I trained as a natural foods chef in the late 90s, which meant that my schooling had more to do with making tofu taste good than it did with learning classic culinary techniques. Fortunately, the natural foods education world has gotten hip to this shortfall, and schools today are cranking out more cross-trained cooks. Still, as any trained artist knows, mastery begins with the basics. All painters have to mix colors and stretch a canvas. All musicians must learn scales and chords. And all cooks must learn their sauces, even those made with white flour and white sugar. Health-foody adaptation comes later.
Even though the schools are better these days, I still suffer from the post-traumatic stress of failing the culinary standards, as evidenced even a few years ago, when I made scrambled eggs out of creme anglaise. Very sweet scrambled eggs, mind you, but still–scrambling the eggs is a big mais non! for the sauces sucrees. I remember looking into the saucepan in dismay and asking one of my cooks, “Can’t we just puree it in the Vita Mix?” He teased me for about a year over it, never stopped laughing. I could have thrown up all over those miserable eggs.
Enter Julia Child, patron saint of chefs everywhere. In Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume One, page 588, Julia explains creme anglaise with fool-proof precision: “This sauce is a blend of egg yolks, sugar, and milk stirred over heat until it thickens into a light cream. If it comes near the simmer, the yolks will scramble.” She talks you through each step with such detail that, if you follow faithfully, failure is impossible. (I don’t want to steal Julie Powell’s thunder here, but after reading this and other excerpts of this resurrected classic I identify completely with the obsession that could prepare every recipe in the book in a single year.)
A few days ago, I made the creme anglaise nouveau. As I had a bowl of meyer lemons on my counter, I added some juice and zest after cooking and let it steep for a few minutes before straining. The pale yellow cream was velvety smooth, with a mother’s-milk warmth that cradled the delicate lemon tang in its bosom, just so. Ah . . . this was the taste of success, sweet success. I brought a cup to my cook. He finally stopped laughing. I finally forgave myself.
One of my friends defines shame as “should have already mastered everything.” Certainly, for me to carry the mantle of chef-instructor, one could argue that I should have already mastered creme anglaise, for pete’s sake. But truth be told, we natural chefs were so busy switching the white flour for gluten-free and using sucanat instead of sugar and defining a whole new genre of cuisine that we thought the basics were irrelevant.
I can tell my students how to prepare sea vegetables so that Dad from the midwest will genuinely like them. I can teach them beans and greens and grains til kingdom come. And, perhaps most important, I can help them treasure their mistakes as the dross that becomes the gold of culinary mastery. Because once a mistake is made fully, it’s never made again.