When Mummy’s little helper goes five star
Chefs' biggest secrets
For all their posturing about integrity in gastronomy, haute cuisine chefs have been harbouring a dirty little secret in their toques for quite some time, and it's a skeleton they're not going to be able to push back into the closet in a hurry, try as they might. Like it or not, it's an inarguable fact that highbrow chefs frequently use lowbrow ingredients in the food they serve at their restaurants (which beggars, in turn, the question why we pay such extortionate prices for their food, but that's a fight we'll leave for another day). Incredulous you may be, but it's true. At his New York eatery 66, Jean-Georges Vongerichten serves a shrimp starter that's bathed in a sauce made primarily from Hellmann's mayonnaise and condensed milk. Perhaps it's a throwback to his Asian training, but Vongerichten also cites soy and oyster sauces as being instrumental to good food (he's a bit late to the club on this one; we Asians have known that since time immemorial!). He's not alone. Kylie Kwong openly lists Maggi seasoning as an ingredient in her recipe for fried rice, while David Bouley of Bouley and Danube uses a base of Heinz ketchup for his Hawaiian yellowtail appetiser (price: USD$21), and Paul Kahan of Chicago's Blackbird restaurant crushes Snyder's of Hanover salt and vinegar potato chips into his salt and vinegar walleyed pike dish. Erstwhile the dirty little secret of top chefs, the use of supermarket products in five-star restaurants is now becoming less taboo thanks in no small part to Ferran Adrià and Heston Blumenthal, both of whose molecular gastronomy techniques routinely include the use of industrial ingredients.
Lurking in the shadows waiting to throw off its clock of secrecy too is the sneaking suspicion that chefs are rebelling against the whole small-batch, artisanal, biodynamic, organic movement that's consumed the industry in recent years. When everyone else is obsessed with culinary mastery, there's a lot to be said for winning the satisfaction stakes because, when push comes to shove, taste is always paramount. And that's why, should you ever enter a restaurant kitchen, the likelihood of finding ketchup, mayonnaise and even soft drinks as part of the mise-en-place is exceedingly high. Home cooks will readily attest that said ingredients have long been deployed because they are highly efficacious flavour enhancers. A splash of Heinz ketchup adds depth and vivacity to bolognese sauce thanks to the sugar and vinegar, Coca Cola imbues barbecue sauces and braises with a more complex sweetness than sugar, while any Chinese homemaker will tell you that oyster sauce is truly mother's indispensable little helper. Marco Moreira of Tocqueville uses Gravy Master as a starter for his USD$75 Kobe dish sauce and all dishes that require marination because he says it facilitates caramelisation of the meat. More scandalously, he says he picked up these short cuts when apprenticing in Michelin-starred French restaurants, where French chefs—for all their haute cuisine ostentations—purportedly use everything from MSG to ketchup to enliven their food.
It's thus no small irony that for all the collective vitriol that's been heaped upon Chinese restaurateurs for their prodigious use of MSG all these years, five-star establishments haven't exactly been swimming between the flags either, except—unlike their Asian counterparts—they've kept their dirty little secrets, well, secret. Vongerichten used to even spike his truffle sauce with MSG, saying "I love MSG... because it's so tasteful" but only stopped, reluctantly, because of public disapprobation of the stuff. Well, well, well. Who would've thunk?