French Laundry Sea Bass and Blogger Breakdown

posted in: Cooking, Savory | 43

sea bass parsnip puree

Thomas Keller. It is a name that strikes fear, admiration, lust, and gustatory bliss into the hearts of many. Nearly everyone in America and surely all the food-crazed souls on the planet know of this guy. He is the crème de la crème. His French Laundry catapulted him to fame, but his arduous and meticulous journey to that gem is what I respect the most about the man. I rarely cook from cookbooks, but I view his as coffee table tomes in the best possible way. (I actually read my coffee table tomes- that’s maybe an important note.) I don’t fully comprehend why he felt the need to put together Ad Hoc, but other than that, his weighty books are the anchor to my whimsical heart. The voice of twine-wrapped reason behind my chicken wings, the chinois strainer to my chicken-head stocks.  I’ve been feeling a little down lately about matters de cuisine.  I think everyone experiences these peaks and valleys, but I’m in a low one right now. It’s odd, being in the height of produce season and all; I should be basking in the bounty. But I’m not. Instead I’m basking in a rare (because white) glass of Sauvingon Blanc, reflecting on how I got to this place in my culinary perspective.

parsnip puree

I guess you could say I’ve had some great successes since I started intensely scrutinizing, cataloguing, and photographing every plate that graces my table.  Among other things, I had the pleasure of enjoying an all-expenses-paid journey to the Gansevoort Hotel in NYC’s Meatpacking district to have fun decorating cakes with Kelly Ripa and Buddy Valastro, for example. I also made the cut to Fox’s new seeming-hit MasterChef, which I’d likely never have heard of had I not had the blog, since I don’t own a TV and don’t much keep up with that sort of thing.  The latter was a life-changing event. When I was in California doing a reconnaissance mission at the grocery store we were restricted to shop at for ingredients for our premiere signature dish on MasterChef, I had an interesting conversation with the fish monger (if you can call him that). I needed Dungeness crab for my dish, and in the process of trying to explain this to the guy, no fewer than five times he said to me, “Rachel Ray just uses the crab in a can. Why can’t you use the crab in a can?” Initially I played Ms. Nice Girl and politely explained that it was really important that I have the Dungeness because I was from Seattle, blah blah blah. I couldn’t say anything about it being for a TV show, so he just assumed I was some entitled broad off the street dissing his canned crab. When he said “Rachel Ray uses the crab in a can” for the fifth time, however, I kind of blew up. It was the culmination of a lot of stressful events and I fear I took something out on him that didn’t entirely have anything to do with the poor guy, but I gave him to it straight. “Do I look. Like. Motherfucking. RACHEL RAY?” And then I huffed off.

sea bass

The events ran their course and I eventually got my Dungeness crab (albeit canned- wtf, Whole Foods, LA?) but the moment was not lost on me in terms of sorting out who I really am in this crazy culinary world.  I have this big bravado of confidence that I am GOING PLACES. I am sure of it. I never let my circumspect insecurities seep out in my blog posts, video vignettes, or twitter updates, because I am the shit. I know all there is to know about this culinary show and I am WAY BETTER than Rachel Ray, so why hasn’t someone given me my own show, goddammit? Because maybe I’m not. Maybe I don’t work as hard, maybe I squander my meager talent for combining esoteric ingredients in elegant ways just because I can. Maybe I have nature down pat but my nurture is hanging out somewhere in middle school. I’m too cool to cook from cookbooks. I am WAY BETTER than Rachel Ray. Or maybe I’m not. The woman is a machine. An empire. A Martha-in-the-making minus the jailbird chic. I would probably do well to get off my damn high horse (or heels, as it were) and pay some respect to those who have come before me. Good things come to those who wait, but better things come to those who work hard. So that, my friends, is what I am starting to do.

spinach balls

There will be no more skating by on my laurels and lavender. I’m going to start gnawing the marrow bones of my respected predecessors, and I mean that in the best possible way.  My own recipes will be tested many times before they appear on this site, and I will bite the bullet and begin the learning process I never wanted to admit I needed. I want to take it to the next level. I am not interested in dipping shortbread in Callebaut for the rest of my life. I want a real motherfuckingcareerinthiscrazythingcalledcookingandtheonlywaytogetitistoPUTITINYOURMOUTH. I want to make my THIS IS IT and live to see it. So I’m going to start at the beginning.


