Suzanne Hoffman
Behind the Scenes

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January 6, 2014
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A sweet afternoon at Mirabelle in Avon

Editor’s note: This is the second in a three part series. Visit www.vaildaily.com to read the first installment. Check back next week for the third part.

In the compact pastry corner of Mirabelle’s kitchen, pastry chef Ingrid Vidalon and I launched into an afternoon of prepping cookie dough, making ice cream and dinner rolls. First task was making dough for the dozens of one-bite chocolate chip cookies needed for mignardise platters served at the end of each meal throughout the coming holiday crush.

Vidalon opened her well-loved recipe binder. It looked like all the others I’ve seen — drops of something oily or sweet on the pages and scribbles in the margins — except it was in Spanish. She turned to the cookie recipe. Using my tortured French and Italian, I comprehended most of the cookie recipe. Insuring I didn’t destroy the batch, Vidalon translated for me each ingredient given in metric measures.

Vidalon quickly calculated what amounts she’d need for the batch, scribbled numbers on the page, pointed me in the direction of each required ingredient and handed me a kitchen scale. As I said many times before, making pastries and confections is like a science experiment. Everything must be exact. So having ingredients in weights helps assure accurate measures.

With the cookies underway, I embarked on my next assignment — separate 32 eggs. We were making ice cream and the eggs were needed for the creme anglaise base. As I cracked each egg, letting the gelatinous white ooze into a large pan already brimming with egg whites that would eventually be transformed into sweet meringues, I worried less about piercing a yolk than of losing count. Just so many distractions in the kitchen! My station in the pastry corner, so close to the action, proved to be a great observation point for a novice such as me. Interesting, yes, but focusing on my task became a challenge.

Sharp skills

A few feet away, at his station across from hot burners and pots of simmering stock and boiling water, owner and Executive Chef Daniel Joly expertly Frenched a pile of plump Colorado farm raised lamb racks. With quick flicks of his razor sharp knife, he cleaned the ribs of fat. He tossed each piece of fat into a large stockpot set over a low flame. The gentle heat coaxed flavors and aromas from the fat, garlic, parsley, thyme and other herbs for what eventually would be transformed into a demi-glace. It’s a daily ritual for Joly. As he repeatedly said, nothing goes to waste in his kitchen.

Later, like a gifted surgeon and with a knife far sharper than anything I’m comfortable using, sous chef Johann van Niekerk transformed a football-size lobe of Hudson River Valley foie gras into thick, oleaginous slices. The prized liver stars in Joly’s seared foie gras with poached pear, vanilla sauterne reduction and gingerbread dust appetizer. If that isn’t enough to satisfy your foie gras craving, you can always order a seared slice of foie gras to accompany your meat entree.

Somehow, with all that was going on around me, I managed not only to cleanly separate each egg, but after several recounts of the empty shells I’d placed into the cardboard egg “nest,” I assured myself my count was correct.

Ice cream is not forbidden

Homemade ice cream doesn’t qualify as a low calorie or low fat food. In extolling the virtues of scratch cooking and fine dining, noted cardiologist and frequent visitor to Beaver Creek Dr. Elizabeth Klodas recently said to me, “So long as you make it yourself, from real ingredients, all you have to worry about is gluttony.”

The first two criteria are easy and housemade in a restaurant such as Mirabelle qualifies. However, I’m sure I speak for many when I say it’s hard to switch on that brain signal that says, “enough!” when it comes to homemade ice cream.

As Vidalon stood by the stove, patiently stirring a deep pot filled with milk, vanilla beans and my 32 egg yolks whisked with sugar, the sweet floral aroma of plump Tahitian vanilla beans began to fill our small corner of the kitchen. Vidalon asked me to take over stirring her pot while she attended to finishing dinner rolls.

Being asked to actually cook something when I’m behind the scenes always triggers an adrenaline rush, but a wave of fear usually accompanies it. Perhaps it’s that childhood admonition “stay away from the hot stove” that triggers those feelings. As Vidalon handed me a wooden spoon, in the busy kitchen full of people, I suddenly felt alone, walled off from the world. Stirring the delicate creme anglaise intensified that feeling.

Making the light custard requires patience, a virtue I lack. Even then, under Vidalon’s watchful eye, I almost burned it. The constant stirring, as the Wicked Witch of the West would say, must be done “delicately!” (draw out the adverb for the full effect). My technique was more akin to an Evinrude outboard boat engine. Relief came when Joly announced it was time for family meal. Although Vidalon tried to remain at her station — probably to assure herself the custard was in fact OK — Joly insisted we eat.

The family meal

The “family meal” is a quaint moniker for restaurant staff meals before service. Like American families who increasingly don’t eat together, from my limited perspective, restaurant families eat on the run, too busy to sit, catch their collective breath and enjoy a meal their colleague prepared. Mirabelle is not one of those. European-born and trained Joly values this part of the workday.

In the restaurant’s front dining room, we gathered around a large wooden table that appeared to be as old as the historic farmhouse. At one end sat Joly. Across from the chef sat his wife, partner and front of the house manager, Nathalie. As we enjoyed the sinus-clearing spicy Thai-inspired turkey dish cook Kotchakorn Wirunchonlapan created that afternoon, Joly explained the importance of this traditional break.

“Staff members are the first customers” the restaurant serves each day, Joly said. Everyone nodded in agreement. “It’s important for everyone to rest before and not be hungry during service,” so he insists “the family” sit down together. Joly believes by doing so — even for just a few minutes — they “show respect for the food” and for the person who prepared it.

Learning his trade in some of Belgium’s finest restaurants, Joly discovered early that if someone didn’t have time to join the family meal, it showed a lack of organization, a faux pas that required the offender to come in early the following day.

Conversation flowed from burning tongues due to Wirunchonlapan’s copious use of Serrano chilies in her delicious creation to Nathalie’s kitten she found starving outside the restaurant this autumn. The kitten was spayed, so obviously it had been someone’s pet. “It’s a sad reality,” she said, “that each October animals get dumped when kids finish working for the season and leave town.”

Although a relaxing repas, it was quickly over and soon service would begin. Back to the kitchen. Despite being a quiet evening, there was still much for me to experience and learn in Mirabelle’s kitchen both about cooking and chef Joly. I’ll share more of that with you next week.

Suzanne Hoffman is a freelance writer specializing in food, wine and travel. Her blogs are www.suziknowsbest.com and www.winefamilies.com. Email comments about this story to cschnell@vaildaily.com.


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The VailDaily Updated Jan 6, 2014 09:33AM Published Jan 6, 2014 09:33AM Copyright 2014 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.