- Howie Bulka
Some years ago, I had the good fortune to work as a Stagiere in the kitchens of the late Alain Chapel at his magnificent restaurant in Mionnay, France. While the patrons dined like royalty, it would be fair to say that the staff dined like peasants. Staff meals at Restaurant Alain Chapel were a rather dismal affair likely composed around the braised shoulder or butt of some scrawny beast. Plain boiled potatoes or rice were the typical accompaniments. There was always good cheese, odds and ends left over from the cheese cart, and good bread because no Frenchman would come to table without it. In the middle of the table, a pitcher of drinkable wine, and when the wine was white, a bottle of sirop de cassis would appear for making Kir, which some of the cooks drank over ice. The meals were hearty and satisfying for the group of hard-working young men gathered around the prep tables of Chapel’s kitchen, but in the day after day, they became monotonous and the source of some derision.
In the late summer, only a couple of months into my stage, when even I could hardly bear the thought of more boiled rice, there emerged one day a roasting pan full of ratatouille. Ratatouille is, of course, the provincial French vegetable stew composed of eggplant, peppers, zucchini, and onions. I had eaten ratatouille before, but I had never eaten ratatouille the way the French eat ratatouille, which is different from the way Americans eat ratatouille. In the States, ratatouille, it seems, is always interpreted in some manner to make it more elegant, more refined, or more appropriate to the polished plates of fine dining restaurants. I had eaten ratatouille wrapped in a thin slice of eggplant and tied with a strand of leek to make a tidy package. I had eaten Hubert Keller’s impeccably diced ratatouille shaped into quenelles and laid just so next to noisettes of lamb in a black olive jus. I had eaten grilled ratatouille at Chez Panisse and I had with my own hand, filled crepes with ratatouille and goat cheese and served them as a lunch special at La Toque in Los Angeles. It wasn’t until I got to France, specifically into the kitchen of arguably the best restaurant in the world, that I ate a true ratatouille.
The problem, you see, is that ratatouille is ugly. Slowly stewed in olive oil, the vegetables go grey and soft, melting into a rather sloppy and undignified mass. In a properly prepared ratatouille the colors, textures, and flavors of the ingredients meld together into an unctuous stew, leaving little trace of the vibrant colors and flavors that went into it. Part of the problem, I suspect, is that the raw ingredients for ratatouille are so marvelously beautiful. The shiny purple eggplant, verdant zucchini, and the fiery red peppers, when laid out in advance of preparation, are a culinary still life; cinematic and beautiful. Taking something beautiful and transforming it into something ugly in the name of authenticity or flavor requires a leap of faith some cooks are just not willing to take. It rubs against the esthetic grain and contradicts culinary logic, if not the forces of the universe.
I am no stranger to ugly food. Many years ago, while working as Executive Chef of the newly opened Mandarin Oriental Hotel in San Francisco, I hosted a dinner prepared by Marcella Hazan, who was and continues to be the one of the best writers of cookbooks on the subject of Italian food for household cooks. Marcella was invited to prepare a menu composed of dishes from her impressive archive of work. It was a gala affair. There were nearly a hundred eager, food-loving guests, mostly in black-tie and exquisite gowns, who had paid handsomely for the evening. The dinner was held in the dining room of Silks, the swank and sophisticated restaurant in the hotel. We worked for days in preparation of the event. I was Marcella’s shadow, guiding her through the cavernous kitchens of the hotel. She taught me to mix, roll, and cut pasta by hand, the way they have done it in Italy for eons. We braised squab with sage leaves and white wine until it was melting off the bones. We crushed Amaretti to the consistency of flour with a rolling pin and grated chocolate to make a simple cake to eat between sips of a sweet Italian wine her husband Victor had chosen for the event. We pushed strawberries through a food mill and grated the zest of lemons until our hands ached. At every step, I would suggest a tool or machine that would make these processes go faster and always she would look at me suspiciously and carry on. “There are many ways to get from the roof to the sidewalk,” she would say. “You can take the stairs, or you can jump. The results are not the same.”
The evening of the event finally arrived. Pasta was cut and hung drying from clotheslines stretched across Metro shelves in the prep area. Pots of salted water were simmering away. The squabs were braising ever so slowly, and the cakes were cooling on the baker’s rack. Marcella made a final pass through the kitchen, thanked my staff for their efforts, and left to take her place at the table. Course after course, we executed the meal flawlessly, each dish exactly as Marcella had shown us. After the main course of squab had been served, the Maitre d’hotel came back to the kitchen to give us a progress report. It was then that I realized something had gone terribly wrong. The guests were not happy with the food, some had left, and others had made sarcastic comments. “Couldn’t you have made it look prettier?” asked the Maitre d’. You see, in our enthusiasm to learn the lessons Marcella had taught us, we had simply not considered that these marvelous and delicious dishes were indeed ugly.