Well, sort of. I guess it’s kind of insulting to call Thomas Keller the beginning when he is so clearly the ultimate frontier. But hell, I respect him so much and his books (again, with the exception of Ad Hoc) represent such a challenge, that I’m going to cook from them. Intensely. And really learn what he has to teach.  I’m also going to admit my shortcomings. This is meant to be a real journey and even though I’ve been cooking far more than recreationally for 15 or so years, I still don’t know how to properly truss a chicken. I just learned how to tie a butcher’s knot last week (courtesy of Russ, the soulful proprietor of Rain Shadow Meats in the Melrose Market).  If you asked me to pinch a filet and tell you if it was medium rare or medium, I’d probably guess wrong.  I’ve been skating on unabashed cavalier fearlessness for far too long. It’s time to learn the ABC’s.  So brace yourselves, there may be some boring posts ahead in which I detail the enchanting art of debearding a mussel properly or suss out the real difference between the eight and ten inch chef’s knives.  But it’s for a greater good, my friends, and it’s high time I put some technique behind my wild mind.  I started by cooking from Keller a few weeks ago. Under Pressure has become a bible of sorts, since I am a big fan of sous vide. Today I took a departure from that and cooked from The French Laundry. I made skin-on sea bass with parsnip puree and spinach spheres. I learned a lot. I made a broth from mussels, then reduced it to a syrup along with vanilla bean and saffron. Then I turned the syrup into a sort of beurre monte by adding cream and butter. I wasn’t happy with my emulsification abilities. I will do it again and get it right, even though it tasted perfect.

crispy fish skin

I learned how to quickly dry fish skin so it crisps properly. Shave it in one direction with a knife, then go back over it with the knife like a squeegee. It works wonders. I learned that all white wine isn’t straight from the devil, since I had to buy a nice bottle to use a cup in my stock, and I wasn’t about to let the rest go to waste. I learned that poaching parsnips in cream makes them amazing, but in truth, I kind of already knew that:) I learned that I am missing a critical piece of kitchen equipment. It is a sieve like a chinois but it is flat and round and it is for pressing things through in order to achieve a perfect texture, like pureeed soups, and in this case, my parsnips, which I had to laboriously shove through a strainer. It is called a tamis, and it is considered a “tool of refinement.” I want to be refined. How else is the Foodie Fashionista s’posed to take over the culinary world if she doesn’t know everything about everything? And that’s a lot to learn from one humble recipe. Writing one humble post.  It was a dinner that exploded on my tongue. Every flavor perfectly clung to the next. There was not an instant of incongruous hesitation about this or that not being just right. It was just right. It just was. I want to be that, and I believe I will be.  Great things are on the horizon. But I am still a young Jedi. I think I just called Thomas Keller Yoda, so I had probably better sign off.  Exes and Oh Baby’s, Linda

ps- this was really from the heart. So much that I wrote it all in one run-on-ey long paragraph and I’m now going to go back and separate it from itself. Like lobes of foie gras.

vanilla saffron

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  18. Carrie Pierce

    Awesome post Linda. You are so talented.

    Next time you say that to the fish monger can you video tape it so I can see his face?

  19. I have no doubt that you will end up with your own show some day. And it will be prime time! And I always love your postings.

    However, I do like Ad Hoc. Cooked tarragon chicken from it last night, although it was just okay. The seasonings were a bit off. I find it to be a good read, kind of like the Zuni Cafe cookbook.

    When are you coming to SF again? Hopefully before the Foodbuzz Festival!

  20. Linda,

    This was a wonderful read, and being in a transitional place myself it is well-timed. I love watching people get in touch with their inner geek so I’m now subscribing so I can watch you grow. This is gonna be fun!

  21. marisa miller

    he got me to put down my tongs. that was a big deal as a former line cook.

  22. Awesome post Linda. Strangely there was a bio of Rachel Ray on last night – msnbc I think? I’ve never been a fan, although I do like that she always includes a cocktail with her 30 min meals but the bio was fascinating – authenticity, hard work, the cute, perky factor and being at the right place at the right time = Mega success.

  23. I LOVE this post. And I think you are amazing.

  24. Excellent post Linda, keep up the hard work… it will definitely pay off! XOXO

  25. @Andra @ FrenchPressMemos
    I was a little harsh on Ad Hoc- I will give it a closer once-over on the strength of your recommendation. Love that this has sparked a little healthy debate- thank you for your awesome input!

  26. I’ve definitely been in your shoes before, feeling like I’m better than Rachel Ray (I think most people are) and that I could do her job better than she can, haha. Good luck with your culinary adventure! Thomas Keller is a great place to start. I know you don’t understand Ad Hoc, but as someone who owns the book and met him at his book signing, I think cooking for family is something important that he is trying to impart in people, and not everyone can cook the dishes from his more complicated cookbooks on a regular basis for their families. It’s not as refined, but it definitely has a lot of great comforting dishes with the usual Thomas Keller tips included :)

  27. your so creative and inspiring this was wonderful!

  28. I love this! While you’re far ahead of me in terms of cooking experience (I’ve never done anything but home cooking, self-taught), I really relate to your post as just this last weekend I finally broke down and made a recipe from French Laundry. In this case, it was a rib-eye steak w/ Bernaise and Chanterelles and “Pommes Anna” or something. No Tamis or chenois in hand, using the wrong techniques no doubt, the meat was sublime. Now it’s time to try the sea bass. Thanks for the inspiration to go at it again.

