C’est si bon! French chef says ingredients simple, but results sublime

Finely chopped celery, carrots and red onion serve as the base vegetables for the sauce Chef Maillard makes with his Cornish hen dish.

Kelly Merritt

Finely chopped celery, carrots and red onion serve as the base vegetables for the sauce Chef Maillard makes with his Cornish hen dish.

People who love French food have their own reasons as to why they enjoy it, and the reasons vary from flavor to cooking style, wine pairings to seasonal ingredients. But those who love all things French say it’s much more than that.

“French cooking is special because of how the French view eating and what it means to them, but it’s also about the entire experience surround­ing a meal,” says Julie Ellis Levine, a former Neapolitan who also lived in Paris for six years.

Levine has just returned from intro­ducing her husband to her beloved Paris for the first time. “Just an ordinary bottle of wine seems special when you’re en­joying it in Paris because you’re taking everything in with all of the senses.”

That’s the vibe Chef Sebastien Mail­lard and his sister Astrid Maillard have created in Naples with Le Lafayette French Gourmet restaurant in Old Naples. And because understanding French cooking helps in appreciating it, Chef Maillard is dedicated to teach­ing the craft to home cooks.

Next to cooking, teaching French cooking classes is one of his favorite pastimes, he says, and he is one of few chefs who teach classes throughout the summer months in the Naples off-season. Chef Maillard also offers private home classes.

“I enjoy teaching the cooking classes for people to discover France. It’s not something I do because I feel obligated. I really love it,” said Chef Maillard, who teaches his classes in the kitchen at Le Lafayette. “People ask me why I would give away recipes we have on the menu to the home cooks, but it enables them to discover France through the cooking class and learn something about the cuisine.”

Chef Maillard is fond of telling his students that he celebrated his very first New Year’s Eve in a playpen in his father’s restaurant and is now a fifth-generation cuisinier. His first culinary teacher was his mother. His sister, Astrid Maillard, is Le Lafayette’s sommelier. The siblings’ parents helped run the restaurant until their retirement eight years ago.

All of Chef Maillard’s classes begin with teaching his signature French homemade vin-aigrette, followed by the main course. Previous classes have learned to make dishes such as tomato tarte tatin, Buche de Noel, endives gratin, chocolate and cognac truffle, fish en papillote and Cornish hen with morels and black truffles, which are a true delicacy.

It’s easy to assume such dishes would require an army on ingredients and utensils. Not so, says Chef Maillard.

“In my cooking and in French cooking in general, cook what you love and you don’t need 200 ingredients to create a wonderful dish,” he said.

To make his Cornish hen, Chef Maillard has assembled a few main ingredients including Cornish hens, celery, carrot, red onion, morel mushrooms and black truffle, butter, salt and pepper and a sprig of thyme and a bay leaf for seasoning.

After inserting thin slices of morels and black truffles under the skin of the Cornish hens and securing the skin with toothpicks, Chef Maillard places a bay leaf atop the chicken with a sprig of thyme, carrot, small celery stalk and a pat of butter. In less than a half-hour, the hens are ready.

While the hens are cooking, Chef Maillard prepares his sauce with some of the same ingredients. Finely chopped red onion, celery, carrot, morel mushrooms and black truffle make up the sauce along with a spoonful of beef base, all of which Chef Maillard adds to a pan of melted butter. Next comes a dash of brandy and once the alcohol has burned off, cream, which he stirs to desired thickness. For Levine, the sauce is the best part of French cooking.

“The sauces are, for me, what make French food so irresistible — the French discern themselves through their sauces and that bread you can’t get anywhere but in France,” she says. “You can’t resist sopping it up because there is no better flavor explosion than French bread with a delicious French sauce.” Watching Chef Maillard in the kitchen makes the cooking look effortless, a trait Levine recognizes in many French chefs.

“It’s like a ballet when the French prepare a meal, because for them, preparing French food is on such a different level,” she says. “That’s because of the love and the pride they take in their food transcends to the people eating it.”

And in every class, Chef Maillard shares a similar philosophy with his home cooks in explaining what they need to create a great French meal.

“You need three things: cutting board, knife and love,” he says. “When you have those three ingredients, you have everything you need to cook French food.”

Plate perfect: Chef Sebastien Maillard proudly displays his famous Cornish hen dish with black truffle and morel mushrooms on the porch of his restaurant, Le Lafayette French Gourmet.

Plate perfect: Chef Sebastien Maillard proudly displays his famous Cornish hen dish with black truffle and morel mushrooms on the porch of his restaurant, Le Lafayette French Gourmet.

CHEF SEBASTIEN MAILLARD'S CORNISH HEN

Cooking the hen:

Ingredients

Cornish hens

Celery Carrots

Small bowl of morel mushrooms

Black truffle

Salt

Pepper

Butter Bay leaf atop the chicken

Sprig of thyme

Preparation

■ Insert thin slices of morels and black truffles under the skin of each Cornish hen.

■ Secure the skin with toothpicks.

■ Atop the Cornish hens, place a bay leaf, sprig of thyme, small carrot, celery stalk and wedge of real butter.

■ Place Cornish hens in baking pan.

■ Bake at 375 degrees for 25 minutes (cook time may vary depending on your oven.) Place cooked hens on center of large plate.

If serving a vegetable, place in a semicircle around the hens on the opposite side of the plate.

Making the sauce:

Ingredients

Butter Carrots

Celery

Red onion

Brandy Cream, as needed

Beef base, spoonful

Preparation

■ Finely chop the red onion, celery, carrot, morel mushrooms and a small amount of black truffle.

■ Add all of the ingredients to a pan of melted butter along with a spoonful of beef base. Cook for a few minutes on medium heat. Do not brown the ingredients.

■ Add a splash of brandy and cook until the alcohol is burned off.

■ Add cream, stirring, as needed to desired thickness. Spoon the sauce along the side of the plate.

Le Lafayette French gourmet signature house salad dressing

Ingredients

3 tablespoons oil

2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar

1 large tablespoon of French Dijon mustard

Salt and pepper to taste

Preparation

■ Mix well and serve over fresh greens.

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