Thrice cooking is not just a technique; it is a philosophy. It’s about making an effort. It’s about coaxing the best flavour, best texture—as much utter delight you can from a single ingredient.
The humble French fry is as ubiquitous as any food stuff could be in North America. Why do so many people cook shitty fries and why do so many people tolerate it?
The English experts suggested King Edward or Maris Piper potatoes be used. We don’t have those potatoes in North America, so I narrowed it down to Yukon Gold and Russet. I performed empirical analysis to determine which was better. Of course thrice-cooking suggests three levels of cooking, in this case, poaching in water until 90% cooked, a poach in lower temperature oil to produce structural integrity and to develop a colourless patina, followed by a final fry in high temperature oil to crisp up the works. Between the water poach and the oil poach, the chips are to be delicately ‘chuffed’, that is, knocking them about gently in the tray. This subtle abrasion on the outside of the chip allows for more surface area via nooks and crannies that make for more crispy bits. When I was working on the experiment, I used a counter-top deep fryer and this deliberation was serious, drawn out, and in my mind, the most important thing I could be doing at the time.
Anyway, the final results of the exercise, taken verbatim from my blog from a few year’s previous:
Yukon Gold – More potato flavour, user-friendly in preparation, nice and crisp right out the fryer, but deteriorated to sogginess very quickly. Interior was a robust, smooth potato texture. Crust was just okay.
Russet – Potato flavour more subtle, difficult to handle due to their delicacy, however, they had the most amazing crust – an audibly crunch in the mouth. The interior was soft and fluffy – no hint of mealiness at all. After 15 minutes, they were still crisp and palatable. After one full hour, I was able to crunch away on them and although a bit cold, they were still crispy and delicious.
Before I ever even owned my own establishment, I had put more thought into the humble English chip than many restaurant owners in my end of the city would put into their entire menu. I can say that with confidence: it is a fact. But it’s also not saying much. I deserve no accolades. My home-cooking effort was misplaced. Things change when you actually get into a real restaurant. Cooking loses its pleasure; it becomes frightening, exhausting and done at high speed. Many people don’t care about your famous thrice-cooked chip. They want to know how much it costs, if it was fried in peanut oil or if it’s gluten-free. Business minds will tell you that there’s too much labour involved, too much time, it’s not cost effective and the customer doesn’t necessarily perceive the value. You’ll have to charge too much for them. They’re fries for Christ’s sakes! It’s not about making it good. It’s about convincing an over-worked line cook how important each seemingly superfluous step is, or how to sell it or, or make it better than the ‘single-cooked’ frozen fries across the street in the chain pub for which a high school punk in a paper hat can competently produce plates of them faster and sell them for a lower cost. Those cheap, easily-cooked frozen fries, for many customers, are good enough. Are they hot and salty? Sure, that checks off the boxes for most people when it comes to a good French fry. But does that ‘chip’ come from a good quality, local potato? Is it cut thick by hand, with a knife, by a real person; paying homage to the English seaside vacations of yore? Does it have a craggy, multi-stratified crust that shatters glass-like upon the first bite, with the orgasmic pay-off of a creamy, buttery interior; the finest pomme puree you’ve ever eaten? Is the experience only intensified with the lingering pleasure of the Maldon salt flakes crunching between your molars?
No. But they only cost $1.99 to get a whole plate of them.
That’s the problem that I would eventually encounter when I went from a home kitchen to a restaurant kitchen. There are a lot of customers that are quite happy to pay less and get ‘good enough’. And you know what? After being through this whole process, I get it. I don’t blame them. It’s just who we are; the larger food culture of North America. We’re not like the French or Italians or Japanese. In those countries, food is not just fuel, not just something to pull out of a box and cram in the microwave. Food is what differentiates them from other people. It is any wonder that the French are called Frogs? That the Tuscans are called Mangia Fagioli? Or that the British are disparagingly referred to as Beefeaters and the Germans, Krauts? Many cultures are defined by their food for good or ill. In some cultures, teaching a kid how to make beurre blanc or fillet a fish or how to behave at the table is as important as two plus fucking two. I wish we were like that, but we’re not. Our food culture has been stuck in a rut for years and although there are many, many people—the majority of my customers among them—that get it, I think most people just don’t care. We aren’t taught to cook in school anymore. We have no idea where are food comes from, in fact, I assume most people don’t want to know. Food is simply not a big deal to North Americans. To insist we cook our chips three times results in a higher cost, smaller profits, more required storage space, a shorter shelf life and more labour. I often wonder why we bother. Am I food snob? Plenty of people would think so, despite the fact that the entire population of France or Japan would have to be accused of such. Sometimes I have magnificent moments when a customer’s praise makes it all worth it. They use superlatives to describe our food. Why wouldn’t we try to make the best we can? But there are other times, after a complaint about our prices or our portion size, when I hang my head in despair and wonder what was the point of opening a restaurant if I couldn’t somehow communicate to my customers just how awesome good food can be and how a thrice-cooked chip is simply better. Do we not deserve it?