2000s Archive

Chasing Perfection

continued (page 2 of 3)

It was time, I decided right then and there, to get back in touch with my inner egg philosopher. Not long after, I invited some friends over for brunch. Twenty of them.

My guests trickled in, some still groggy and wielding bottles of cheap sparkling wine because nothing cures a hangover like the thing that caused it. As they mingled and mixed Mimosas, I put together my station at the stove. I picked up my pan and held it to my face to check the heat, a weird little habit I picked up somewhere along the way. It was time.

I put a ladle into my clarified butter, grabbed hold of my spatula, took a meditative breath, and promptly mangled my first omelet. It was brutal. The pan was way too hot, the eggs fried instantly, and the skin wasn’t elephant skin, it was geriatric-elephant skin. It flopped out like a pancake when I tried to roll it onto the plate.

I gave it to the drunkest guy in the house.

My next two were similarly disgraceful, and I was running out of drunk guests. But soon things began to pick up. The heat was getting intense in my little kitchen; I was sweating through a film of butter. I was starting to feel like a cook again, and somewhere around my 13th try, there were a few that were pretty good. If an omelet can be art, can teach me a new way to see the world, it’s funny that I had to feel like a laborer before I could make it.

Still, by the end of the morning, perfection was a long way away. If the beauty of the omelet is its seeming simplicity, that simplicity is unforgiving. Either you nail it and it’s transcendent, or it’s, well, just eggs. I needed a brush-up on my technique, but Chef Skibitcky had moved across the country. I called in a ringer.

Daniel Boulud is perhaps the finest French chef in America. He is certainly one of the most classically trained, winning national recognition when he was an apprentice in Lyon, where he had to knock out 30 omelets in a row for a staff meal. Today, though, he is a restaurant magnate with a presidential smile, a refined air, a team of beautiful assistants—far removed from his days as a cook, even further from his days as an apprentice.

So, despite his credentials, I didn’t expect him to come out firing when I visited him in his restaurant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. But he was on it before he even took his seat. “To understand the omelet, you have to understand what the omelet represents,” he said as he walked in. “You have to understand what the omelet means.” Wait a minute, I think we’re on the same page.

He started talking about his technique, how he likes to stir finely diced butter into the raw egg so that it melts on the heat, insulating the eggs and controlling how they curdle. He talked about using forks to work the pan because they break up the curds as they form, keeping them tender and creamy, rather than a spatula that just lifts and slaps around big sheets of egg. He talked about finishing the omelet with a touch of butter and a tiny kiss of high heat. He referred to this as “toasting” the eggs but then took it back. He tried “sear” but decided against that, too. He used these words gingerly, knowing that he didn’t really mean them. For a man so articulate with the language of food, it’s interesting that he struggled for the exact words here. Maybe our high-heat, ass-kicking cooking culture is so invested in brawny terms for powerhouse techniques that we lack words for an effect as subtle as the one he was describing.

As he talked, he motioned with his hands, illustrating his points with miming gestures the way I see only cooks do. I noticed a few burns and scars on his knuckles. They looked fresh.

He asked me about the pan I use, the type and the size, then paused thoughtfully. A second later, he held his thumb and forefinger maybe a centimeter apart. “So you have this much egg in your pan?” I nodded yes, but to be honest, I had no idea. It could be that much, it could be twice that much—I had never noticed. And yet, with just the information I gave him, he thought through the ratios of diameter and volume and could visualize what the beginnings of my omelet looked like. (He was right, by the way.) “Your Teflon pan gives a little magic ease,” he said. “Black steel is more capricious.” My pan would do, but a well-seasoned black steel pan would be better; it would let me use metal forks, and its angled corners would give the omelet a lip to roll out more evenly.

I scribbled furiously in my notebook, giddy with the sensation of having my mind blown and suppressing the urge to yell, “Yes! Yes! Of course!” When I sat down with Boulud, I thought that I had the theory of the omelet down, that I might just ask him for something like a little tip on how to shake the pan, or how to tell if the heat was right. Instead, our conversation revealed how much deeper he had thought about this than I ever had. The more you learn about something, the more you find out there’s more to learn, and I was swimming in new questions.

We talked for almost an hour, causing one of his beautiful assistants to remind him that he was well late to his next meeting. He waved off the warning, pulling down an enormous book on the history of French cuisine to see what it had to say about omelets. In that moment, this Chef, this magnate, looked like an eager young cook again. A cook aiming for the top, because even though we were talking about eggs, we knew what we were really talking about was perfection, about giving the idea of perfection a physical form.

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