What does the most important chef in America know about salad that you don’t know? On the one hand, not much: Take some fresh herbs, shock your lettuce back to vibrancy with cold water, unite it all with good olive oil and some first-rate vinegar, and voilà! You could probably whip up a similar salad tonight, without a recipe, and without enduring the dizzying price tag and half-year wait that folks withstand to taste a salad made by the hands of Thomas Keller at his famous Napa Valley restaurant, French Laundry. It’s just a salad, after all.
Yet if you were to ask Keller what’s so special about the various soups and salads for which the crowds at his renowned restaurants regularly clamor, he might just shock you by shrugging and saying that the salads and soups are not, in themselves, all that important.
“It’s not the plates,” he said, “it’s the path.”
Not the plates, but the path? When Keller told me this recently at a food-media event being filmed by 60 Minutes, I just about fell off my chair. After all, this is a man who has won back-to-back James Beard awards for his cooking – a man whose plates have captured the whole world’s attention. In 2001, Time magazine named him America’s Best Chef. His first cookbook, The French Laundry Cookbook, has won more awards than a 10-ton hog at a county fair. His New York restaurant, Per Se, has more critical buzz than a hive of killer bees. Hollywood A-list types assign their assistants to do nothing but work the phones trying to achieve a French Laundry reservation. And his French bistro, Bouchon, which has outposts in both Las Vegas and Napa Valley, is considered to be one of the best French bistros in America – a reputation that is sure to be enhanced by his newest cookbook, Bouchon (Artisan, 2004), which reveals the mind-bending techniques used to achieve the signature flavors of his bistro.
I just didn’t get it. How could this man, whose plates make the whole world weep with gratitude, be saying that the plates are unimportant? “The plates are incidental,” insisted Keller. “They’re merely a by-product.” Then, over the course of the next two hours, he explained.
Hungry for Attention
You see, when you or I visit French Laundry and sup upon the most marvelous herb-dressed salad, a salad of such thrilling vibrancy that we nearly collapse from joy, what we are really experiencing isn’t a salad at all. What it is, according to Keller, is attention.
The flavors we are experiencing are, as Keller explains it, the products of a great deal of attention paid by many people over the course of many months and years: attention paid to relationships with a nearby organic-lettuce grower, whose methods sustain the health of the soil; attention to the chervil ripening in the garden; attention to the efforts of a far-off Italian-vinegar producer; to the career needs of the cook who assembled the salad; to the knife; to the lighting in the kitchen; attention to everything, everything, everything.
The plate, as he points out, could not be here without every step along that path. Even if all this seems kind of inexplicable and nutty to you right now, it will probably begin to make sense as you attempt Keller’s Bibb Lettuce Salad, which is, like all of the recipes in his breathtaking new cookbook, an example of the delicious “byproducts” that bubble up from a path of complete attention.
Zen and the Art of Salad Making
This recipe, as you’ll discover, is for no simple tossed salad: This recipe is for one disassembled, carefully dressed and completely reassembled head of lettuce per person.
This salad is more than a salad. It’s practically a Zen practice – akin to the way that Eastern monks focus their minds through exactingly mindful completion of seemingly rote tasks.
When you make this salad, you are standing apart from the grab-and-go culture. You are choosing to slow time in favor of the pursuit of attention. As you assemble each piece of this lettuce puzzle, you are abandoning the path of greatest convenience and stepping onto the path of appreciation.
While you prepare this salad, you can take time to marvel at the elegant way that Bibb lettuce configures itself. You can think about the folks and farm that raised your lettuce. You can think about the earth and water and weather that helped form each delicate and delectable leaf. About all the people whose efforts helped bring it to your table.
Whichever way your mind unfolds, by the time you sit down to eat, you will have had a different relationship to the plate in front of you, and a better sense of the path that brought it to your table. You’ll have had a moment to consider the possibility that the greatest chef in America might, in fact, not know so much more about salad than you do. But then again, he just might.
Bibb Lettuce Salad – Salade de Laitue
- 4 heads Bibb lettuce
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tbs. minced shallots
- 2 tbs. minced chives
- 1/4 cup Italian parsley leaves
- 1/4 cup tarragon leaves
- 1/4 cup chervil leaves
- 1/2 cup House Vinaigrette (see below)
- 1 tbs. plus 1 tsp. fresh lemon juice
Carefully cut out the core from each head of lettuce and separate the leaves, but keep each head of lettuce together; discard any rough outer leaves. Because each head of lettuce will be reassembled, the easiest way to work is with one head at a time. First, place the leaves in a bowl of cold water to refresh them and remove any dirt, then lift out and spin dry in a salad spinner.
Place the leaves from a single head of lettuce in a bowl. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt, a few grinds of pepper, 1-1/2 teaspoons of the shallots and chives, and 1 tablespoon each of the parsley, tarragon and chervil. Then toss gently with 2 tablespoons of the vinaigrette and 1 teaspoon of lemon juice. Repeat with the remaining heads.
For each serving, arrange the outer lettuce leaves as a base on the plate and rebuild each head of lettuce, ending with the smallest, most tender leaves.
Makes 4 servings.
The only hard part of making a great vinaigrette is finding the right ingredients. If one of them is mediocre (if the oil is old or the wrong kind, or if the vinegar is cheap), then the resulting vinaigrette will be mediocre. For a standard vinaigrette, you need a good, fresh, neutral oil and a delicious vinegar and, if you’re using it, an excellent mustard.
Everything else is formula, a recipe: three parts fat, one part acid. Adhere to the recipe and you’ll have a great vinaigrette every time. As with all preparations, there are matters of finesse. Emulsified vinaigrettes are best the day after they’ve been made, the flavors having had a chance to mature together. Our basic vinaigrette is simple – no shallots, not even salt and pepper – and makes powerful use of fresh herbs, but they must be added at the last minute or the vinegar will turn them brown. With the Bibb salad, we give a little blast of fresh lemon juice at the end to make it really sparkle.
But ultimately, the most important step in making a great vinaigrette is the simplest of ideas: Combine great ingredients in the proper proportions.
- 1/4 cup Dijon mustard
- 1/2 cup red-wine vinegar
- 1 1/2 cups canola or light olive oil
Combine the mustard and vinegar in a blender and blend at medium speed for about 15 seconds. With the machine running, slowly drizzle in a 1/2 cup of the oil. Don’t be tempted to add all the oil to the blender or the vinaigrette will become too thick. It should be very creamy.
Transfer the vinaigrette to a small bowl and, whisking constantly, slowly stream in the remaining 1 cup of oil. (The dressing can be refrigerated for up to two weeks. Should the vinaigrette separate, use a blender or immersion blender to re-emulsify it.)
Makes about 2 1/2 cups.
The recipes on this page were excerpted from Thomas Keller’s newest cookbook, Bouchon (Artisan, 2004). Find out more about Keller at www.frenchlaundry.com.
Dara Moskowitz is a Minneapolis-based food and wine critic. Twice nominated for James Beard Awards – the Oscars of the food world – she received the award for her restaurant column in the Village Voice-owned newspaper City Pages. Her work has been selected for inclusion in the Best Food Writing anthologies of 2001, 2003 and 2004. She is a regular guest and host on a variety of television and radio programs.