Never before in human history has mankind been so utterly fire-hosed with recipes – the Food Network, celebrity-chef cookbooks, vast recipe databases on the internet. But how many meals should a man really work to master? How many key moves will allow a guy to shine every time it counts – whether it's the fiancée's birthday, a dinner party, or anytime he simply owes himself a righteous steak?
The answer, it turns out, is five.
Not six, not four, but five.
How do I know? I asked Thomas Keller, the most celebrated chef in the country – the tall, wry son of a Marine drill sergeant, and the only American ever to have two restaurants simultaneously holding three Michelin stars, which is like the food-world equivalent of winning the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor Oscars in the same year. Keller so enjoys the refinement of the classics and is so good at teaching technique that my personal copies of his 50-dollar coffee table worthy cookbooks hang together with duct tape and spilled Bordelaise sauce, reassuring me that if I just follow Obi-Wan's instructions, I'll triumph every time. And he not only agreed with my premise, he offered to help define the Ultimate Culinary Short List.
But Keller even went a step further, making an offer that comes along about every 20 lifetimes for a food lover: two full-blown master classes, eight hours total, laying out every nuance of every dish on what is now a definitive list for the ages – first at his Napa flagship, the French Laundry, and then at his Manhattan redoubt, Per Se.
No. 1 – Rack of Lamb
Valentine's Day, boss dropping by, meeting in-laws for the first time: Nothing beats a "frenched" rack of lamb. "It's one of those elegant dishes royalty ate," Keller says. "It's the most flavorful, tender part of the animal."
On a properly frenched rack – in which the bones have been scraped clean of all muscle and fascia – graceful white fingers arc up beautifully from the crimson meat. Any good butcher can french a rack for you, but Keller encourages doing it yourself – not to save a few bucks, although you will, but for the pleasure of the process, and the pride of craftsmanship. This isn't changing-your-own-oil stuff; it's tying your own flies.
"To me this is what it's all about," Keller says. "Taking a whole rack and breaking it down, using your knife skills, transforming it into something beautiful, but also something satisfying and generous, and very luxurious. Your girlfriend may never even notice, except in a kind of heightened ..."
"Awareness?" I offer.
"That's it," Keller says. "Awareness."
The Complete Recipe: Herb-Crusted Rack of Lamb
• 1 head of garlic
• 3 tbsp finely chopped parsley
• 1/2 tsp minced thyme
• 1 1/2 cups brioche (or any white bread) crumbs
• 8-bone rack of lamb (3 lb)
• Kosher salt
• Freshly ground black pepper
• 1/4 cup Dijon mustard
Preheat oven to 425, wrap the head of garlic in foil, and roast for 40 minutes, until soft. Let cool, slice in half across the cloves, and squeeze each to remove the soft brown roasted garlic within. For the persillade crust, combine 1 tbsp garlic with the parsley, thyme and bread crumbs, and mix. It should be moist enough to clump; if not, moisten with canola oil.
Using a paring knife, french the bones and then remove all fat and fascia from the meat. Wrap the bones individually in aluminum foil. Set rack, bone side down, ribs facing away from you, on a sheet of parchment paper or plastic wrap. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Brush the meat with enough Dijon mustard to create a thin, translucent layer.
Spread the crumb mixture onto the parchment paper in front of the rack, then bring the paper to the meat and press the crumbs into it.
Set the lamb on a roasting rack in a roasting pan, put it in the oven, and cook for 25 to 35 minutes, until the temperature in the center measures 128 to 130.
Let the lamb rest in a warm place for about 20 minutes for medium-rare. Carve the rack into four two-bone chops. Sprinkle with salt and serve.
No. 2 – Bistro-Style Skirt Steak
"If i came up with a list of five meals for men and I didn't include a steak, it wouldn't make sense. People would be like, 'What's up?'" Keller tells me.
He's got a point, and not just because everybody thinks of steak as the ultimate guy food. Seared cow meat and burly red wine really do have some incantational power to stitch a weary male soul together again, reassuring a man that he's living right and all's well in the universe. Anyone can learn to grill a porterhouse, but Keller recommends the classic French bistro steak – an intensely flavored cut known as the bavette or, to any good American butcher, the "outside skirt."