  29. I so understand where you are coming from. I always thought I knew how to cook- I take food and turn it into something delicious. But recipes have not been a big part of my background. I watched and learned from the cooks in my family. Cooking from cookbooks I trust showed me that there is A LOT I don’t know and a lot I want to learn. It’s a worthwhile process.

    As for AdHoc- let me disagree. I have cooked extensively from French Laundry and Bouchon and in recent months from AdHoc. It is truly in the same style- still intricate dishes, layered flavors, technical cooking but made more accessible- in some cases not MUCH more accessible (check the stroganoff, deep fried chicken, or herb crusted rack of lamb). The book is beautiful and the tone is light and there is a step-by-step, complete with pictures,
    (much better than the Bouchon drawings on the same topic).

    Keep up the fun blogging :)

  30. I really appreciate the fact that this post seems to have rung true with many of you. You are all so wonderful, kind, inspiring and creative, ultimately that is one of the biggest reasons to stay present on the blogging front. Thanks again.

  31. That was a kick ass post. I think all of us home cooks and food bloggers can be inspired by your words and ambition. I know that I definitely have a lot to learn, and I appreciate the creativity and finesse that I find every time I view your blog. My boyfriend and I both consider Salty Seattle one of our faves.

  32. Wonderful post. It is Thomas Keller’s passion which has carried him to his current status, and you certainly have the passion (which RR lacks). And you clearly have kitchen language down! Time, Passion, Practice, Technique. Thanks for being “real”.

  33. Hi Linda,

    I enjoyed reading your post. I am also a big fan of Thomas Keller… but I am also big fan of your creative culinary point. Best of luck to you!

  34. marisa miller

    Hey Mama
    I’ve been calling myself a chef for 15 years since I graduated from cooking school, came up w/ Seattle’s best (Jason Wilson, Chris Choi, Matt Dillon, etc) and had my own business catering for all the Madison Park Starbucks CO’s.
    I even moved back to LA to live at Frank Sinatra’s house & cook for his widow and all his still-alive friends.I was a CHEF, ya know. Then I had Evan. and have been in the house for 5 years. Still thought I was a chef…..until I
    volunteered for Ludobites (google it)for something to do. Solicited myself over and over until they said yes. Now I’m terrified for every reason you listed above. What if I suck. What if my quenelles look like ass compared to Chef Ludo’s. What if I can’t clean an octopus?
    Anyhoo, I decided, who cares, I’ll learn what I can learn and stop freaking out. My husband’s aunt is Virginia Madsen. Watching people kiss her talentless ass during the Sideways days killed any desire I had to be anywhere near the BS that is the entertainment industry. Watch enough folks like Rachel Ray get fawned over and you’ll realize it’s all the Emporer Has No Clothes. Keep blogging and making salt. Go intern at Delancey or somewhere they’ll appreciate you. You’ll get there:)

  35. I really appreciate everyone’s heartfelt thoughts on this post. Now I’m feeling a little silly for laying it all out there, but I guess the more revelatory the post, the more it resonates. Thank you all so much!

  36. Linda, there is no doubt in my mind you will achieve your goals. And I am so excited to be along for the ride while I read about it in your blog! I have similar frustrations with my blog even though it has nothing to do with cooking. I want to be the next dooce but I have 1/10000 the followers that she does. :)

    I am very impressed what you have accomplished in the past year, it is really incredible! Developing a following on the Internet takes time and unfortunately for both of us, I don’t think patience is a virtue.

    You will definitely go on to do great things and be recognized for the amazing culinary artist that you are. It is only a matter of time.

  37. linda you are DEFINITELY going places! you are not just a cook but an artist…and a rock star to boot. i love this blog and i love your big awesome personality and the fabulous food you create!

  38. “Whoever you are, or whatever it is that you do, when you really want something, it’s because that desire originated in the soul of the universe. It’s your mission on earth.”
    ~ Paulo Coelho
    Keep at it Linda!

  39. Love the post! YOu have so much passion and patience to learn and absorb. :)

  40. Love the post. The passion you have for cooking is most admirable and you can drop the f-bomb anytime you like, it’s all right by me.

  41. Lisa Page

    You are an awesome, umm, more than a cook, you are a culinary creator! I believe you will attain your goals Ms.FF, and I applaud you for all you do to achieve them. I’m a big fan of Yours and wish you much success!

  42. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Lisa Chan-Simms, Linda M Nicholson. Linda M Nicholson said: Brand New Embarrasing Honesty: French Laundry Sea Bass and Blogger Breakdown […]

  43. Great post, Linda. I’ve been having similar thoughts about my BBQ-ing.

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