But it's not what you think. At Le Bernardin, one of the highest calibre restaurants in NYC, Eric Ripert and his chefs use "cheap, fake Swiss cheese full of artificial flavors" as a baseline to normalize everyone's palates so that sauces can be judged fairly in the kitchen.
In terms of flavor, that cheese tastes identical all year long...so it give us a reference, and we can judge fairly.
Cheese. Is there anything it can't do?
Four-star chef Eric Ripert checked out the burgers at McDonald's and Burger King to use as a pattern for a burger at his new D.C. restaurant. Part of what he learned is proportion is everything.
Just looking at the basic burgers at each of these chains -- particularly the Big Mac -- showed me a couple of very key things: First of all, the burgers are a perfect size. You can grab them in both hands, and they're never too tall or too wide to hold on to. And the toppings are the perfect size, too -- all to scale, including the thickness of the tomatoes, the amount of lettuce, etc. In terms of the actual flavors, they taste okay, but you can count on them to be consistent; you always know what you're going to get.
Ripert's findings dovetail quite nicely with my theory of sandwichcraft.
The NY Times dining section has a fun pair of articles today about cooking on the cheap. First, Henry Alford prepared all his meals for a week using ingredients purchased from 99-cent stores.
Because the main Jack's store can have an unpredictable inventory -- yesterday's huge display of Progresso soup is today's much-smaller hillock of marinated mushrooms is tomorrow's sad heap of slightly battered boxes of Royal gelatin -- shopping there is a return to the improvisatory cooking of yore, when people made dinner with whatever was in the market.
Trader Joe's shoppers are already accustomed to those constraints. The Times also enlisted Eric Ripert, chef/owner of NYC's 4-star Le Bernadin, to construct an entire menu using primarily 99-cent items; 5 dishes and 3 desserts for $40.
A butter sauce was whisked into shape to dress frozen crab cakes and Seabrook Farms vegetables. Canned coconut milk went into the jasmine rice and the jarred marinara sauce for baked salmon filets. "Wild salmon for 99 cents!" Mr. Ripert said, in disbelief.
Here's a slideshow of Ripert and his team creating their dishes and his recipe for tuna rillettes. Take that, Sandra Lee.
Update: NPR recently aired a show on Cooking Gourmet with 99¢ Food, featuring Christiane Jory's The 99¢ Only Stores Cookbook, which is due to be released on April 1. Neither Times article makes mention of Jory's book, which seems like an obvious influence (or an incredible coincidence). If the book was an influence, this is bad form on the part of the Times. (thx, janelle)
A reader of New York's Grub Street blog recenty wrote in, saying that he was about to have surgery that might permanently impair his sense of taste and he was looking for recommendations of places to go for his potential last few meals. Hearing of his plight, Eric Ripert agreed to cook the fellow a special Doomsday Menu at his 4-star restaurant, Le Bernardin.