The lovingly hand-cut pasta was sauced with a slow braise of Belgian endive and pancetta. The resultant mass was subtle and savory, delicious, I thought, but it was also grey, colorless, and soft in texture. We served mussels baked in a casserole with potatoes and black olives. It was scooped from baking pans and onto a plate and looked, as one might imagine, like a pile of potatoes on a plate. The squab was braised forever, and it too had become grey. Unappealing to the guests who were used to eating rosy pink squab cooked quickly to medium rare. The cake and the sorbet, served unadorned, were too simple to pique either the palette or the curiosity of the guests. Mostly, it went uneaten. My God, didn’t anyone appreciate this meal for what it was? Ugly, I’ll admit, but subtle and delicious. It was authentic and lovingly prepared with first-rate ingredients.
In the years before and since Marcella’s visit, I have eaten and prepared lots of ugly food. There was Martha Stewart’s Brussels sprout (aka Fart) soup, also grey, Troisgros’ Salmon with Sorrel, and Chapel’s cardoons with bone marrow to mention just a few. But ugly food is not confined to the kitchens of the great chefs. It is everywhere. My mother’s meat loaf is ugly, macaroni and cheese is ugly, a burrito is ugly, just about everything Emeril cooks is ugly, and all of it, if prepared with loving care, is delicious. My time spent with Marcella was a grand, if painful, learning experience. I continue to make pasta in just the way she showed me, but I am also careful about the purveyance of ugly food. It seems that for an American clientele, the visual appeal of a plate of food is too tightly woven into to the overall esthetic of a dish to be taken for granted. Whether or not this is a good thing, I don’t know. Marcella may have taught me to be wary of ugly food, but she also taught me that flavor is not fashion and sometimes flavor is best found deep in the pot under a layer of something less than beautiful.
So, allow me to conclude this month’s missive with a recipe for one of my favorite ugly foods; ratatouille, prepared in the way it was all summer long in the kitchens of Alain Chapel. I prefer to eat ratatouille as a main course, rather than as an accompaniment. Ratatouille can be eaten hot, cold, or in between. It can be tossed with pasta, served alongside boiled rice, or simply with a mixed salad. Good Parmesan-Reggiano is nice grated over the top and crusty bread is required to sop up the oily juices.
Ratatouille is best made in large quantity. Like any stew, the flavors come together after a night in the refrigerator and continue to improve with time. Begin by assembling the following ingredients: 2 or 3 large globe eggplant, 4-5 red bell peppers, 6 zucchini, 2 onions, a bottle of olive oil, some cloves of garlic, a few sprigs of fresh thyme, a cup or so of canned crushed tomatoes, and a bunch of basil. You can vary the quantities of the ingredients to suit your taste or the quantity of the ingredients you have on hand but for beginners it would be best to stay roughly within the guidelines noted. Wash and trim the vegetables as appropriate. Peel the onions. Cut all the vegetables into a rough one inch dice or maybe a bit bigger. For the zucchini you can simply cut them in half lengthwise and then into pieces one or two inches in lengths. Don’t try to make it perfect. A little disparity in the size of the dice is a good thing. Mince the garlic.
Place a large heavy duty roasting pan into a hot (450) oven for 15 or 20 minutes. Add a very generous amount of olive oil to the hot pan. It should coat the bottom of the pan with approximately 1/8 inch of oil. Don’t skimp. Place the pan back into the oven for a moment to make sure the oil is nice and hot. Add the diced eggplant to the pan and give it a shake to settle the ingredient evenly over the surface of the pan. Place the pan back into the oven and lower the heat to 350. Cook the eggplant undisturbed for about 20 minutes or until the eggplant has begun to go golden brown on the bottom side. Add the onions and peppers to the pan and stir the ingredients a bit so that some of the eggplant rotates to the top of the vegetables. Place the pan back into the oven and allow to cook for about a half an hour or until the peppers and onions have softened. If the vegetables begin to brown on top, give the works a stir. Add 2-3 tablespoons of minced garlic, 5-6 sprigs of thyme, and a cup or two of the crushed tomatoes. Stir the ingredients, season with salt and pepper, and add a bit more olive oil if the mixture seems too dry. Add the zucchini and return the pan to the oven. Lower the heat to 300 and continue to cook until the vegetables are all nice and squishy and olive oil has pooled at the bottom of the pan. Remove the pan from the oven and season to taste with salt and pepper. Add the basil, coarsely chopped, and stir well to combine.
With a little luck, your ratatouille will turn out as ugly as mine. Beauty is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. Bon appétit.