes, and the potatoes are brown and rugged.  But that’s why I’m here, to take simple ingredients and prepare an extraordinary meal.  The turning of the potatoes is towards the end of the lesson plan, and I know that I’ll need to leave enough time to boil and plate at least three that look somewhat similar.  I have six whole potatoes, which means that with careful cutting I’ll be able to turn 12.  And while I’m carefully carving my spuds, I come to another realization: nothing on the plates from Le Cordon Bleu will be an afterthought.  Each ingredient, each product, needs to be carefully prepared and seasoned, not just the meat or the fish.  It’s attention to detail all the way through. 

For my first time turning, I’m very pleased with the result.  The difficulty came with the cooking. The concept of turning is that each one will be the same shape so they will cook evenly.  But because I’m not yet as precise as Chef, my thickness of each turned potato is not the same.  I’m not concerned though, and when I have finished turning, I choose my best three and boil them.  But when I take my third potato from the strainer, it begins to crumble.  With no time left to cook more potatoes, I quickly assess my situation: Do I plate two nicely-turned potatoes for a pleasing presentation or somehow stick the third one back together and present a half-turned, half-mash ensemble?  I decide two are fine and bring it to Chef. 

  He likes my fish and sauce and says my potatoes are cooked well, and then asks about the other potato.  I explain what happened, and then I have a question for him, “Is it better to present two perfectly-done potatoes, or include the third that had fallen apart?”  After a moment of thought Chef says, “Well, the customer paid for 3 perfect potatoes.”  And so that’s the standard.  Next time I’ll cook all 12 turned potatoes and hopefully 3 will make it to the plate.

Chef Gilles’ Braised Brill in Tomato Sauce with Pommes Anglaises

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