The basement kitchen, reached via unfriendly and claustrophobic corridors lit with a cold blue neon glow, was busy from about 6am when Patrice the pastry chef arrived, until the final clean down ended the day around 11pm. All the prep for the top floor restaurant was done here. To reach it, there was a shabby and creaking grey steel lift whose folding, concertina door slammed shut with the type of clang you hear in bad dreams. It felt very much below decks and the fact that the restaurant, on the top floor of a prominent city building, had a roof terrace and viewing area pointing proudly like a crow’s nest toward the river made it seem even more like we were shovelling coal into furnaces while glasses clinked together over white linen high above our heads.
Still, we were often in good spirits down there, jointing chickens for coq au vin, filleting fish to within a gram of its life and peeling sacks of onions and carrots as if there were an army of donkeys to feed. Except these onions and carrots, along with the many, many chicken carcasses, veal bones and pigs’ feet were not for donkeys. They were for big, daily vats of ‘fond de veau’ which would simmer for hours before the resulting stock was drained off and reduced slowly overnight into the deeply rich demi-glace we would use for sauces.
There was something meditative about peeling the onions and carrots. It marked the end of a lunchtime service and the ticking of the clock toward the end of the shift. And if people were in a good mood, or ahead in their mis-en-place, they’d often join in and help which was a welcome relief, if not for getting the job done quicker, for the camaraderie.
I’ve not made stock like that for many years. I don’t cook that way any more. All those uptight sauces have their place, but it’s not in my house. I make a simple stock on a Sunday if we have a roast chicken: a few onions, some carrot, celery, dried shiitake and dried kelp go in a deep pan with enough water to cover the carcass by a few centimetres and it simmers with a lid on for at least three hours. The kitchen becomes warm and the comforting smell of chicken broth fills the air. Something I love, though it’s an opinion not widely held with the rest of the household.
I make it to drink during the week, little glasses of it almost like a cup of tea around lunchtime. I whisk a teaspoon or two of miso in which makes it an umami explosion. It’s comforting, nourishing and tasty. Adding lemongrass, galangal, lime leaves and fish sauce to the stock turns it into a simple Thai soup version and if I do feel like using it somewhere else, there are occasional risottos, ramens or phos it could go in. But I’m wary of using it all in one go so those are rare treats. And besides which, I don’t trust soup.
It’s nothing new, of course. There has long been beef ‘tea’, ‘invalid tea’, Bovril, ‘bone broth’, tonkatsu and many other variations of boiling down meat and bones to make a nourishing stock. It comes from stretching out ingredients to their very end and getting as much nutrition and flavour from them as possible. If you wanted to use it even further, which I don’t, you could crush the cooked bones and use them as garden fertiliser. Ashes to ashes and all that. I’ll just take stock every day, it’s a good thing to do.