The Complete Recipe: Skirt Steak With Red Wine Jus and Caramelized Shallots
• 10 oz "Outside skirt" steak, a.k.a. bavette
• Kosher salt
• Freshly ground black pepper
• 1 tbsp canola oil
• 2 tbsp unsalted butter
• 1 cup thinly sliced shallots
• 1 tsp minced thyme
For the Red Wine Jus
• 2 cups red wine
• 1/4 cup diced yellow onions
• 1/4 cup carrots, peeled and sliced
• 1/4 cup sliced leeks, white and light-green parts only
• 1/4 cup sliced shallots
• 1/4 cup sliced mushrooms
• 1 thyme sprig
• 2 parsley sprigs
• 1 bay leaf
• 6 black peppercorns
• 1 garlic clove, smashed
• 1 cup veal stock (MJ alternative: 1 tbsp Williams-Sonoma veal demi-glace)
Combine all ingredients for the red-wine jus, except the veal stock, in a saucepan. Simmer until the wine reduces almost to a glaze. Add the stock and simmer another 15 minutes. (Alternative: Add the veal demi-glace and 2 tbsp water, then stir. No need to simmer further.) Strain through a fine-mesh strainer. The jus should have the consistency of a thin sauce. Reduce further if needed. Set aside.
Season both sides of the steak with salt and pepper. Add the canola oil to a large skillet over high heat. When the oil begins to smoke, add the steak.
After about 2 minutes, or when the steak is nicely seared and browned, turn it over and set the butter on top. Once the butter begins to melt, baste the steak.
After about 7 minutes total cooking time, transfer the meat to a warm place (a cutting board is fine) and let rest for at least 10 minutes – this is key, as it allows moisture to redistribute evenly.
While the meat rests, add sliced shallots to the skillet and cook for 2 minutes, or until soft.
Add thyme, reduce heat, and cook gently until shallots are completely softened and golden brown.
Season to taste with salt and pepper and cook for an additional 2 to 3 minutes to caramelize. Stir juices from the steak into the shallots.
Spoon about 2 tbsp of jus onto a plate; top with the steak (sliced or whole) and then the shallots.
No. 3 – Roast Chicken
Juicy breast meat and crispy brown skin – those are the hallmarks of the perfect roast chicken. And Keller, who loves roast chicken so much he once placed it on a hypothetical menu for his own last meal – along with a half-kilo of osetra caviar ($1,600) and a homemade quesadilla (50 cents) – delivers both in the single easiest roast chicken recipe ever, the one he makes at home.
"People love roast chicken; it makes them feel comfortable," Keller tells me, setting a raw chicken on his cutting board. And then he shows me the critical techniques: getting the entire bird bone-dry before you cook, trussing it up tight, and positively coating it with salt.
The Complete Recipe: Roast Chicken
• 2-1/2- to 3-lb chicken
• Kosher salt
• 1 tbsp chopped thyme
Use paper towels to dry the chicken inside and out. This helps the skin to crisp.
Preheat oven to 450 and truss the chicken. Leave the bird out for at least 30 minutes before cooking. A room-temperature chicken will cook more evenly throughout.
Salt generously, then place chicken, breast side up, in a roasting pan. Set in the oven and leave alone – don't baste it, don't add butter. Roast for 50 to 60 minutes.
Remove from oven and sprinkle chopped thyme into the pan juices. Baste with the juices; let rest 15 minutes.
Remove twine, legs and thighs. Cut the breast down the middle and serve each half on the bone, wings attached.
No. 4 – Pork & Beans
Part I: The Pork
Even the best home chef can't be pan-frying fillet of sole for 12: too much last-minute hassle, no way to nail the timing. That's where the one-pot meal comes in, the richly satisfying braise that actually gets better if you cook it three days in advance, so the flavors have time to develop. A braise takes minimal last-minute effort and can easily be scaled for a huge group or to leave a week's worth of the best leftovers you've ever had.
"And the thing I especially love about pork and beans," Keller tells me, "is all the ways you can repurpose it into other meals." He shows me exactly what he means, whipping up the single best plate of huevos rancheros I've ever eaten (and eat them I do, hunched over his kitchen's counter) and a killer bean soup that takes all of about 10 minutes to make (see mensjournal.com/leftovers for those recipes). But the pièce de résistance is the pork-and-beans proper, a classic Keller dish in which the simplest comfort food becomes a minor culinary miracle.
The Complete Recipe: Braised Pork Shoulder With Slow-Cooker Beans
Braising the Pork:
• Kosher salt
• Freshly ground black pepper
• 4- to 5-lb bone-in pork shoulder
• 4 tbsp canola oil
• 2 chopped carrots
• 1 chopped Spanish onion
• 1 chopped leek, white part only
• 8 cups veal or chicken stock
• 1 rosemary sprig
• 4 thyme sprigs
• 1 bay leaf
• 4 diced garlic cloves
• 1 tbsp black peppercorns
Sprinkle salt and ground pepper on the pork very generously on all sides (don't be shy; you can't really overdo it here).
