Tokyo Table

Culinary Adventures at Le Cordon Bleu, Tokyo

A Tasty Fish

There’s an old saying, “A tasty fish has to swim three times: once in water, once in butter and finally in wine.” I take a look at today’s recipe and indeed, the fish is fresh, braised in a wine broth, and served with Hollandaise Sauce containing 75g of clarified butter per serving. Looks like I have all the ingredients for success. But as another old saying goes, “We eat with our eyes.” So today’s lesson is about presentation as much as taste.

Hollandaise Sauce – butter and egg yolks

It appears that success with this dish requires more than ingredients; it’s about technique. Though I have already prepared and filleted fish, in today’s 2.5-hour kitchen practical I am preparing not one, but two trout to be served whole. That means I remove all  inedible parts while keeping the belly intact. I also will skin the fish, but only after it has been cooked. Each trout will be served with turned and cooked carrots, potatoes, and zucchini. Chef says this lesson is all about “the tip of the knife” and both the skinning and the turning can easily be done, but he cautions that trout are delicate.

Once in the kitchen I begin to “look at my fish.” Small, grey, and not too thick. I imagine that small is good, because there is less surface area to skin. The preparation is going very well and both fish have successfully made it to their wine bath to be poached in the oven.

As they are happily swimming there, I begin to turn my vegetables. Using the tip of my knife and feeling very confident, I begin to make beautiful shapes. So far so good, and on time too. Ah, I’m now imagining the tastes of tonight’s dinner and wondering if I have a bottle of white wine at home.

Turned carrots, potatoes, and zucchini

After only seven minutes, it’s time to bring out the fish. Two parts done, the fish prep and vegetables. Now I only have one last part, to remove the trout’s skin and let him swim in butter! As I transfer my first fish from the tray to a rack to drain, I realize that my spatula doesn’t quite support the whole fish. No problem, I’ll just use a palette knife to support the head. One, two, three, and oh! My fish is still in the wine bath, but now decapitated. I stare at the fish in unbelief. How can a fish be THAT delicate? Well, no time to dwell, I have to plate one for Chef and there’s still another one.

Take two. This time I borrow my partner’s spatula, support the fish from head and tail and make a smooth transfer. Hurray!

Now the skin. If I’m careful, the skin should come off easily with the tip of the knife. And it does, along with flakes of meat. I had not looked at my fish close enough to realize that the meat in the belly changes direction. (Much like sanding wood, where you need to sand in the same direction as the grain, the same is true for removing fish skin from cooked fish.) As I struggle with my two very small, very thin trouts, I realize that the smaller the fish the thinner the belly section, and the trickier to skin.

I try to compose myself because I know I need a calm, steady hand to finish this task in time. I take a long breath, and then a longer and disappointed look at the tip of my knife. It stares back at me unapologetically with the skin and the flesh of the belly hanging from it! It was all going so well… if only I could turn back time and choose the larger trouts!

But at least it’s cooked well. And trouts have two sides, so maybe I can keep the other side of the belly together? No such luck. In fact, on all four sides of the trouts I find new and creative ways to mangle the beautiful and delicate creature. I tell myself these are all learning experiences, but how did I manage to do this on all four sides?

I suppose the answer is that I need more practice. And that’s exactly what Chef says when I do serve the better of the two trout. He says I need more practice with the tip of the knife. I am disappointed with the result, especially as the first part of the kitchen portion was going so well. But in the end, I have to remember that if I already knew everything, I wouldn’t need to be at Le Cordon Bleu. I try to cheer up as I look at my plate. It’s clear that by visual standards I didn’t create a tasty fish. But with 75g of butter in each serving of Hollandaise sauce and a glass or two of white wine—well, it will be a tasty fish after all!

Chef Gille’s Tasty Fish (My trout was not suitable for photography!)

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