For reasons of my own I have decided to devote my next three posts to Anthony Bourdain, whose birthday was yesterday. He is no longer with us, but he would have been 66.
I always thought that Anthony Bourdain must have been Cajun, but how wrong I was. He was born right here in Manhattan and grew up mostly in Leonia, NJ, which is not nearly as bad as it sounds. His paternal grandfather emigrated from France, and his father grew up speaking French. Little is known, at least to wikipedia, about his parents. One day Bourdain père is managing a record shop; the next he is an executive at Columbia Records. As for Mom, she was a copyeditor (some copyeditors would spell that as copy editor) at the New York Times, a job that no longer exists because the New York Times abolished their copy desk in 2017. Freed up monies to hire more 5-star talent to the Opinion section, no doubt, plus there was The Anti-Trump Campaign to wage and who knew when it would ever end? It still hasn’t, as we all know.
So Tony attended the Dwight-Englewood School (Dad must have achieved Columbia Records Executivehood at that point to afford the fees) and then went to Vassar. He enrolled in 1973 and became one of its first male students; Vassar didn’t go co-ed until 1969, although it still skews toward women: now it’s a little over 1/3 men and a little under 2/3 women, but I suppose there must be some students who identify as neither—I’m just using Vassar statistics.
Tony only lasted a couple of years at Vassar and then went to the Culinary Institute of America, up in Hyde Park. He floated around in various restaurant jobs and on the side he wrote mysteries, did you know this? They didn’t sell very well, unfortunately, but fortunately for us he kept his day jobs. Well, his night jobs. In 1997 he became the Executive Chef at Les Halles on Park Avenue South, and by the way in the late 90s I used to go to Les Halles and there wasn’t much glamorous about it, it was part of a small national chain and this was its NYC outpost. But it was there that he began his meteoric ascent, and finally produced a best-seller, Kitchen Confidential, a memoir that also combines one of the few and I think one of the best-written accounts about what it’s like to work in a fast-paced restaurant kitchen. I say that as someone who has been in restaurant kitchens but only during slow times and I’ve never worked in one.
For some reason I thought that Bourdain was an early Food Network star but I was wrong again. He was fairly late to the game, somewhat famously making snide insults about celebrity chefs. The Food Network [oh God, another digression] launched in 1993 as the TV Food Network and here’s a nice roundup of what it was like:
But eventually he had his own food and travel shows for which he became famous & etc., and let’s just leave it at that.
This recipe is from his Les Halles Cookbook. Steak au Poivre is, theoretically, a very simple thing to make, you pepper some steaks and cook them, but there are hundreds of recipes that detail how to do this. The great benefit of this one is it doesn’t involve a grill, as a great many of them do, so that we deeply un-American sub-humans without a grill and a yard to put it in can join in the fun.
Anthony Bourdain’s Steak au Poivre
4 8-ounce steaks
2 ounces olive oil
2 ounces freshly cracked peppercorns (crushed but not ground to powder!) [Tony advises.]
4 ounces sweet butter
1 ounce good Cognac
4 ounces strong, dark veal stock (something to keep in your freezer)
[I don’t know about you, but I don’t.]
Salt and pepper
DIRECTIONS FOR STEAK
1. Preheat the oven to 425ºF. Moisten the meat very slightly with oil, then dredge each of the steaks in the crushed peppercorns to thoroughly coat. Don’t be shy with the pepper.
2. Heat the remaining oil in the skillet over high heat. Once the oil is hot, add 2 ounces, which is half of the butter. Place the steaks in the pan and brown on all sides, about 5 minutes per side.
3. Transfer the pan to the oven and cook until desired doneness, about 5 to 7 minutes for rare, 10 minutes for medium rare, and so on. Remove from the oven and remove the steaks from the pan to rest. Have I told you yet to always rest your meat after cooking? I’ve told you now. [That’s Tony talking, not me.]
DIRECTIONS FOR SAUCE
1. Return the skillet to the stovetop and carefully stir in the Cognac. As much fun as it is to create a column of flame as you add flammable material to an incredibly hot pan, it’s not really desirable or necessary — especially in a home kitchen. Unless you’re a pyromaniac, I recommend carefully adding the Cognac to the still-hot pan off the flame, stirring and scraping with the wooden spoon to get every scrap, every peppercorn, every rumor of flavor clinging to the bottom of the pan. [Here I might have to disagree about the thril of the flambé…]
2. Now place the pan on the flame again and cook it down a bit, by about half. Stir in the veal stock and reduce over medium heat until thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Whisk in the remaining butter and season with salt and pepper. Serve immediately with French fries or sautéed potatoes. [Go with the French fries, “frites,” and ramekins of aioli to dip the fries in—Your author.]
Note on searing: With any recipe that calls for searing meat and then using the pan to make a sauce, be careful to avoid blackening the pan; your sauce will taste burnt. Avoid by adjusting the heat to, say, medium high, so it will still sear the meat but not scorch the pan juices. But stoves and pans vary, so pay attention. [Again, Tony’s note, not mine.]