Looking back over the years, I would have to say my favorite serving job was at a little French restaurant in Springfield, MO called Le Mirabelle. Christian Finance was a classically trained French Chef and his wife Bobbi ran the front of the house. The food was incredible and it was arguably the best restaurant in Springfield, MO. It also was Brad Pitt’s favorite restaurant in his hometown. I attribute so much of the respect I have for this business to them and their headwaiter, Jim. It represented so much of what was right about this business in my mind. To this day when I take a shortcut I sometimes get a chill expecting to see Christian or Jim with their arms crossed giving me a disapproving stare from across the room.
One day Chef asked me in his French accent (which after two decades of living here I always suspected was artificially strong) a simple question. He asked if I knew why the French smothered their food in sauce. I admitted to both my lack of knowledge and curiosity. He explained France has a long history of being a battlefield. During wars high quality meat is hard to find. This led the French to come up with thick powerful sauces to cover up the flavor of the low quality meat.
While I will not vouch for the accuracy of his story, I will say that the French sure love their sauces. Americans have taken this to a new level (“Can I get some ranch dressing for my steak?”), but lack the creativity of the French. For this reason French sauces still pop up all over restaurant menus. As a diner or a server, a basic knowledge of these sauces will drastically improve your food IQ. With that in mind, here are the basics of French sauces.
Two basic terms to know:
Roux: A combination of flour and butter or fat to create a thick base. A roux can range from white to brown based upon the type of fat, amount of flour, and cooking time. The whiter the roux the greater it’s thickening value.
Stock: Stock can be made with a variety of meat bones or meatless. Vegetables, seasonings, and meat bones (optional) are added to water and slowly reduced over hours. A stock is light (white) or dark (brown) based on whether the bones are roasted in advance.
From these two items the “mother sauces” are born. In the 19th century, Marie-Antoine Carême first created the concept of a “grand” or “mother’ sauce. These are the sauces others are created from. His classification listed four main sauces that formed the basis of French cuisine. Careme’s four mother sauces were:
Béchamel: White roux with cream
Velouté: Blonde roux and white stock
Espagnole: Brown roux and brown stock
Allemande: Veloute sauce thickened with egg yolk and cream.
Some of you reading this are asking the question, “how can Allemande be a mother sauce if it is based on Veloute?” Others are probably wondering where tomatoes and aioli come into the mix. My regular readers were probably already expecting this, but you will have to come back tomorrow to find out. Tomorrow, we will enter into the 20th century and meet a chef named Auguste Escoffier who created the modern list of mother sauces and designed the modern kitchen. If you work in a kitchen, near a kitchen, or eat in restaurants, Escoffier is someone you owe a debt of gratitude to. Come back tomorrow to find out why.
On a side note: if you came across this post by searching for Le Mirabelle, I would love to hear from you. Any great memories of Christian’s sweetbreads or Beef Wellington? Anyone else still remember how to de-bone a Dover Sole tableside by candlelight? Know where I can hunt down Jim or the Finance’s for an interview? Please leave a comment.