Now, I haven't been to Paris. I've never had the time nor the means to make the obligatory pilgrimage to those Left Bank bistros and venerable Michelin-starred fortresses where haute cuisine was born, and so there are some people (and I can hear you already) who'd say I have no business passing judgment on something as central to the French experience as the humble frite. But I do and I will, because I earned the right years ago while working in New York for a chef we'll call Hans.
Hans was big. Hans was loud. Hans was Alsatian, but he'd been schooled and brought up in kitchens around Paris, working like a dog until one day -- burned out on the obsessive hero worship and stifling apprentice system that governs any advancement in French kitchens -- he fled Europe for the States. Hans was a working chef, always buttoned to the throat in bloodstained whites with a smoldering cigarette hanging from his lip and a ten-inch French knife stuck through his apron ties like some mountainous, prematurely balding pirate captain. When I joined his crew as a young, bone-stupid line cook, I was rightly assigned the lowliest position in his brigade. I made the frites. That's all I did and all I was allowed to do, and God help me if I ever dared try to lend a hand at one of the other stations.
Hans called me Chou -- French for "cabbage" -- in honor of my red hair and Irish surname. But everyone else who slaved in Hans's galley might as well have called me "Frites," because that's all I ever heard from any of them. "Frites on two....Going down, frites on four. Goddammit! Refire on table eight. I need one lapin, green salad, and Chou, gimme frites on the fly!"
Hans had shown me how to make the pommes frites to his specifications -- once -- and I was expected to make them perfectly every time after that, a hundred times a night. I'd learned to come in early to peel and cut potatoes by the fifty-pound bag; to keep the sliced frites in water with a couple slices of lemon and a handful of ice; to have at least four big tubs of them stacked up in the lowboy cooler behind me, plus an emergency fifth tub in the garde-manger's cooler, just in case I started running short in the middle of a rush. I'd learned the proper way to prepare them -- plunging my hands into the cold water and grabbing a double handful as soon as the order came in, giving them one good shake to get most of the water off before spinning around, dumping them in the fryer basket and blanching them in hot oil for ten seconds. Not nine seconds, not eleven, but ten exactly. Then I'd pull them up out of the oil, allowing them to drain and cool slightly until I heard the fire order from the expeditor, then back they went into the fryer oil to develop that perfect crisp and golden shell. When they were done, I'd lift them out, give the handle of the fryer basket one good smack to shake off some of the oil, then dump the finished frites into my favorite steel tossing bowl and give them a few one-handed flips while adding a good pinch of kosher salt and keeping an eye out for any burnt ends or discolored bits that would have to be purged before plating under Hans's watchful eye.
This was my life six nights a week for almost five months -- until the restaurant critic decided it was time for our review. We never knew she'd been there until the day the paper came out, but I remember walking into the galley that morning and seeing everyone hunched over one of the stainless-steel prep tables, stabbing at the column with greasy fingers and shouting at each other. Then Hans saw me and bellowed at the top of his lungs: "Chou! Come look! You're famous!"
The critic, who'd been trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, had devoted two whole paragraphs to the pommes frites -- to my pommes frites -- and how much they'd reminded her of the ones she'd enjoyed while wandering the streets of the Sixth Arrondissement as a starving culinary student. Hans clapped me on the back hard enough to numb my entire left arm, grinned at me, then went back to reading the review for probably the tenth time, picking it apart word for word and either congratulating or vilifying each cook around him in accordance with what had been said in the paper about his work. A couple of nights later, there was a new guy at the frites station, and I stood in front of the grill, desperately fighting to keep up with all of the orders coming in. I'd graduated. And the former grillardin whose spot I now stood in? We never saw him again. Apparently, a steak onglet had arrived at the critic's table somewhat overdone...