Place a large cast-iron pot on the stove on high heat, and add the canola oil.
When the oil is shimmering, lower the pork shoulder into the pot gently. Sear on all sides until golden brown, rotating the pork by hand, setting it up on its edge when necessary – then remove the meat and set aside.
Pour out excess oil, then add chopped carrots, onion, and leek. Stir to coat with remaining oil in the bottom of the pot.
Lay the shoulder on top of the vegetables (fatty side up). Add the veal or chicken stock so that it comes only halfway up the side of the pork, then add rosemary sprig, thyme sprigs, bay leaf, garlic, and peppercorns to the liquid. Bring to a simmer.
Cover the pot, leaving lid slightly ajar, and place in a 250 oven. Braise the pork for 3.5 hours, or until the meat is tender enough to pull apart with two forks.
Remove the pork from the pot and let cool to room temperature. Strain braising liquid through a fine-mesh strainer, return the pork and liquid to the pot, and refrigerate overnight.
Once ready to finish the dish, debone the pork and then cut the meat into 2-inch-square chunks.
Part II: The Beans
The dilemma: Dried beans take forever to get tender, and you invariably overcook some, turning them mushy before others lose their hardness. Keller's solution: Rancho Gordo-brand beans, which are guaranteed fresh from ranchogordo.com, and a Crock-Pot or other slow cooker to help achieve even cooking.
• 1 pound Rancho Gordo-brand borlotti or cannellini beans
• 6 cups veal (or chicken) stock
• 6 cups water
• 2 thyme sprigs
• 1 bay leaf
• Kosher salt
• 1/2 leek
• 1/2 carrot
• 1/2 white onion
• 1 oz bacon
Wash and rinse beans – do not soak – then heat the stock and water in a pot and add to slow cooker.
Tie together thyme and bay leaf and put in liquid with 1 tsp salt, leek, carrot, onion, beans, and bacon. Slow-cook on high until tender, about 4 hours. Cool and store in their liquid.
Part III: The Finish
• 3/4 cup large-diced leeks, white parts only
• 1 cup large-diced carrots
• Canola oil, as needed
• 3 tbsp butter
• 1 tsp red-wine vinegar
Scrape fat off surface of pork-braising liquid. Discard.
Warm the meat and stock over low heat. Remove the pork. Pour the braising liquid through a fine-mesh strainer into another pot.
Return pork shoulder to its liquid. Simmer until needed.
In a large skillet, sauté leeks and carrots in oil until tender.
Strain the beans and put half in the skillet. Add one cup of the pork-braising liquid, the butter, and the red-wine vinegar to bind the sauce. Simmer 20 minutes, until the liquid thickens.
Set pieces of warmed pork in the beans and serve.
No. 5 – The Gourmet BLT
The scene: in the 2004 romantic comedy Spanglish, John Clasky, a three-star fine-dining chef played by Adam Sandler – and modeled after Keller – comes home hungry, late at night.
The challenge, as put to Keller by Sandler himself: What, exactly, would a chef make himself to eat after work? Keller's answer: a sandwich so rich and soul-satisfying I shall forever after consider it the last word in hangover cures, the perfect accompaniment to a Sunday-afternoon ball game, exactly the right put-out for poker with the boys. Put simply, it's a BLT plus melted cheese and a fried egg – but as with all of Keller's food, God is in the details.
The Complete Recipe: BLT With Melted Cheese and a Fried Egg
• 2 slices crusty country-style bread
• Monterey Jack cheese, sliced thin
• 2 leaves crunchy lettuce, such as iceberg, romaine, or butter lettuce
• 3 slices tomato
• 4 slices applewood bacon, cooked crisp
• 1 egg
• 1 tbsp unsalted butter
Preheat oven to 400; toast both slices of bread. Cover one with cheese and set in the oven to melt, approximately four minutes.
Spread mayonnaise onto one side of the other piece of bread, cover with lettuce, then set tomato slices atop the lettuce.
Fry the bacon (press often to avoid curling), then carefully layer it onto the melted cheese.
Fry an egg – without breaking the yolk – then carefully lay it on top of the bacon. Tip: Keep a layer of lettuce between bread and tomato so your sandwich doesn't turn soggy.
Slipping the egg onto the layered bacon, Keller takes care to position the yolk directly in the sandwich's middle. Then he sets the other piece of bread, complete with tomato slices and lettuce, on top. Finally, Keller slices gently through the upper piece of bread, deliberately piercing the egg yolk so that it oozes orange throughout the sandwich.
"Are you hungry?" Keller asks me.
"I kind of feel like a snack. Let's have a snack," I reply. And with that, we each pick up half of the best sandwich in the world and wolf it down.