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Chef Life: Musing on speed and skill, plus why Bearnaise is like an abusive boyfriend. It always threatens to split.

A few years ago, I bought Thomas Keller’s cookbook “The French Laundry”. I used to thumb through the pages and see photos of chefs washing freshly picked greens with sunbeams streaming through the windows while they gazed happily across pristine vineyards and rolling California hills. The only thing missing from these scenes were the Disney birds and bunnies.
I am lucky that I do get to work in a kitchen that has windows to the outside world. I do get to see trees and sunlight. The big difference between Keller’s idyllic photographs and what goes on in our kitchen is that there’s no time for daydreaming. There’s no time to stare lovingly at the produce. No time to fantasize about how good you must look in your chef whites and striped apron. And there are certainly no birds or bunnies to smile at. Well, no live ones, anyway.
The Victoria

From the moment I set foot on the property, I am working. Forget the myth about chefs taking breaks every 15 minutes to have a fag. If that’s the case, they don’t work in a good place. At the Victoria, there is so much to do; I’m lucky if I can find two free minutes to use the loo. Even if we happen to tick off all the boxes on the list, there are always more to add.

We have a staff meal, but no one chooses to sit down to eat. We eat and work. I’ve noticed two eating techniques amongst us: a) grab a plate and whilst making the four meter walk to the porter, shovel as much food into your mouth before dropping your plate into the sink or b) grab a plate then set it beside you and continue slicing, filleting, stirring, or what have you. Take one bite, get distracted by another task and leave your plate on the work table. One hour later, either eat or bin cold food and take your plate to the porter.

Are we all mad, OCD workaholics? Perhaps, but it has more to do with the ever impending clock and a formula. The kitchen revolves around speed and skill and the formula goes something like this: speed + skill = success. People might try and fake it, but speed + no skill = fail and no speed + skill = fail. And failing when you have 60 bookings staring you in the face is not a good idea.

egg yolk and vinegar ready for action

One of the best foodstuffs that illustrates this point is a Bearnaise. It was one of my very first shifts, and I was working under one of the sous chefs. He was the son of a chef and had followed his father’s career all over the world until his family settled in England. He said that when Paul bought the place three years ago, he was the only person kept on from the old staff. As we got to work, he handed me a whisk the size of a badminton racquet and said, “Let’s give you a workout”.

clarified butter

I quickly found out I would be making the day’s quantity of Bearnaise sauce that would be the main condiment for the steaks. As you would guess, Bearnaise takes its origin from France which means you are already in for a ride when it comes to making it. It’s fussy. It’s temperamental. An all around pain in the ass. Bearnaise is the child of Hollandaise which has a foundation of egg yolks, an acid (in our case a white wine and shallot reduction), and clarified butter. This mix forms an emulsion or what I like to call the “bitch” of the sauce. So much as sneeze, and it may split. If you get that far and are still successful, add finely chopped tarragon and chervil and a Bearnaise is born.

whisking yolks and vinegar over a bain marie

Aware of the difficulty level; but having no idea what lay ahead, I was told to put some yolks and a splash of the white wine reduction in a metal bowl. Ultimate Bearnaise asked me if I had ever made this before. “I’ve made Hollandaise in a blender.” UB was quiet and instead lead me to a bain marie that he’d set up on the stove. “You’re going to whisk this until it’s really thick”. Right. This was definitely not the blender version.

While Ultimate Bearnaise heated a sizable quantity of clarified butter in a pot, I whisked my little heart out. As I watched those yolks slosh around the bowl, I kept waiting for something to happen. It seemed like ages before the yolks began to even hint at thickening. I whisked and whisked until my arm felt like it was going to fall off. And still those yolks needed more whisking. I quickly found out why chefs wear all that clothing. Every layer turned into a sponge that soaked up the liters of sweat that poured from my body. Even my legs were sweating, for Christ’s sake.

whisked yolks are ready for butter

When the yolks were finally nice and thick, Ultimate Bearnaise came over and said, “Ok, are you ready for the hard part?” Uh, seriously? We removed the bowl from the heat, and UB said, “So, the thing about Bearnaise is this -if the yolks are too hot, it splits. If it’s too cold, it splits. If you pour the butter in too fast, it splits. If you pour too slowly, it splits.”

