Serving up a rare treat
Tap the words "how to cook the perfect steak" into Google and you come up with 754,000 hits. It shames the number you get for cooking the perfect boiled egg (292,000), and dwarfs the number for how to bake a crisp jacket potato (27,000). Over on YouTube, it's a similar story, with 580 videos listed for attaining steak perfection. Being able to knock out a faultlessly-cooked slab of meat, for both amateur chefs and professionals, is clearly something of an Everest - a benchmark by which all other kitchen skills are judged.
Deciding between sirloin, fillet, rump, rib-eye and a host of other, lesser-known cuts of beef can be confusing. Do you want tougher meat but more flavour, or a softer, melting piece of meat which your knife can slip through like air? Do you grill it or fry it? Season or not? And then there are the rules and regulations of what to dish up with said steak. Green salad? A pile of piping-hot chips? Or can one still get away with a soggy tomato and a few solitary mushrooms, as in a 1980s Angus Steakhouse? Then there's the controversial condiment question: ketchup, mustard or even mayonnaise? It's a culinary minefield.
How fortunate, then, that the daddy of all celebrity chefs Marco Pierre White recently blew through Abu Dhabi to open his latest restaurant, the Marco Pierre White Steakhouse and Grill, at the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr. This is the third in a chain of relatively new steakhouses for White, who was once the youngest man to have received three Michelin stars, with branches already in London and Dublin. Could he rescue me from a kitchen faux-pas with a lesson on the perfect steak? Never one to shy from a challenge, he invited me, a kitchen novice, to his restaurant to find out.
My first mistake was immediate. Could I breeze into this shiny new kitchen wearing jeans and a sweater, with long hair swinging around my shoulders? I could not. On with a white chef's jacket and apron, and after a brief debate about the merits of a hairnet (for the record, as far as I am concerned there are hardly any, especially when there's going to be video footage ) with a member of the kitchen staff, I scrape it all back into a ponytail. White then appears in a crisp, collared shirt and pinstripe suit jacket with his own, lengthy curls resting around his face. No one suggests that he don overalls, I note. But given this is the man who once took a sharp knife and sliced open a junior chef's outfit after he dared complain about the heat, perhaps that was best. "Where are you from?" he -demands first, while members of the hotel's entourage hovered nervously around. There followed a conversation about the British county of Sussex, where both White and I lived for a time, and a fond discussion of the local pubs around there. Good, I think, here I am bonding with this famously fiery man. Why all the fuss about his brusque -temperament? "Right, you ready?" he suddenly barks. I am jolted from my reverie as he sweeps into professional mode. On a tray in front of us were three steaks, two pieces of striploin and a stout, fat fillet. White prefers the look of one of the striploins, so picks one up, an American piece of "about 200 grams," and begins our lesson. "So you imagine the sirloin, which runs into the rib. This is from the middle cut of that sirloin just before the rib-eye." Luckily, I had cast my eye over a cartoon cow online beforehand to avoid -needlessly embarrassing myself, and I nodded, solemnly imagining the backside of a cow between its ribs and its hip. Though not as tender as fillet, it is run through with more marbled fat lines and so is juicier. I throw the word "marbled" in there to try and sound like a chef. "Nice fat content," says White, raising his eyebrows at me, "the posh word is marbled." Next up is seasoning. "Some people season before, some season afterwards. It depends on how chunky your meat is, on the thickness of your steak," he explains. He rubs some olive oil into the steak, which helps with searing it, liberally throws salt over it and tosses it on one of two large grills in the kitchen as if throwing a frisbee. "It's not quite hot enough," he says holding a vast hand over the grill, but there isn't much time to dwell on this -because he's off again. "The things to have at home for this are good knives, great pans and a good chopping board," he instructs, when I query about being able to recreate such surroundings at home in an average kitchen. "One of the great things to have at home is actually a George Foreman grill, genius," he adds. "Revolutionary, it's changed everyone's life." "So you can cook a perfect steak on one?" I query, unsure about the allure of serving up a decent cut of beef from an appliance frequently associated with toasted cheese sandwiches. "Yeah, of course," he replies. It's all very well saying that if you're willing to splash out on an expensive piece of meat like the Dh175 striploin sizzling before us, but how -realistic is that for the average person trawling the aisles of Carrefour? "Well, I use Allens of Mayfair," admits White, mentioning one of London's oldest, most renowned butchers. "But let's not put down supermarkets." White has previously disdained the efforts of chefs