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My Scorching Sin

The night I ruined the bechamel


The night that chef Joel Rambaud assigned our team the task of making gnocchi Parisienne, a dumpling of poached cream puff dough (pa^te a choux) served with a mushroom-and-shallot-infused bechamel sauce, my job was to make the sauce.

No problem. Bechamel is one of the five "mother sauces," the foundations upon which most classical French sauces are based. And I certainly knew how to make a white sauce: just milk thickened with roux and seasoned.

But that was all book-learning. I had never actually made one.

It was the first week in the cooking school production kitchen at the California Culinary Academy, and we were getting a real baptism by fire, having to cook dinner for 250 people. That's not a lot by professional standards, but my team was pretty green.

While my colleagues worked on the gnocchi, I made the roux, boiled the milk, combined the two, seasoned it lightly and set the pot to simmer while I prepped the mushrooms and shallots.

As I was doing the prep work, Chef stopped by to look at my work and reminded me to switch to a smaller pot if the sauce reduced too far. Like all of the mother sauces, bechame has a delicacy in spite of its richness, and he didn't want me to lose that. I nodded that I understood, quickly finished prepping the vegetables and added them to the sauce.

My task done for the time being, I went to help my colleagues make the pa^te a choux for the gnocchi, which amounted to my pushing 15 pounds of dough around a hot pan with a metal spoon. After 20 minutes of heavy lifting, as the dough took on a golden color and a nice shine, I was told it was done. We then turned the finished dough into gnocchi by pushing it through a perforated hotel pan and poaching it in boiling water.

Which is where I was when Chef screamed out from across the kitchen, "Whose sauce is this?"

I hurried over to the back burner. "Mister Andres," Chef demanded, "didn't I tell you to switch the sauce to a smaller pot? Taste your sauce now!" Chef had an eye that tended to wander when he spoke to you but at that moment, both eyes focused on me.

I put a little sauce on a small plastic spoon and could taste the nutmeg and white pepper, but the spices were totally overpowered by the burnt dairy flavor. The sauce was ruined, and there were only 10 minutes before service.

Hoping there was a way to salvage the operation, I asked the chef if there was anything we could do. He suggested a little curry powder to mask the flavor, but it didn't really work.

We set up the station for service by putting some of the "repaired" sauce over a hot water bath and having a couple of saute pans in which to heat dumplings to order. We had several orders right at the beginning, but the word quickly got around: "Don't get the gnocchi!" After that, a few orders trickled in from the uninformed, but not a lot.

Half an hour into the service, Chef arrived at the station where I was serving up gnocchi with generous helpings of regret. He told me in a soft but firm voice, "Mister Andres, I like to keep a certain level of professionalism in my kitchen, so I do not swear. But your sauce it tastes like. . . . "

And then he turned and walked away, shaking his head.

A few minutes later we hit upon the idea of grating up some cheese and serving it with parsley over the gnocchi. It was our reasoning that it was better to serve a somewhat plain dish than something as horrible as a burned, curried bechame. I asked Chef's permission for the change and he agreed. But it was too little, too late.

I have made this sauce successfully many times since, but that first one still haunts me. It was seared into my memory like the charred bubbles of thickened milk a burned bechame leaves on the bottom of a saucepan.

Yet now, a couple of years after that small personal tragedy, I've learned that no one even makes these sauces anymore. So I have to ask: Why do they still teach this stuff in school? What happened to tradition?

The problem is that these classic sauces are simply too heavy for modern palates. Espagnole, tomato and veloute sauce are made in much the same way as bechame, by thickening a liquid with roux; hollandaise is produced by the emulsification of egg yolks and butter.

The sauces all have a wonderful velvety consistency, and there is much subtlety infused into them, but there is also a certain heft. Cream, butter, flour and fat are, after all, primary ingredients. Remember, that was OK once.

Chefs have shouldered the task of creating lighter sauces that still have the consistency and rich flavors of the mother sauces. "Newer techniques," says Patrick Healy of Xiomara, "have shown that you can make sauces that taste almost as rich and fulfilling, yet aren't 95% butter, which appeals to customers and to chefs too."

However, the mother sauces have not become totally irrelevant as our tastes have changed. They still form the groundwork upon which much of contemporary cuisine is based.

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