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Sometimes it seems like Bite Me World HQ is all about the esoteric discussion of cassoulet, coq au vin and the perils of foie gras production (those ducks and geese can get pissed, and they stand just about crotch-high). I've written about crepes (see my review of Crepes 'n Crepes), cuisine haute (at Restaurant Kevin Taylor, the Palace Arms and elsewhere), cuisine basse (my favorite, especially as practiced at places like Le Central or Z Cuisine) and cuisine merde (Brasserie Ten Ten, in particular). But there's one area of French gastronomy that doesn't get a lot of play in these pages: pastry.
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There are a couple of reasons for this. First, I don't know a lot about the gentle arts of the chef pâtissier. I wish I did. Had I been able to bake a loaf of bread, pull a little sugar, melt chocolate without breaking it or tell the difference between chantilly and pastry creams, my experiences in the kitchen might have been different. But I was wired for the hot line — as a station chef, and not a terribly creative one at that, with much more of Vatel than Careme in me.
Marie Antonin Careme was a patissier (he made Napoleon's wedding cake), a genius, a workaholic and a nut. Not only did he cook for kings and write some of the most influential cookbooks of his time, but — like Emeril or Rachael Ray — he redesigned (and put his name on) pots and pans, planned kitchens and even formalized what today is the standard chef's uniform of white double-breasted jacket, checked pants and toque. He was firmly of the opinion that, as with the stripes and stars on military uniforms, a commanding officer (read: executive chef) ought to be immediately recognizable in the midst of the kitchen melee, and therefore argued that a chef's seniority ought to be reflected in the size of his toque. Careme's dress toque? Eighteen inches tall — rising up off his head like a monument to egotism and weird brilliance. He was the world's first celebrity chef (no matter how much Marco Pierre White may lobby for the title) and cut the groove that everyone else would follow hundreds of years later.
As for Francois Vatel, other than inventing chantilly cream (at a party for Louis XIV held at the Chateau de Chantilly, natch), he was primarily a banquet chef and known most widely for his perfectionism, his obsessive-compulsiveness and the fact that he killed himself (by falling on a sword, no less) over a late fish delivery. In fact, Vatel popped his own cork in the middle of the same banquet for which he invented chantilly cream, which is the only part of his story I take issue with.
Buddy, you were a motherfucking chef. And a chef doesn't abandon his troops in the middle of dinner when things start going sideways. A chef cowboys up, shifts the fish course back, fills with chicken, then pulls out his gold card and sends one of his junior poissonardes out to the medieval Piggly Wiggly to buy them out of anything that swims. A little aspic, some fancy garnishing, and the king is none the wiser. Then, only when all is said and done — the troops paid off, the galley broken down, everyone on their way home — does a chef put away a bottle of absinthe and eat a musket ball.
History does not record who stepped into Vatel's shoes and saw the banquet through to its finish, what miserable sous or chef de partie got saddled with the duty of informing the staff that "Le chef est mort," then stepped up and ran the kitchen for the rest of the night. But I actually have a lot in common with that guy (whoever he was), too, because I've had that conversation: "Sorry, guys. Chef just called from the police station. He got drunk last night, went up on the roof and passed out. This morning, the cops had to come and get him down after his neighbor blew him in for pissing into his azalea bushes from the roof, so it looks like I'm running the show tonight."
The other reason I don't write a lot about French bakeries is that they're not good review subjects. There's not a lot of action, nowhere to sit and watch the flow of a night's service. For that matter, good bakeries do the bulk of their business between eight and eleven in the morning — hours when I am either asleep or sitting hung over on the couch in my underpants wondering exactly what I did the night before that caused me to come home with four pairs of sunglasses and $400 worth of credit-card receipts for porn and barbecue.
Still, once in a while I manage to get out of the house at a reasonably early hour. Sometimes it's for pancakes, sometimes for crepes. And last week, with the Best of Denver 2008 looming, I made the rounds of a few French bakeries. In Aurora, I stopped by Daniel's of Paris (12253 East Iliff Avenue) for fruit tarts and petits fours. Daniel's focuses on cakes, but the petits fours are really just smaller versions of their larger pièce montées — a sort of catch-as-catch-can assortment of genoise, ganache and meringues. I got out the door with a slice of delicious cherry tart and a murderously rich chocolate something-or-other, spiked with espresso and so dark that light couldn't escape. A few minutes away, at 2832 South Havana Street, is Katherine's French Bakery — a bright and sunny little space with a couple of tables and a menu that makes Katherine's more like a pastry-heavy cafe than a stand-alone bakery, with quiches, sandwiches, scratch soups and coffee. But I usually skip all of that in favor of the bakery cases — rows and rows of cakes, tarts, cookies and a delicious croissant aux amandes — that remain pretty well stocked well into the afternoon. Chef Mario Arrua came to Denver by way of Argentina and Miami; owner Katherine Keeley Pappas went the old-fashioned route, apprenticing herself to a French baker, then running off to Martigues, France, where she worked under French, Spanish and Algerian chefs in a Provençal patisserie-boulangerie.
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