This week’s episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations — the “Techniques Special” —may very well be the best stand-and-stir cooking show ever made. As he explains at the beginning of the show:
This is an hour of instruction. It’s about how to cook, how to do a number of very basic things. To do that, I’ve called in a few friends. I happen to believe that you should learn to feed yourself, and maybe a few others.
… What techniques should every American know, or at least have some proficiency in?
- Basic knifework, meaning they can cut stuff, generally into the desired shape or size they would like.
- Everyone should know how to cook a lobster.
- Everyone should know how to cook eggs. Perhaps most importantly, everyone should know how to cook an omelet.
- Everyone should know how to grill a steak. Shockingly enough, few people seem to, and it is ridiculously easy.
- Roast a chicken. And yet, it is one of those simple good things that people manage to destroy.
- I hate to even bring it up, but cook a hamburger.
- And everyone should know how to make a stew.
Bourdain narrates the show from the kitchen at Brasserie Les Halles, the restaurant where he used to be executive chef. He demonstrates how to make a very basic boeuf bourguignon (more of a plain beef stew, since he doesn’t use the traditional mushroom and onion garnishes), interspersing the other technique segments between the steps in his recipe.
But you’d think that he had been reading this blog, because he starts off with a rant about basic knife skills:
Notice the bit about improving with practice? It’s not just me who thinks that.
With that out of the way, he introduces his friends, each a chef who will demonstrate one of the essential techniques:
Dave Pasternak of Esca restaurant shows you how to cook a lobster. Not just any lobster, but a massive hard-shelled Newfoundland bay lobster.
Scott Conant of Scarpetta restaurant makes spaghetti in tomato sauce. Imagine my surprise when I heard him say:
The only place in Italy where I’ve had a spaghetti similar to this was in my grandparents’ home town of Benevento. It’s the only place where I’ve had a spaghetti where I thought “That’s exactly what I want.”
Laurent Tourondel — a Frenchman — demonstrates the preparation of a perfect cheeseburger.
Carlos Morales, Bourdain’s replacement at Les Halles, shows you how to make french fries and how to grill a steak.
And lastly — not in the show, but here for pride of place — Thomas Keller teaches you how to roast a chicken.
As he mentions in passing, add root vegetables and use a roasting pan, and you have this recipe. (I’ve been in his kitchen, I’ve roasted chickens with his method — does that make me more Keller-esque?)
I can’t argue with Tony’s selection of essential techniques. Cooking eggs properly is essential, as is roasting a chicken. If you live in New England and can’t cook a lobster, move to Iowa. Grilling a steak and cooking a hamburger teach you about temperatures, doneness, and resting meat before slicing. A good tomato sauce will take you far in Italian cooking, even if you use canned instead of fresh tomatoes. And who wouldn’t want to know how to make fries?
In his blog, Bourdain concludes:
And for those who already do cook them proficiently, I hope, given the quality of instructors in the line-up, that watching this show helps many to raise their game. Every technique on this show was designed to be simple, approachable — to use ingredients that you actually find yourself using — and to be useful in the real world.