Why this staple French sauce is at the heart of so many culinary debates. Here are some aspects of French cuisine that feel canonized, chiseled in stone. We don’t give these rules any thought. Rather, they just preside inertly, like the faces of Mount Rushmore, over whatever we do. Having worked in a Parisian Michelin three-star restaurant for over five years, those rules are embedded in my brain and training as a cook.
That was all fine and dandy until one blustery day at Guy Savoy.
The fish and the meat stations faced each other on either side of the enormous stove in the kitchen. On one side: team meat and vegetables. On the other: team fish and hot appetizers (apps). Now everyone knows the meat guys can’t hang with the likes of the fast-footed fish and hot app people. No way. So, on that day, I stood firmly, gripping my spatula in case I entered battle, and listened tersely as the dialogue (polite description) began. Because I was Fish #1.
"You cannot make a real Béarnaise unless there is only tarragon in the base of the sauce,” Meat #1 sniffed.
“Do not be ridiculous!” shouted Fish #2, “there must be chervil and tarragon in the base of the Béarnaise or it is not a Béarnaise! It is just any old sauce!!”
“Escoffier does not use chervil in his recipe for Béarnaise sauce,” interjected Meat #2, as he slowly skimmed a pot of stock on the stove.
“And I am certain Larousse Gastronomique doesn’t require it either,” added Meat #2, as he gently placed a whole duck in the oven.
I watched this argument unfold as the reduction for my Béarnaise sauce simmered on the stove. A fluffy, butter and egg-fueled sauce perfect with meat and fish alike, the heart of the sauce lies in the combination of ingredients that are reduced and whisked in. I divided the reduction into two pots as the bickering continued.
“This is a sauce made to honor King Henry IV, the great Béarnais!” shouted Meat #2.
I added tarragon stems to one of the pots with the wine, vinegar, black pepper and salt. To the other pot, I added tarragon and chervil. “The tarragon adds that sweetness and the chervil that grassy underhint,” Fish #2 stated calmly.
I whipped the egg yolks above a water bath and watched as the butter melted in a small pot nearby. When the eggs reached fluffy but firm and cohesive, I carefully whisked in the butter in small increments. I divided the buttery sauce into two bowls and added some of the pure tarragon reduction to one and the tarragon- chervil reduction to the other. I quickly seared two pieces of turbot and placed one on top of each version of the Béarnaise.
“What about the actual taste of the sauce?” I asked, my voice cracking a little in fear. Everyone stopped and looked at me. The idea of history, how food came to be and for who it was made had so consumed everyone, that the taste was no longer at the heart of the matter.
We ate the turbot silently, scraping the two versions of the sauce from the bottoms of the plates. A hush fell over the kitchen. When you are in the presence of an amazing sauce, it has a way of making words, coherent thought, history, badges of honor and pride fall to the ground.
“The tarragon and chervil version has so much more flavor with the fish,” purred Meat #2.
“It does and it makes the butter flavors more intense,” said Fish #2 as he licked his fork. '
Meat #1 turned to face me with a smile. “Who would have ever thought an American could answer a question about taste?” Then he smirked and pinched my cheek.
Alex Guarnaschelli is the executive chef of Butter and The Darby in New York City and host of Alex’s Day Off on the Food Network.
¼ cup dry white wine
1/3 cup dry Vermouth
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
3 medium shallots, peeled and sliced into rounds
6 sprigs tarragon, leaves removed and reserved
4 sprigs fresh chervil, leaves removed and reserved
4 egg yolks
1 tablespoon water
½ cup clarified butter
A pinch of kosher salt
A pinch of cracked black pepper
The juice from 1 whole lemon (optional)
To make the reduction:
In a medium pot, combine the white wine, Vermouth, red wine vinegar, shallots, tarragon and chervil stems. Let the mixture simmer over medium heat until it cooks down by about two thirds. Remove and discard the herb stems. Set aside.
To make the base of the sauce:
In a metal bowl that can fit over a pot of simmering water, combine the egg yolks and water. Off the heat, whisk to blend until it gets frothy, 1-2 minutes. Place the bowl on top of the pot of water and cook, whisking constantly, until the eggs are thickened, 3-4 minutes. Take care not to allow the egg mixture to form a crust on the edges of the bowl. Whisk constantly to avoid uneven cooking. Take care to keep the heat low, as well, to avoid making scrambled eggs instead of the sauce.
To finish the sauce: Remove the bowl from the heat and, little by little, whisk in the clarified butter. Add some of the reduction, a pinch of salt and cracked black pepper and taste for seasoning. Chop the reserved tarragon and chervil leaves and stir them into the sauce. Add more of the reduction and/or some lemon juice. Stir to blend. Makes ¾ cup serving.