I've just polished off what may have been the best fried egg I ever enjoyed in my life, and I ate it with a tip of the virtual toque to Bernard Loiseau, the great, troubled French chef who took his own life in 2003, depressed by declining ratings and the fear that he might lose his lofty third Guide Michelin star.
Rudolph Chelminski's thoughtful and well-told story, "The Perfectionist: Life and Death in Haute Cuisine," sketches the life of Loiseau, who rose from provincial obscurity to celebrity-chef status in Paris, then spent the rest of his too-short life restoring the once fabled inn and restaurant La Côte d'Or in Burgundy to its three-star luster only to end it all in the prime of his life under bipolar depression and changing fortunes. Not just a biography, Chelminsky's book weaves the thread of Loiseau's life with the fascinating stories of the postwar rise of modern French cuisine and culinary journalism and the fierce pressure that drives chefs to compete for ratings stars.
The egg story came in the book's opening pages, amid a discussion of Chef Fernand Point, the near-mythical chef whose restaurant La Pyramide in the Rhone Valley village of Vienne in the 1950s was arguably the starting point of the entire French postwar culinary revolution.
Point, it is said, was fond of putting visiting chefs on the spot with a simple test: He would invite them to fry an egg. Says Chelminski, "Faced with the inevitable failure, Point would cry, 'Stop, unhappy man - you are making a dog's bed of it!' And then he would proceed to demonstrate the one and only civilized manner of treating an egg."
I won't quote the extended passage, but to make this long story short, the Point approach involved gently, slowly cooking the egg to retain its delicate purity, a careful technique that floats somewhere on the margin between frying and poaching it in warm butter. I tried it this morning, cooking one fresh free-range egg using Point's exact technique, and a second, even more ethereal egg using a variation that Loiseau developed to go a step beyond the master.
The procedure may seem finicky at first, but it doesn't take long; and it's worth a try, not only because it makes one spectacular egg but also because it offers us yet another demonstration of the lesson that simplicity and purity often yield the best dishes of all. That's a sermon worth repeating.
INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)
2 fresh large eggs
1. This recipe deserves the freshest, best eggs you can find. It's well worth the quest, and the expense, of using free-range eggs from a local producer, with extra credit if the producer has the class to mark the box with a "pull date" so you can find the freshest of all.
2. For Point's technique, melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a small, nonstick sautée pan or skillet over very low heat, so it spreads out into a pool of hot liquid butter but does not bubble or sizzle.
3. For Loiseau's version, fill a small saucepan about half-full with water, bring it to a slow boil, and rest a saucer on top of the pan. Put 1 tablespoon of butter into the saucer and let it melt.
4. Break each egg onto a separate saucer, taking care not to break the yolk and to remove any shell fragments.
5. When the butter is melted but not sizzling, gently slip each egg into the hot butter. Cook both until the egg is just done: The white will gradually solidify from transparency into snow-white cream; the yolk will thicken slightly as it heats. This may take five minutes or more, depending on how solid you like your yolk, but please leave the egg sunnyside up and natural.
6. While the eggs are cooking, gently melt the remaining tablespoon of butter over low heat in another small skillet.
7. Slide each egg onto a small serving plate. Salt and pepper to taste (Loiseau, "The Perfectionist," advises salting only the white, not the yolk, so as to avoid unsightly salt speckles). Then drizzle a little of the remaining hot melted butter over the top of each egg and serve immediately, with crispy bacon and toast ... or just enjoy nature's most perfect egg au naturel.
WINE MATCH: Wine? With breakfast? Well, maybe. If you're having an indulgent brunch (or for that matter, serving this memorable egg as a light, meatless dinner), you couldn't go wrong with an excellent bottle of bubbly.
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Thursday, May 4, 2006
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