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Michel Bras: Every Day I Discover and Rediscover My VegetablesMichel Bras
At the age of 25, Michel Bras assembled a dish of the best the garden in his native Aubrac had to offer. It changed gastronomy. The gargouillou was an intuitive, meticulous reflection of the landscape that evolved with nearly every passing day. The preparation has become one of the most emulated dishes in modern gastronomy and the symbol of a vegetable-based cuisine that has influenced contemporary chefs around the globe (Bras cooked a version of the gargouillou at the first MAD Symposium). In an interview with the blog Food Snob in 2009, the chef Wylie Dufresne put it succinctly: “Bras has been copied by every chef in the world. We’ve all taken a page out of his book — the smear, the spoon drag, putting food on a plate like it fell off a tree.”
We recently asked Bras to devote some thought to how he fell under the spell of vegetables. In the following essay, the chef describes formative experiences growing up in Aubrac, where he explored the land, taught himself how to cook, developed an exhaustive knowledge of the plant kingdom, and eventually opened the restaurant we now know as Bras.
Here is his piece (the original version, in French, is included at the end):
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“We don’t need menus,” M says with authority. “There are only two things to order here: the baccala, and the puntarelle.”
We’ve just sat down inside the long, cramped dining room at Dar Filettaro a Santa Barbara, a popular, reasonably-priced restaurant that specializes in deep-fried salted cod. All the clichés are represented: quaint courtyard next to ancient church in Rome’s historic center, incredibly busy staff, a queue of hungry — and therefore antsy — locals crowded near the entrance on a Friday night. In the kitchen at the back, old women in stockinged feet watch over giant vats of extremely hot oil, cooking batches of their self-proclaimed “best fillets in Rome” to crisp perfection.
Tourists prefer tables outside, wanting the atmosphere of the piazza. Italians invariably sit inside, focused on their cod and their conversation. A single waiter navigates the aisle, not much wider than the economy class variety, orchestrating orders, while runners carry heaping platters of hot fried fish through the room at high speed, inches from our heads. Oblivious to this controlled chaos, someone from the neighborhood strolls in, sweater-over-button-down-shirt-and-red-pants, orders take away, and just as calmly walks out nibbling on his fish wrapped in white paper.
The baccala has been built up beyond expectation — by travel guides and blogs, reviewers on Yelp and TripAdvisor, by Natgeo Travel and Anthony Bourdain, and by M, who on the drive over kept the name secret, just describing the place as one of his temples of gastronomy. Dar Filettaro was even the venue of a little celebratory dinner when the paperwork on the flat he and his brother were buying finally came through. So there’s nothing left to say about the cod, except to reaffirm that yes, there’s a reason everyone recommends it.
Served alongside the baccala was a puntarelle salad. Before eating here, I had no idea what it was. Puntarelle is a Roman vegetable, a member of the chicory family available through winter, sometimes into spring. Its name, as Italian Notebook explains, comes from the fact that one eats the tip, or punta. The vegetable grows as a big fluffy bulb, and turning them into curly tips requires a lot of prep time. Rome food blogger Elizabeth Minchilli explains the lengthy process with great pictures and video, with kitchen tools that include a bespoke puntarelle cutter.
Vegetable sellers in Rome do their customers a service by prepping the greens for them, peeling the points and soaking them in cold water to keep them fresh. This also has the added aesthetic benefit of making them curl. As with all Italian food there is a specific way to prepare a dish, so the puntarelle are tossed in a dressing of anchovies, garlic and olive oil.
This humble green, in that anchovy dressing, was a discovery, and — fighting words — more memorable for me than the fish to which it is supposed to play second fiddle.Dar Filettaro a Santa Barbara