Tomato and Tarragon Soup

Are chefs crazy ?

Have you ever heard the term toqué in French ? It might refer to someone who actually wears a toque, or high chef’s hat. But more often than not….

More often than not, toqué means nutty, a little crazy. Complètement toqué, by extension, means completely bonkers, like many professional chefs, which is why I like the expression toqué comme un chef.

Chef Evil

Most chefs don’t wear a toque, those impractical chef’s hats that are popular for photo ops but are fast disappearing from real kitchens. They’re even less practical in a Parisian kitchen, which is usually located in the basement : the low ceiling will knock the toque right off of your head. Nowadays, some chefs wear special bandannas or caps sold from chef’s wear brands like Bragard.

The tall chef hat sold at Bragard is called the "King" model, but who wants to look like Chef Evil here, who probably just bawled out the apprentice for making a bathroom run ? Personally, I’d rather resemble the sly-looking cheffe on the right, who’s wearing the Pylea model of chef’s cap. But maybe that’s just me.

Snorting chefs

Chef’s hats aside, the fast-paced environment of a professional kitchen is enough to make even the most balanced cooks a little nutty at times. Back when I was working in French kitchens, we’d get fueled up for the morning’s work with about five cups of espresso. Any – legal ! – substance that would help us work faster was legit.

In the most high-stakes kitchens, where there’s a zero-tolerance policy for errors, there’s a surprisingly high level of tolerance for illicit drugs, the kind that turn ordinary chefs into super-humans. All those snorting chefs know exactly what I’m talking about.

A lentil starter, but hold the lentils

Even if the chefs I worked with were (sort of) clean-living, and they happily stayed focused on their work without the help of cocaine, there was always a point at which someone would hit the roof, or in French, péter les plombs (literally, to hit the pipes, like the ones just under the low ceiling in that Parisian kitchen).

Why ? Any number of things can set off a chef : demanding clients who order a lentil starter – but hold the lentils, s’il vous plaît. A server who pilfers an end-of-meal chocolate mignardise the pastry chef spent all morning making by hand, and then has the gall to look wide-eyed (and full-mouthed) when accused of the crime.

A special brand of chef craziness

Apart from hitting the roof once in a while because other people are making them crazy, chefs are really good at self-punishment, and doing things in the kitchen that normal people wouldn’t do.

For example, pastry chefs weigh eggs for the most technical recipes, because the indication "large eggs" just doesn’t cut it. Another example : charcutiers, or pork butchers, create their gorgeous terrines and pâtés INSIDE a large refrigerator, working in long johns under their chef’s clothes and special kitchen-grade jackets over them.

Another special brand of chef craziness is the process of straining. Stocks, soups, and sauces are strained several times, through finer and finer strainers, until only the most pure elements remain.

At your own risk !

In fine dining restaurants (restaurants gastronomiques), this straining process is usually done with a chinois étamine, a fine-meshed strainer, like the one next to me in the picture (professional models are much larger than mine, and don’t fit in my Parisian kitchen !).

Soups are pushed through the strainer’s mesh with a ladle, and you pump it up and down in a process known as plunging. By the way, the French verb for that is fouler, which, if you just thought to yourself, ″That word sounds like fool !″ you’d be absolutely right.

How many times do you strain ? If you have to ask, it’s probably not enough. Thomas Keller’s French Laundry Cookbook has a couple of brilliant – what isn’t brilliant in that cookbook ? – pages devoted to just this process (see ″Tools of Refinement,″ page 73).

Does the home cook need or even want to do this ? Probably not. But if you praise purity, and want a smooth soup as fine as they come, you can become a little bit more like French chefs, and apply the straining process just like they do.

In the words of Thomas Keller, you’ll get the result that is a ″texture on your tongue and palate that is almost indescribable. It is the texture of luxury.″ So strain away, but only at your own risk !

Tomato and Tarragon Soup

Summer’s last tomatoes are still coming in ! The ones we’re eating mostly come from our favorite market gardener at the local Gambetta market behind the town hall of the 20th district.

But last week when I was hacking away at the tangle of forsythia (and briar, and morning glory…) at my country house in Burgundy, the gardener who helps us maintain our jungle of a yard brought me some lovely – and most tasty ! – hierloom varieties from his own garden.

This recipe is adapted from one of my very favorite cookbooks, published long ago by British author Geraldene Holt, Recipes from a French Herb Garden. I love fresh herbs almost as much as Holt, and even the dragon-like estragon, or tarragon, couldn’t keep me away from this ultra-fresh summer soup.

ingredients :
- 2 tablespoons (30 g) butter
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- ½ clove garlic, finely chopped
- ½ stick celery, finely chopped
- 1½ pounds (680 g) ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped
- ½ cup (120 ml) dry white wine
- ¾ cup (180 ml) well-flavored chicken stock
- 1 small bay leaf
- ⅛ teaspoon ground allspice
- a strip of orange peel
- 1 teaspoon raw sugar
- 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1 tablespoon fresh tarragon leaves, chopped

to finish :
- 4 heaping tablespoons crème frâiche or 4 tablespoons heavy cream (or more, yum !)
- 4 pretty sprigs of tarragon, for decor

how to make it :
1. Melt the butter in a medium soup pot over medium heat, and when the butter begins to foam, add the onion, garlic, and celery. Cook for 3 minutes, stirring often.
2. Add the tomatoes, wine, stock, bay leaf, allspice, orange peel, sugar, and salt. Bring to the boil and add half of the tarragon leaves. Cover and cook over medium-low heat for 25 minutes.
3. Carefully remove the bay leaf and orange peel. Using an immersion blender, purée the soup until no solids remain. If you wish, and you’re a little crazy like many professional chefs, pass the soup through a fine-meshed strainer for restaurant-grade smoothness. Serve with a spoonful of crème fraîche (or stir in the heavy cream), garnish with a sprig of tarragon, and serve hot. This soup can also be served chilled. Bon app’ !

serves 3-4 as a starter (¾-cup servings) or 8-9 as an amuse-bouche in tiny cups (⅓-cup servings)

Tags : tomatoes , tarragon , soups , chefs , crazy chefs , toqué , toque , Bragard , Thomas Keller , The French Laundry Cookbook , Geraldene Holt , Recipes from a French Herb Garden , herbs , straining soups , fine-meshed strainer


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