Photographs by Blake Royer
About a month ago, a tipster told New York magazine that Thomas Keller, the demigod chef who runs two Michelin three-star restaurants, wasn't playing by his own rules.
In every cookbook, press packet, interview, or magazine article, Keller has made clear that only the Platonic ideal of ingredients, and the most laborious techniques, are good enough. His recipe for French onion soup, for example, details exactly at which angle and from which direction the onion should be sliced and requires hours of simmering with a heat diffuser; his recipes routinely include "ingredients" that are actually intensive, day-long preparations. He is a perfectionist, and he talks about it all over town.
What everybody orders at Bouchon, his café-bistro in California, are the fries. They're said to be divine, fluffy things that take the humble tuber to gastronomic heights. In his Bouchon cookbook, a glossy photo accompanies a long and passionate write-up. But not much, after all, is said. There is the usual twice-fried technique, with many changes of water to remove the starch before the first cooking. His oil temperatures are a straightforward 325°F and then 375°F. He makes no mention of beef tallow or rendered duck fatjust peanut oil and russet potatoes, tossed with kosher salt at the end. It's not a revelation. Most any source would agree with those cooking temperatures, which makes one wonder how much better fries can really be, if they are all cooked more or less the same way. What makes his fries so good? It must be the potatoes themselves.
It was then confirmed by a rep at Bouchon: Keller uses frozen french fries in his restaurant, possibly from Sysco, the largest food-supply company in North America. They are, however, "100 percent potato, which do not contain additives. The consistency in these fries is often better than that of fresh potatoes."
We called Sysco, and a human being answered on the first ring. We asked the customer service rep, quite simply, what was in the company's frozen fries. After a transfer to the quality control department, a friendly woman pulled up a search and found page after page of french fry options of different cuts and widths and styles, which confused her as much as it did us. Did they have a basic, no-frills fry? Sure, they had a classic cut. What was in that?
When Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack opened for the season again this year in New York City, along with all the blog buzz about their new pager-wands, there was some quieter talk about revamped fries. Meyer & Co. knew fries weren’t the restaurant's strong suit. As reported on A Hamburger Today, his Union Square Hospitality Group tried 32 kinds of fries before settling on an appropriate accompaniment to the locally famous burger. And they were all frozen.
We've always been under the impression that most nice restaurants went through the process and hand-cut their fries. As customers, we enter into an unstated agreement with these establishments: We'll pay outrageous prices for potatoes, and they will peel each one of those suckers by hand, fry them twice, and not mess up anywhere in between. Fair enough.
Apparently, that's not the case. But if frozen fries are acceptable at restaurants that, in all other areas, put great care into their food, could we pull off this stunt at home? We never make french fries because they're a giant hassle. Besides buying and disposing of all that oil, there’s the problem of prepping the potatoes, having the counter space to drain them on paper towels while waiting around for them to cool for the second frying, and the fact that the kitchen ends up smelling like McDonald’s. And no, we’re not about to buy an appliance devoted to deep-frying.
But maybe, just maybe, frozen fries would make it worthwhile. So we went to the grocery store, bought $20 worth of peanut oil (which isn't cheap, but nearly every fry expert insists on it), and three kinds of frozen fries.
Deep-frying is about regulating the oil temperature, and, even with a thermometer, that's really hard. Add the fries and the temperature plunges; turn the burner up and the oil climbs for minutes after you've shut the heat off. Our Ore-Ida variety of fries, which had similar additives to Sysco's, crisped up nicely but had that unmistakable off-tasting, processed edge. The two organic varieties, which used concentrated apple juice as a color preservative, had a far more satisfying potato flavor. Encouraged, we tinkered and tested until we got a nice color, crunch, and texture.
We looked at each other, searching for some glimmer of satisfaction, that feeling unique to cooking when you’ve nailed something and the reward is a fantastic treat to put in your mouth. But for some reason, none of that was really to be had. The fries were good…what was wrong?
Who knows how Keller does it? Perhaps Sysco makes special potatoes just for Bouchon. We don’t really blame him—logistically, it's impossible to hire enough people to hand-cut that many fries. And we'd be outraged if we flew all the way out to California and were told they had run out of russets an hour before. If frozen is good enough for Keller's high standards, it’s good enough for us. As long as the food doesn’t taste like it came from a bag, which, apparently, is easy to hide. Just don't tell us about it.
About the authors: Collectively, Nick Kindelsperger and Blake Royer are the Paupered Chef. For more on frugal but flavorful dining, visit their blog, thepauperedchef.com.