“Right.” I said, “So in other words, you’re saying this is going to be easy?” I watched as Ultimate Bearnaise, holding the large pot of butter with one hand, showed me how to send a slow and steady stream into the bowl of yolks. His other hand simply disappeared into a whisking blur. The entire time not one muscle in his face even winced. “Ok,” he said, “Now your turn”.

whisking in clarified butter

With my arm already throbbing from my previous technique, I prayed to God that the word “split” was not in the cards for me that day. There was no time to dilly dally. I needed to turn myself into a machine. I took a firm stance, and I began to whisk and pour. And then I whisked and poured some more. The mix began to quadruple in size which automatically meant that I needed even more muscle to whisk and pour. UB was like some Bearnaise whisperer, calmly coaching me through. When it looked like I might actually be successful, I forgot about the sweat and pain. It was all about keeping the flow because if it split, I would have just collapsed to the ground and wept right then and there.

finished Hollandaise

When I came home later that day and told Tom about my Bearnaise battle, he mocked me and wondered why we just didn’t use a blender. I wasn’t sure at the time, but now I know why. We try to hold the Bearnaise or Hollandaise at the right temperature so it’s perfect come time to serve. But every once in a while, temps get too hot or too cold and the damn thing split on us. And when does it split? Right in the middle of service when you need it most. If we didn’t have the skills to do it by hand, we couldn’t save ourselves during those moments. Think of how much time relying on a blender would add? And what if the blender was broken or dirty, would you really want to have to walk out to the table of ten that has already been waiting for 15 minutes to explain the delay? No. Instead you grab that badminton whisk, add a little water to a bowl, slowly pour in the split sauce, and whisk like hell.

I think every chef has had a sauce split at one time or another. Although my first try was a success, I can say I did split it on another occasion. And I have seen it happen to Scotch Egg, to Tomato Half, and even to Ultimate Bearnaise right in the middle of service. So what’s the secret to keep everyone happy in the dining room? Speed and skill.

fresh Hollandaise on toast with black pepper and tomatoes
**All food photos are once again a reconstruction. I didn’t have tarragon or chervil in the fridge so that’s why the demo is technically only a Hollandaise. One of these days I hope to have time to snap some shots in the kitchen.

9 Comments

  1. Mr Noodles

    "Bernaise whisperer" – I love it! Who'd thought so much effort goes into bernaise. I'll be sure to think of blood, sweat and tears that go into th making of this mighty sauce, next time I dunk my steak or dip my chip into it!

  2. The Shed

    I feel your pain, it IS a bitch sauce. During Ascot 2007, I made hollandaise for 200 people, including some of the Saudi and British royal families. It was one of the most stressful things I've ever, ever done!

    Good tip on saving a sauce, will store that one safely.

  3. Emma @ Old Hat Club

    A chef friend once told me that Bernaise can smell fear. If it knows you're nervous, it just goes right ahead and splits, but if you really dominate the Bernaise with confidence and poise, it plays fair. I have yet to show enough audacity to make a really decent one. It's a canny little sauce…

  4. The Grubworm

    …and this is the reason i never make Bearnaise (or Hollandaise, or even Mayonnaise). I am slightly in awe that you made it in all that heat and pressure of a pro kitchen. It's shame they don't give badges for you to sew on to your whites. You'd definitely get the Bearnaise badge.

  5. Gourmet Chick

    Very interesting insight into life in a pro kitchen – sounds like you have now nailed it (well the Bearnaise anyway)

  6. gastrogeek

    Good God woman….! This is fascinating stuff.

  7. Green Onions

    This is an absolute joy to read, you describe the atmosphere, the hard work and long hours to a tee. By doing this you show your true determination and grit in making a success of it. You should be very proud of yourself – your doing a grand job, well bloody done !

  8. Jen

    Thanks for all the great comments, everyone!

    I always shudder when I hear the "F" word or "French" when it comes to cooking techniques. I think it is quite possibly the hardest type of cooking to master. So complex, yet so volatile.

    The good news is that this is actually not as hard to do if you are making a small quantity. The demo version I made for the photos was actually quite simple to wipe up and would have been a good serving for two people. I'd encourage everyone to give it a try as it's a nice touch for a Sunday brunch and it makes you look all the more rock star for the effort.

    Although after saying that I now suspect Tom will expect Hollandaise to appear on Sundays more often.

  9. Niamh

    Lovely series of posts, Jen! It's a great insight. I worked in kitchens many years ago and they're challenging? Eh? It's so important to know how to do these things properly. As you say, it's the only way you can rectify things, if they go wrong.

    Great pics too!

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