When I was an aspiring chef working in London, the expected thing to do for finishing school was to work in France—Paris being the Holy Grail, naturally.
I was lucky to secure a stagiaire [apprentice] position under the renowned chef Pierre Gagnaire. Of course, I was there to learn my trade, but it was outside of the kitchen where I gleaned my knowledge of the true spirit of French cooking.
On a street just off Rue de Bretagne, I was taught the aging process of the beautiful crottin de chèvre from my favorite cheese monger, who sampled his best offerings.
I visited the Rungis market and took in the splendor of the stalls of fish, the flowers, the butchers and the shoppers shuffling from sector to sector.
What struck me the most was the respect Parisians had for their food, from a simple baguette to a decadent macaroon. Each was chosen and savored with conscious consideration.
On occasion, the seasoned cooks from Le Belle Époque would take out the stagiaires for dinner. I was in awe at the level of quality, technique and artistry as I watched the ballet of late night at Au Pied de Cochon with a glass of Muscadet and fines de claires oysters.
I had finally arrived—gastronomy ground zero.
During my training in Paris, I would never have been able to afford to eat at the caliber of restaurants where I worked, nor at the ones I was fortunate enough to visit with the cooks. A 2 am falafel from Monsieur Ibrahim on the corner was about the best it ever got.
I came home to nothing as inspiring as my days in the kitchen or on the streets of Paris—a 1-meter by 1-meter attic apartment with a WC at the end of the hall, and my only window, a tiny skylight that dripped water onto the bed.
Still, Paris always felt to me what London never was: a gastronomic playground of wonder, from the colorful clear-eyed fish staring up from a pillow of ice to the humble braised pigs’ feet at a bistro to the scent of a sublime black truffle.
What I took away most from being a stagiaire in Paris was the creative thought process and way of looking at food, rather than a learned technique.
At Pierre Gagnaire, one of my favorite dishes was a John Dory with rhubarb and fresh red curry jus.
The Alaskan king salmon on the menu at Corton is a tribute to my time at Pierre Gagnaire. The delicate flavors and clean spring freshness are just as I recall when I discovered them as a curious cook in Paris on his way to becoming a chef. —As Told to Georgette Moger
Two Dishes, One Wine: A Rosé-Colored Pairing by Head Sommelier Orr Reches
“The house of Krug, as well as Corton, speaks of elegance and purity. Krug Rosé is one of the most interesting pairings with chef Liebrandt’s cuisine. The rose hip, watermelon, raspberry and strawberry notes elevate the rhubarb flavors of the wild Alaskan king salmon, while the acidity cleans the palate, getting you ready for the next bite. Another dish, The Burgundy Snail, possesses a body, structure, minerality and earthiness from morels that offer a different point of view on this dish and the Champagne itself.”
Paul Liebrandt is the chef and co-owner of the two-star Michelin-rated restaurant Corton in New York City. He is the subject of the Emmy-nominated HBO documentary, A Matter of Taste, directed by Sally Rowe. His new book, Committed (Clarkson Potter, 2013), is scheduled to be released in the spring.