It really is hard to articulate exactly how incredibly intensely we worked in the kitchen at Le Gavroche in London. At the time, it was kind of surreal to be constantly running, never having a sense of control over the job in front of you, never having had enough sleep that wasn’t ridden with dreams reenacting the job that you did or didn’t get done to your satisfaction during the day before. There were about 16 of us in the kitchen, I never picked up my head long enough to get an exact count, and people did come and go at an alarming rate, but there was only one among us who seemingly had everything down. Franck ran, sang, chatted and cooked all at the same time in that kitchen. The chef would arrive, all of us with our heads down to our tables working at top speed, or slipping along the kitchen with something in our hands shouting “Chaud derrier! Hot behind!” to no one in particular, even if what we were carrying happened to be cold. And during this frantic prep time, only one person would be working away, chattering about this and that, making jokes, and that person was of course Franck. He had worked in this grueling kitchen already for 4 years, and been promoted sous-chef upon his re-appearance there in 1998, when he arrived from the States with me in tow to work as pastry chef. The chef would lament, loudly, “ONE voice! Why is it that I constantly only hear one voice in this place!” For anyone who knows Franck’s booming voice, you can understand what Chef Michel was remarking; there was only one person who could claim to really have his job down in that kitchen and to be loving every minute of it.
It was the kind of place where to not hear anything about your work was a good thing. No comment meant that you were doing things properly, doing actually a good job though that was impossible to imagine. I’d try to slide around and not be noticed as much as possible. The fact that I was the then-girlfriend of the sous chef didn’t provide me any advantage, but my determination to get through the visa and the job alive definitely did, and hearing that voice on the other side of the kitchen provided a small degree of comfort.
Though there was little or no praise at Le Gavroche, when Franck’s birthday came around the Chef offered a generous gift for all of his hard work: dinner for two at any Michelin-starred restaurant in London. We chose Nobu. It was the Chef’s favorite restaurant, and we were dying to go. We entered the sleek, bright dining room tentatively and sat down for our meal at Nobu. We’d attempted to look as presentable as possible that night, but always alas had the feeling that we were on the wrong side of things, that we didn’t really belong at a table being served, and our minds couldn’t help reflecting on the hell that we knew the chefs in the kitchen at Nobu were going through at that moment to deliver our perfect dinners. The hostess, however, didn’t have any idea that we were imposters, posing as deserving patrons in a gorgeous restaurant. She treated us as warmly and helpfully as any real guests and suggested the best ways to approach the fantastic menu. Half of our choices were made already, however, by Chef Michel’s recommendations. First thing we knew we had to try: the Crab Gratin.
From there it went on and on, Yellowtail Sashimi, Black Cod with Miso, the sushi – oh! the sushi — these dishes are iconic now and for good reason. But you can’t imagine how good they tasted to two people as tired and hungry for some pampering as we were that night. It was an unforgettable meal, and we play homage to it now on our menu with our variation on that delicious, creamy Crab Gratin:
Thanks have to go out to one of my pastry muses, in fact, the wonderful Rose Levy Berenbaum, who published Nobu’s recipe as a tart filling in “The Pie and Pastry Bible,” and gave us a way to attempt a replica of this rich and delicious dish.
- 1 lb Atlantic lump crab or Jonah crab meat, picked through for bits of shell
- ½ c mayonnaise
- Juice of 1 lemon
- ½ T Worcestershire sauce
- ¼ c very finely chopped parsley
- 3 scallions, finely sliced
- ½ red pepper, finely diced
- Salt, pepper
- 1 ½ T lumpfish caviar
- Fold everything together and taste for seasoning.
- Sweat 2 leeks, finely sliced, in canola oil until melted, deglaze with splash of white wine, salt and pepper.
- Line gratin pan base with the leeks, top with the crab mixture and bake until browned and bubbling.