Cooking with Chef Christian

In this age of celebrity chefdom—whether it’s Jamie Oliver’s nakedness or Emeril’s Bam!—the media have created the expectation that all chefs are full of cheery gusto. The truth is, they are not. Some days they are tired. They show up with day-old stubble, and their demeanor is one of weary resignation. Such was Chef Christian’s state on a weekday in April, about to conduct one of Enotria’s lunchtime cooking classes. He was feeling under the weather—and it showed.

My fellow students, a middle-aged man and his gracious mother, had enrolled in the restaurant’s Classical French cooking class. Seated around a short U-shaped table arrangement, strategically out of reach of hot pots, large knives and portable butane gas stoves, we constituted a ragtag, intimate audience of three. The working area was resplendent with mounds of red onions, piles of seasoned trimmed steaks, and predictably large quantities of eggs, butter and cream. The smell of broken chocolate filled the air. And so the lunchtime cooking class with Chef Christian began.

First course: hors d’oeuvres of bûche (puff pastry) and canapé. Puff pastry, it turns out, is a rather complicated affair. It is folded over a hundred times, so it rises and has a flaky consistency. Since we didn’t have time for a hundred folds, Chef Christian used pre-made puff pastry, which he transformed into what can only be described as miniature hat-box pastries—a circular outside, a hollow inside (which he filled with tomato concase and strips of Italian dried beef), and a lid. Canapé is far less complicated: A crust-less bread is buttered, seasoned, cut in little shapes and toasted; then it is topped rather than filled. The sour cream, caviar and red onion topping was delicious as was the mushroom with seared foie gras.

We were downing these little morsels with a nice 2000 chablis when Chef Christian started on the appetizer: asparagus aux Hollandaise. First he separated the egg yolks from the whites by cracking a whole egg into one hand, then spreading his fingers apart and dropping the egg from one hand to the other until the white had fallen into the bowl, and only the orange yolk remained in his hand. After having extracted four yolks, he placed them into a metal bowl, and the bowl went directly on a low flame. Clarified butter, Worcestershire sauce and white wine were added. Continuous beating resulted in a wonderfully creamy rich sauce. A little secret Chef Christian revealed: You can double the quantity of Hollandaise by just adding more butter.

The heaviness of the Hollandaise started to set in just as the aroma of onion soup grew pungent. Chef Christian had sliced an enormous quantity of red onions and cooked them down in olive oil, not butter, to avoid the congealed look in the soup’s cold state. He added garlic, a soft English lemon thyme, sherry and then a dark veal and beef stock mixture. When the soup was done, a giant flat crouton with a large shaving of Parmesan was placed gently on top. On the salty side, the soup seemed overly rich as the midpoint to the six-course meal. But a 1997 Mercury pinot noir took the edge off the overwhelming tone of this soup.

The next course did not take a lighter turn: Entrecôte au poivre and Pomme de terre duchesse, which translated roughly as steak and potatoes. But not any steak and potatoes. Chef Christian trimmed the fat off these enormous rib-eye steaks, which were seasoned in pepper, and browned with mushrooms, shallots and garlic. The pan was then deglazed with a rich veal stock, butter and a fine brandy, all of which was poured over the steaks. Potatoes were boiled, drained, dried, pureed with butter, seasoned, then piped with a pastry bag into decorative mounds and then baked. Though this technique seemed overly fussy, the result was a beautiful, deeply satisfying potato ornament. If you’re going to dress a potato, this is the way to do it. Whereas with the steak, it’s really all about the cow.

The next two courses, salad with blackberry vinaigrette and chocolate mousse, were predictably par. Although the vinaigrette presented a little too much like blackberry yogurt—too heavy for the soft greens—it had an enjoyable flavor. The mousse was light and luxurious, again deeply satisfying with a cup of good, strong coffee.

As I got up to leave, our hostess thanked each one of us and apologized for Chef Christian’s lackluster mood. She explained he had been feeling under the weather and pushing too hard. What with his TV appearances and new duties as the American Turkey Federation chef spokesperson, his career was taking a busier turn.

All was forgiven. Though I had expected a little more energy, what I got was a decent education, a fine six-course meal and more wine than I could drink in an elegant setting, all for a little over $35. If you ask me, the lunchtime cooking class with Chef Christian is one of the best bargains to be had in Sacramento. He may not be Emeril, but who needs another Bam! Guy, anyway?