such as Jamie Oliver who have encouraged organic and free-range foods. "You have to be a realist. There are 60 million people in this country, many earning less than £15,000 [Dh90,000] a year. They can't afford free-range chicken - they've got a family to feed," he scathingly told The Mirror last year. Having grown up in humble Leeds surroundings himself, the average person is something he feels strongly about. "A lot of supermarkets are now producing some good meats, giving people the option," he says, "and let's be honest, plenty of people aren't used to well-hung meat." Ah yes, the question of how long meat should be hung for. It's a technical thing. After slaughter, the breakdown of oxygen in a cow's blood produces lactic acid, which both tenderises the meat and adds flavour. This, however, takes some time. The longer it's left for, the more tender your steak. It's a problem for today's supermarkets, though, because the holding time and space costs money, so often it's rushed on to the shelves as fast as possible. "In the old days, when I was a boy [he's now 47], the meat used to arrive hung for 30 days and it was black and mouldy on the outside and you had to cut it off," says White. "Now I like it hung for 28-30 days, some people like it for 21 days, others like it for 14. It depends what you're used to." I glance at the grill, and dare to query the length the steak has been resting on one side for. Several minutes thus far. "I don't know, when do you cook with a watch?" growls White. I bite my lip. "Well, something like that, six minutes. Three minutes on each side will give you a medium rare steak," he says, turning it over. So what would he ideally serve with it then? "I'll be honest," he says, a trademark saying throughout our conversation, "I think the Americans make the best steakhouses. One thing I always love with a steak is iceberg lettuce with blue-cheese dressing, and I like triple-cooked chips, big fat ones, rather than those fries that we have in England." Triple-cooked means that the potatoes are first blanched in boiling water, then ideally left out overnight, says White, before being popped in the oven to cook, and then just before service fried so that they crisp up. Such chip precision, from a man who once served up a plate of chips costing £25 (Dh150) to a City boy in London who dared to ask for them when they weren't listed on the menu. Now to the crucial question. What is his ketchup policy? "I'm not a ketchup man," he replies. "I like vinegar with a bit of salt, remember I'm a northern boy." But if someone asks for ketchup in one of his restaurants, he wouldn't be chucked out? "No I'm a great believer in giving the customer what they want. If they want ketchup, that's their choice. If they want a bit of HP sauce with their steak, that's their choice. I like English mustard rather than French mustard with steak, but some -people prefer Dijon. I think you've got to be a bit flexible." Democracy indeed. This down-to-earth, no frills -attitude leads to a tirade against long, fussy tasting menus. "They're designed for the middle classes, they're the only people who've got the patience to sit through them. They're just buying conversation," he says. "I went to a restaurant in Chicago not so long ago where I was given two choices, 18 or 24 courses. Don't get me wrong, it was good food. But I hated the environment.I hated the whole performance. I hated being interrupted every five minutes, being told what courses I'm having. You might as well have dinner with the waiter." Instead, White says, what restaurants should do is dole out fewer, proper courses, feed the punters well and then they'll be back next week. With solid cuts of beef on the menu at his new steakhouse in Abu Dhabi, along with such British staples as Scottish salmon and rhubarb crumble, that's his aim. But do people feel like shelling out up to Dh235 for a wagyu steak at the moment? "It's still a luxury to the average man," he says, "but -people will put their hand in the pocket to pay for it. They really will. Steaks are the benchmark of a good restaurant. People will always say, 'Oh that restaurant serves a great steak,' they'll never say 'It does a great salad.'" Talking of which, White has decided that at 10 minutes our steak has had long enough on the grill, longer technically than it should have done because the heat was low. He pulls it off the grill and slaps it on to a plate. Normally, it would sit for a few minutes to let the juices rest, but White says he doesn't like his steaks getting cold. He takes a large knife and cuts through it. I am handed a steaming piece off the knife's tip. It is the best piece of meat I can -remember for some time, deep pink in the middle, brown on the edges with an outer layer of fat that has crisped up perfectly. Juices trickle down my knuckles as I eat with my fingers. He hands me another piece. "Sorry I forgot to ask how you like it cooked," he says. "Just like this," I garble, trying to avoid spraying meat juice on to -White's smart pinstripe jacket. "I'm glad. You look like a medium rare kind of girl," he laughs. I feign outrage and try to reply, but my mouth really is too full of perfect steak to care. *The National
Published: October 28, 2009 04:00 AM