One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned during my course at On Rue Tatin is mise en place, a French expression for “everything in its place,” and a very important habit for excellence in the kitchen. Each of Susan’s lessons begins with the ingredients measured, chopped, zested, and peeled, all waiting patiently in delicate antique bowls. Then we carefully read the entire recipe before starting the dish. Today we’re tackling an artichoke mushroom salad and baked mackerel.
The Salad: If you ever feel like you’re getting royally ripped off paying $4.50 for a jar of artichoke hearts, let me explain why you're actually getting a heck of a deal. We begin with artichokes the size of small basketballs. Even Susan admits these are especially large. With a seven-inch knife I carefully cut around the base to remove the thorny exterior leaves. I make three trips around the artichoke before I even see a hint of white. Fifteen minutes later, after nearly becoming a 9-fingered chef, I’ve finally coaxed out the heart. A jar would take me an entire afternoon.
The mackerel must be filleted, then drizzled with homemade cilantro oil and fleur de sel. The dressing is the easy part. The tough part is filleting the fish: They’re fairly slippery and all of the bones must be extracted. Susan cuts the first fish as an example: a semicircle around the head, a slice down the spine, and a lovely little fillet falls away. My turn. My fish is particularly slippery, and when Susan exclaims, “It’s in rigor!” I notice it is so fresh it hasn’t quite finished dying. Holy mackerel. Three fish later, my fillets start to resemble something that might be acceptable on a plate.
Aside from our time in the kitchen, we also take a few field trips. We visit a rustic pottery shop owned by a family who makes ceramic dishes, glazes them, then hand paints traditional French prints. Our sweet host asks me to help him paint a rooster in the center of a white bowl – he’s painting entirely freehand, and I add two dazzling blades of grass. We also stop at a brocante, or antique shop, and find a perfect set of nested copper pots with my name on them. I don’t worry about becoming a cat lady because I don’t like cats. But a pot lady? I won’t discount it. These are a perfect starting point for my grown-up kitchen.
Our class is over, but Susan has invited me to stay for the month of July to assist her with a variety of projects and work as a stagiaire, or intern, for a few of her colleagues. This is a dream come true. I will help test recipes for her upcoming book (hitting bookstores Spring 2015!), organize and catalogue her recipe archives, host dinner parties, and prepare for her cooking classes in Paris.