If you’re in Palm Beach this Thursday and you want to stop by Café Boulud (which you should, because the food is incredible), don’t expect to find chef Zach Bell in the kitchen. He’ll be in Washington D.C. speaking to members of the House of Representatives about feeding kids properly. But I’ll get to that in a bit.
I got an email from Zach on Saturday afternoon letting me know that he was making a pork shank terrine, and if I wanted to stop in and look in the pot, I was welcome to. And here’s the first thing you need to know about Zach: I’d never met him before. My friend and South Florida wonderful food writer Jan Norris had introduced us via email because I’ve wanted to see how a proper head cheese was made for ages, and they do that down at Café Boulud.
But never having met him didn’t seem to matter: chef Zach was happy to invite me into the kitchen to gawk while he made a terrine. And given Zach Bell’s ninja-like culinary skills (is there a French equivalent to ninja? That might be more apropos), the mystical nature of terrines in French cooking, and the fact that the kitchen in which he is Chef de Cuisine is in one of Daniel Boulud’s restaurants (he’s worked for Daniel for over a decade), he’d made me an offer that I couldn’t refuse. Kind of like the mafia, but without the threat of being shot behind the ear and dumped in the Meadowlands.
So Sunday afternoon I got a tour of the kitchen of one of the best restaurants in Florida by a three-time James Beard Award nominee. Name a better way to spend Sunday. Yeah, I know, you can’t.
First stop was to check out the cooking shanks, cooking away in a pot of incredible smells and colors; tinted red from the smoked paprika, filled with tasties both secret and not-so-secret. Among the latter that even I could identify: mirepoix and a few enormous hunks of bacon.
A few shanks had already been removed and put aside on sheet pans, and Zach checked the ones that were still cooking in the pot. When ready, the skin would split with a light stroke of a fork to reveal the ridiculously moist and flavorful meat, easily pulled apart for tasting (which we did, to the relief of my uncontrollably firing salivary glands).
As the rest continued to cook, we headed to the walk-in for a look around. Aside from the copious amounts of beautiful pig, there were other, less meaty items.
“These are St. George’s mushrooms,” Zach told me, taking the plastic off of a large pan filled with mushrooms in some sort of liquid. “The picking season for these is like three weeks long.”
He reached in and took a few, offering me a couple. Right about now, those of you with fungus obsessions may be getting a bit jealous, but it gets worse: because I’m not really a mushroom man. In fact, I generally look away and pretend I don’t know them when I meet them on the street. But these little bastards, all dense and flavorful with the crazy pickling preparation they did, these were amazing. These I’d chat up and try to convince to come back to my place for an afternoon.
“We pickled them à la greque – I can give you the recipe if you want.”
Um. Yes, please (it’s coming here, too – hopefully when Zach returns from D.C.).
The second walk-in we visited contained the balance of the hog Zach had recently purchased, including the head, which would be used for head cheese later in the week. I mentioned how much I liked the fact that they didn’t waste any part of the animal.
“It’s important to honor the animal, and we can make something with all of it,” he told me.
But there was more: a huge quantity of tenderloins and other cuts from our friends the cochon and the vache (hey, it’s a French kitchen), some beautiful ramps (gotta give a shout out to cool vegetables occasionally), and…
“Is that prosciutto aging?”
“Yes it is. We do that here. And above it,” he said pointing to what looked like a series of tightly wrapped books on a shelf, “is the lardo.”
Lardo: a salume you’re not going to find at the supermarket. And yes, it’s what it sounds like. Pig fat, cured with rosemary “a secret combination of things” then wrapped and aged.
“Do you have a meat slicer at home?” Zach asked me.
It broke my heart to admit I didn’t, but my depression was short lived: he grabbed a slab and headed to theirs, cutting a few paper-thin strips. He gently layered them on to some bread he’d grilled, lightly looping it back and forth against itself like that candy ribbon stuff. It had just begun to liquefy a bit as I ate it.
Stop cringing, wimps: pig fat on toast is way, way better than you’re thinking right now. Amazing. I left the kitchen with the happiest mouth in South Florida and an offer to return the following day to watch the terrine being finished.
When I arrived at Café Boulud the next day, chef Zach was picking and hand-cutting the meat from the pork shanks.
“This is calming to me,” he said when I pointed out that most people might have a prep cook do the work. “And it needs to be done by hand like this – we could dice it, but it’s not the same at all and I can’t stand seeing things done the wrong way when you know how to do it right. A lot of young chefs, they just want a recipe and to get on with it, without bothering to learn technique.”
For the next three hours, I was lucky enough to hang out with Zach in his kitchen, watching him make his terrine, listening to how the garlic had been carefully poached, learning about the piquillo peppers that had been julienned for the dish, watching him work with a staff that clearly loved him (he calls them his kids), finding out about the food they were making that day to donate to Quantum House.
And then there was the part about the House of Representatives. It seems that this particular terrine was being made for members of the U.S. House of Representatives. Chef Bell, along with seven others, will be providing a tasting menu for a reception to be held for members of the house. A reception that only comes after the chefs meet with them to urge them to pass a bill before session’s end that will improve and reauthorize the federal Child Nutrition Programs. It’s part of the Share Our Strength program which, along with the First Lady Michelle Obama’s Chefs Move to Schools initiative, is trying to do something about the disastrous state of childhood nutrition in this country. (If you’re interested in learning more about that topic, I’m providing further links at the end of this piece.)
The final steps in making the terrine required a dice of some skin and fat “for texture,” and a quick toss. The broth got some sherry (Spanish, to keep with the Spanish theme), then 120 sheets of gelatin. The broth was added to the bowl of pork mixture, a hearty amount of fresh ground pepper was added, and then the final product was taken to the walk-in and carefully poured into each prepped terrine mold.
“Would you like to take one home?” Zach asked me.
Was he kidding? Aside from having my mouth watering for the last three hours, this was a chance to out-benefit members of the House of Representatives: they may have the great health plans, but I got more terrine.
He poured some into a loaf pan, packed it in a plastic container surrounded by freezer packs, and sent me off with orders (o.k., it was really more of a suggestion) to serve it on grilled bread (“I like a nice char – it goes well with the terrine”).
So I headed home after my favorite afternoon in recent memory, leaving chef Zach with his kids, finishing his shift before heading to D.C. on behalf of everyone else’s.