In the past few years many chefs, especially those producing more avant-garde cuisine, have told me that it is important to have a grounding in the classics before embarking into modern or undiscovered territory. And, when chefs talk about "the classics" they are talking about French cuisine, techniques and methods.
This is why I am In the Kitchen, with chef of Gaddi's, David Goodridge. What better place to obtain some classic experience than Hong Kong's oldest fine-dining French restaurant, headed by an award-winning chef. A chef, that while still in his twenties, held senior positions in the kitchens of notable French chefs Raymond Blanc and Pierre Gagnaire.
Dish: Bresse Pigeon Baked in a Salt Crust
I left it up to David to decide what I would be attempting and was surprised by his response. I had expected something that would be considered easy on the chef's scale of dishes to be attempted by an amateur in a professional kitchen. His suggested dish of Bresse Pigeon Baked in a Salt Crust seemed to me to be submerging me in a deep pot of simmering out-of-my-depth stock.
On the day, David calmed most of the nerves I arrived with by having arranged to have the chef's table set for one so that I could enjoy a breakfast of assorted baked goodies and a pot of tea before donning my apron. It seemed such a fitting start given I was in the kitchen of such a renowned restaurant, itself in a legendary hotel.
Cut Off the Feet!
While I was enjoying my repast I looked over the basic instruction sheet that David had prepared. The first line of the method read, "Cut off the feet, wings, neck...". I was curious and excited.
I might have felt differently if the method had included the actual first step of "cut off the head," the head with its soft feathers and gentle eyes, the head that was attached to the body of a six-week-old pigeon (squab).
Poised in front of my young bird I first removed the French colours in paper across its body (the quality of the pigeon obvious, it looked so healthy and almost happy, despite its state). Cutting the head off (where it meets the neck) was surprisingly easy - one smooth stroke of the knife. Having lost its remaining sense of personality I could proceed with focus for the job in hand, preparing the carcass. This preparation, not surprisingly, took me a lot more time than David. What did surprise me was that it was more difficult than it appeared.
The first step in removing the feet involved dislocating the "knee" joint, cutting the lower portion off and then pulling out the remaining connective tissue. This was an example of the workout that a kitchen provides, as this job required all the strength I could muster and still I struggled, much like I would if trying to prize open an oyster with my bare hands. And, I had to pull in a way that was not also going to rip out any of the flesh. Bloody tricky, but perseverance and a little help from the expert got me there.
Sadly, for me, I also needed help with the next step (as seen below) that had me feeling, I've failed the prep test. Cutting the wings off with scissors, sounds easy and should have been, but I needed the strength of both hands to cut through the bird and so David had to give me a hand.
What a Beautiful Bird
Despite the fact that the finished dish is a world removed from the carcass there are no shortcuts, no half measures. I am in a professional kitchen, I am in a French kitchen with a talented and perfectionist chef (aren't all the good ones), which meant that the finished carcass needed to be so lovingly tended and groomed that even sans head and feet it could have easily won a beauty contest for sexy squab.
In practice this translated to some preparation, such as joint trimming (it did serve a purpose too), that to the untrained diner's eye would never, ever, make it to consciousness, but that in some ways would be recognised by the unconscious. You don't know why, you just know that it looks perfect. And that appearance has already got you salivating and imagining how sublime it will taste.
Next came the gory bit, the part that had both hands covered in blood by the end - removing the internal organs and other blood-smeared gunk that is housed in the cavity, referred to as "to draw the pigeon". Heart, lungs, kidney, liver, it all had to come out, especially the liver, if any remained behind the squab would taste bitter. The way to do this was to place my middle finger (or fingers) inside (its butt) and run them around the outer and centre of the cavity pulling and removing anything found. Some of the warm and slimy bits were firmly attached so focus was needed to make sure my bird was thoroughly drawn.
I was beginning to tire of more-difficult-than-expected moments, as I am sure you are tiring of reading, so here comes the last one. Without breaking the tender neck skin, remove the neck, windpipe etc, turn the skin back and remove the fat and anything that is not skin. The last part was fiddly, slippery and time consuming, and I had to resort to pulling out bits with a cloth as it provided grip.
These birds had led a good life, they had fatty necks...and under David's watchful eye it was all coming out...so I picked, and I picked, and I picked...it took so long David could have gone for coffee. But, it was needed for the end result, so let's get it right, it will make a difference. Final step, cut out the wishbone, mine broke, but I forgot to wish.
Out came the truffle shaver and a black truffle, with four divine rounds sliced with precision (by David). I had to then gently create a "pocket" between the breast flesh and the skin and insert a truffle piece on both sides.
To finish I had to pluck out any obvious feather ends and bits with tweezers and singe any fuzz with a blowtorch - good fun. Next was trussing, literally poking the leg bones through and underneath the skin so they did not poke out, reminding me of tightly tucking a child into bed.
The neck skin was then folded back over itself to create a neat package. I told you this bird had to look its best for its culinary reveal.
Looking through the 350-plus photos that the lovely Priscilla took that day, one thing was obvious, when David wasn't demonstrating he was watching me like a hawk. I found this a compliment, he seemed to be taking me seriously, and making sure that I performed to the standards of any of his team. He cared just as much about my efforts as he did his own, my finished product was an extension of him. Thanks David.
Click here for Part 2 of this article. Read how I get from raw bird to the resurrected bird you see below, the great reveal, plus tasting notes, recipe and tips, and David's review of my efforts.