We're going behind the scenes and getting up close and personal with some of the Valley's favorite chefs, learning what it takes to make one of their best-known dishes. Welcome to The Trail.
Even at 10:30 a.m. on a Thursday, the kitchen at Christopher's is buzzing and hot. Really hot.
The Biltmore area dining spot won't open for another half an hour, but already there are cooks hustling around the U-shaped kitchen, most giving me unhappy glances as I try -- and mostly fail -- to stay out of the way. They're prepping and baking bread, checking stocks and doing everything else that needs to be done before service. Chef Christopher Gross oversees the whole operation.
Today we're in the kitchen to learn how Gross makes pied de cochon, a fancy French way of saying "pig's feet." The dish has been a Friday night special at the restaurant for quite some time and has been one of the chef's specialties for even longer.
Times and tastes have changed significantly since Gross first opened Christopher's and Christopher's Bistro in 1990. But Gross has done a good job of keeping up. The chef's namesake restaurant isn't the type of fussy, stuffy place you might picture when you think French cuisine. In mid-morning it's drenched in sunlight that highlights the restaurant's sleek, modern feel. A stainless steel kitchen bar gives diners a view of the action and a more casual dining option.
Clearly this chef hasn't made the mistake of getting caught up in doing classic French fare in a fine dining atmosphere. Sure, there are still France favorites on the menu for the true Francophiles, but Gross also offers pizzas, burgers, and other, less fancy, fare.
"This is still a rustic dish," Gross says of his pied de cochon.
Rustic, but classic. And a perfect fit for the restaurant.
Gross first learned to cook the classic French dish while he was cooking in France in 1978. After leaving the Valley to work in Los Angeles briefly, Gross landed a job in London and later in France at a Michelin-starred restaurant, Chez Albert.
"I don't think I've done veal head in a long time," Gross says. "When I worked in France we used to do that all the time."
Upon returning stateside in 1981, Gross went to put his experience abroad to good use at Los Angeles' iconic French restaurant, L'Orangerie. He returned to the Valley in 1983, but didn't open his first joint venture until 1985; it was called Le Relais. For the next five years Gross would close the restaurant during summers to return to France and continue his study of French cuisine.
Gross still makes trips back to France (most recently in April of this year) to get inspiration and keep a finger on the pulse of the French dining scene. In fact, the idea for his small plates menu was inspired by a Parisian restaurant.
Even so, Gross has kept some classic dishes intact, like this one. The chef says its been on and off his menus, in one form or another, since 1978.
The stars of the day are piled up on a plastic cutting board that makes the centerpiece of Gross' miniature mis en place. Admittedly, the severed pig trotters don't look very appetizing. The animals' feet, not unlike our own, contain little meat biut lots of fat, tendons, and bone. They're the kind of thing that really requires patience and skill to turn into something delicious.
Amid the controlled chaos of the kitchen, Gross is easily calmest person in the house. Despite suffocating heat radiating out of the wood fired oven and off the gas burners, the chef manages to look cool in a crisp, white chef's jacket. As he gets ready to start cooking he regales us with stories about the time he spent cooking in France and explains the general idea of how to prepare his dish.
Before anything else can be done the feet need to be brought to a boil -- blanched, essentially. Then they can be put into a pressure cooker to be broken down.
Cooking: Low and Slow
Within a few minutes the chef is hefting a 40-quart pressure cooker onto the stovetop. In it are carrots, onions, and whole garlic cloves, as well as spices including peppercorns, thyme, sparsely stems, and bay leaf. None of this will make it into the finale dish except through the flavors they impart on the feet over the next few hours.
Over the next two hours the feet and aromatic vegetables will cook under15 pounds of pressure. The closed environment of the pressure cooker allows chefs to steam cook food at extremely high temperatures and in shorter amounts of time than would otherwise be possible. At home, you could use a crock pot to slow cook the feet, though the process will take much longer.
At the end of just 120 minutes in the pressure cooker the pigs feet are reduced to a mushy pile of edible bits, bones, and broth. Gross says he strains out the broth and keeps the broth for use in stocks and soups, once it's set you can even roll it into a ball for easy storage. The bones and vegetables need to also be removed from the mixture - and yes, it has to be done by hand.
Once only the edible bits of the feet remain, Gross adds in some ground pork meat to bind the final product. The chef explains that were he to make a terrine or head cheese, he'd skip this step.
To season the meat Gross goes for shallots and garlic sautéed in five spice, plus a touch of salt and pepper. Once he thinks he's got the right flavor, he grabs a spoonful to be taste tested.
The little ball of meat goes into the pan to be fried in a spoonful of chicken fat. Gross keeps a tub on hand in the kitchen for use in place of butter. (I was so inspired by this fact that I've now become addicted to cooking everything in bacon fat. Thanks, chef.) A few minutes on either side the smells coming off the pan are nearly irresistible.
"It's not going to be really tight like a hamburger," the chef explains. "The pork just gives it a little body."
In this case, Gross tastes, adds salt, and then decides it's ready to go.
On The Plate
Next he rolls the raw mixture in a tinfoil and plastic wrap. The idea is to make a log about three inches thick and one foot long. The ends are twisted tight and tied with string, to keep the water out when the sausage-shaped is submerged in the water bath.
Gross leaves the meat to cook for two more hours at exactly 65 degrees Celsius -- being about to accurately control temperature is one of the benefits of sous vide cooking.
By the time the log is removed and the ends cut off, a hockey puck-sized slice of the pig's feet mixture bounces off the table like a rubber ball.
Think Gross is done? Almost. The fat and cartilage-laden pucks still need to be wrapped in pastry dough and baked for about 15 minutes at 400 degrees. Gross uses an egg wash to keep the wrapping together as well as to add an attractive sheen the exterior of the pastry.
The chef dresses the plate with a reduction made from the pig feet stock and veal stock, as well as a sauce made with grain and Dijon mustards. The dish is accented with heirloom carrots.
As we -- finally -- dig into the final product, Gross gets into some shop talk about how hard it's become to find good cooks these days. Gross told of us a stagier who asked to be paid for his day of work after he ended up not getting the open job -- a request that would have been considered ludicrous when Gross was coming up through the kitchen ranks.
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"These days I can't call it a 'stage'," the chef says. "I call it a 'try out.'"
By the time we'd finished lamenting the golden days, I'd polished off half of the plate. From the moist, porcine interior -- incredibly fragrant and barely sweet from the five-spice -- to the buttery pastry exterior, the dish is the kind of stick-to-your ribs food that's easy to love.
Well, assuming you can get over the idea of eating a pig's foot.