This week’s installment of Fast Food covers thoughts on roasting the perfect brasato and why you can read the menu—or any plate—like a book. Fast Food is a weekly blog about cooking and the micropolitics of dining by Thomas Schoenberger and Max Dax. The photo was taken at Metro Cash & Carry in Berlin and features sea urchins that you can eat raw—if you know you can trust your seafood dealer. ~ Photo: Max Dax
Schoenberger: Our philosophy could only work because we were fully aware of the fact that every single dish has a certain structure, like DNA. There is often only one or two right ways of preparing a dish. If you follow the roadmap you’ll get the result you were heading for. Once you have fully understood the structure of a given dish you are probably allowed to give it a personal spin. But only then—after you’ve successfully completed your homework.
Dax: Let’s talk about one of the classic dishes at Restaurant Schönberger—the piedmont brasato. It was a very special experience to secure a table with a white papercloth in that noisy place and then were served a caraffe of red wine and a plate of brasato. Why was that particular roast such a unique match?
Schoenberger: The answer is simple. We could prepare it in advance within the limited possibilities that our kitchen offered. We would put the brasato into the oven during afternoon—and we knew that the roast would be stewed and ready at 8 p.m. Of course you have to marinate the centerpiece of the leg of beef for at least 24 hours before you cook it. Now, let me tell you how to cook the perfect brasato: A day or two in advance you put the freshly bought raw leg of beef into a large pot together with root vegetables, the so-called Mire poix—celery, parsley root, onions and carrots. You add bay leaf, garlic and red hot chili and then you cover it all with red wine until the beef is completely covered. If you think about it, this is not hard work at all. Then you leave it to draw for one or two days. Immediately before you put the marinated brasato into the oven you have to sear it on every side to seal it with a roasted surface. This is also easy, and presents a good opportunity for show cooking as you are handling very hot oil and a huge piece of meat that you’ve just put into the torrid pan. You can have some really impressive flames lapping at a beef on a gas stove.
Dax: So, what’s the secret?
Schoenberger: There is no secret. To marinate the brasato dictates the timeframe and narrows down the vegetables that you are allowed to use. You certainly shouldn’t experiment and try to fool around with white instead of red wine, and you shouldn’t underestimate the importance of covering the whole brasato with wine. This, by the way, dictates the kind of pot you are going to use as you don’t want to waste liters of a perfectly drinkable table wine just because you don’t have the correct container. Which leads us to the process of searing the brasato: The oil must be very hot and you sear the brasato quickly but long enough so the typical roast marks appear on the surface of the meat. The only secret is the discipline. I mean, you can’t marinate a leg of beef in two hours.
Dax: And after having seared the brasato? What then?
Schoenberger: From now on you can’t do anything wrong anymore. I forgot: add some salt. Then you set the heat in the oven to 80-90 °C and let the roast braise there for three or four hours, depending how well-cooked or saignant you like it. The only thing that needs some expertise is the so-called Beurre Manier—butter that you knead with just enough flour to a soft dough. After some hours in the stove, the wine and the fat will be reduced to a thicker sauce, but not yet in a state to be called a sauce. That’s why you need the Beurre Manier: you carfully stir the butter-flour dough into the reduced gravy juice and it will thicken. You call this process of producing a sauce “binding”. But this is also nothing but a structured chemical process and thus easy to learn. Now multiply this. Put two brasatos into the oven and you have double the amount of slices of brasato roast that you can serve. Have three ovens and three brasatos in each of them, you have nine times the brasato, with almost the same amount of work, thoughts and time invested. A crowd of 90 hungry guests you have to feed with brasato isn’t impressive at all anymore. We can serve it with bread that we would bake ourselves in the same ovens or with polenta.
Dax: Wait. How do you do the bread?
Schoenberger: Water, flour, rosemary, sea salt, yeast. Then bake.
Dax: That’s it?
Schoenberger: That’s it. Our readers aren’t stupid, they know that they have to knead a dough a couple of times before they can put it into the oven.
Dax: So, in other words: the four or five dishes that were handwritten on the slate as the menu of the night were like a formula—a formula of the do-able.
Schoenberger: Exactly. If you know how to read a formula, you can tell from the slate whether a restaurant is good or not.
Dax: Since the dish you get served in a restaurant is the result of both a system and a process, the mistakes you can make are clearly defined as such. In other words: as a guest, you don’t only read the slate as a formula but also your plate like a book. If you get your pasta with vongole veraci served with chopped coriander instead of parsley you know that this is either a mistake or an interpretation. As a guest, you will certainly taste the pasta accordingly—with knowledge. You don’t need to be a connoisseur of food to know which way the wind blows. It’s actually enhancing, if not something utterly positive, if you can judge the food you are being served.
Schoenberger: In the ideal case, as a guest I agree to a pact with the devil in the kitchen. I mean, if I get perfectly prepared spaghetti with vongole veraci—parsley or no parsley—I immediately know that I am part of a well-run system. As I said before: I love perfection.
Dax: Stick to your limitations. Serve perfect spaghetti vongole veraci or perfect moules frites. Both dishes signify the impossibility of molecular cuisine. To quote my favourite lines from Franz Kafka: “The crows maintain that a single crow could destroy the heavens. There is no doubt of that, but it proves nothing against the heavens, for heaven simply means the impossibility of crows.”
Schoenberger: You cannot improve the brasato or the spaghetti vongole veraci or moules frites. You can only do things wrong. You can clean the mussels sloppily and in doing so endanger your guests, risking that they get food poisoning. But this has to be filed in the same category as marinating the brasato: stick to the rules and nobody will get sick. To make this point crystal clear: It’s not that difficult to reach world standard. It’s all a matter of discipline.
Dax: Cooking at the Themroc with everybody passing by looking at you didn’t allow you to make any mistakes. Everybody was watching. Everybody would see it if you’d pour cream into the mussel brew.