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The great coc au vin controversy

Several seasons ago, Top Chef contestant, Casey Thompson, was undone by her take on coq au vin during an elimination challenge at The French Institute. Well, she wasn’t undone per se because it didn’t send her and her knives packing, but it cost her a win, even though it was possibly the best dish.

What kept her from being Top  Dog that day?

She called the braised chicken dish coq au vin. The result was coq au vin lite, if you will. Some will say, “How can you expect to cheat a dish that is a national signature dish in front of judges who represent the leading cooking school in the US of that country”?

Well, perhaps we should back up and talk about the dish and the controversy.

What is coq au vin and how in the hell do you pronounce it?

It’s pronounced (roughly) cocoa van. Easy enough. So it means chicken with wine, right?

Well, sorta.

Technically, it’s cock with wine (OK, get your sniggering out of the way). The older the cock the better (OK, get off the floor). It’s a dish that’s thickened with the blood of the cock or some other animal like a duck or goose or even pig, since you usually won’t get enough blood out of a wizened old bird to thicken the sauce by itself.

The key components to the classic version of this dish are rooster, blood and time…three things that are precious commodities or outright unobtainables on Top Chef. I mean, when was the last time that you saw rooster at your local Whole Foods?

Why rooster, you might ask? Why would you even want to bother with an old wrinkly sinewey tough bird in the first place?  Why, it’s the sinew and the “toughness”, silly. Sinew is connective tissues made from collagin and elastin and is dissolved through prolonged exposure to moist heat. Muscles which have been overworked are also tough, but they have enhanced flavor components not present in young, unworked muscles. They too benefit from a long braise and the combination of the melting of the connective tissues and the tenderizing of the muscle meat adds to the rich flavor of coq au vin.

All of this begs the question – why rooster? They don’t have much usable yield and French farmers running household farms weren’t probably awash in roosters. In fact, generally, really small operations usually only have one or a small handful, which get exhausted from all of the “pollinating” after about 3 years. You usually only need one rooster for a dozen or less hens. So, not only can’t you fill a pot with chicken meat from the roosters on hand, it’s a time-consuming dish. My theory is pretty simple – you never threw out anything that could be eaten. You never knew when the next revolution or world war was around the corner.  The rooster had to go eventually, so the French found a way to utilize these tough old birds and, in doing so, they created a classic dish.

This dish is best braised for hours and hours. You use aromatics like celery, onions, garlic, and bouquet garni, utilize lardons (thickly cut bacon),  tomatoes and mushroom (if desired) and serve with a starch like boiled potatoes or pasta (traditionally, the French also serve it with green beans). Thing is, the French realize that you just don’t run into roosters every day unless you’re a farmer or happen to live near one. So, even the French have adapted the dish to modern times.  Larousse Gastronomique even mentions that the dish is often made with regular chickens these days and, in fact, doesn’t even mention roosters in the recipe that it provides. Neither did Julia Child back in the day. Even the guy who decries the homogenization of regional cuisines, Anthony Bourdain doesn’t even mention roosters in his recipe and only adds an addendum at the end of the recipe about “being adventurous” and adding blood instead of using flour as a thickening agent. 

If you search the internet for coq au vin recipes, it’s almost impossible to even find one that has roosters in the recipe and demands blood as a thickening agent.

So, why all of the fuss on Top Chef?

Ironically, most of the agitating about the authenticity of the dish came from Italian heritage’d Tom Collichio. In fact,  IIRC  Sirio Maccioni loved the dish, as did the judges from the school itself. But leave it to Collichio to throw the book at Ms. Thompson because it wasn’t really a coq au vin. C’mon dude. She didn’t try to call a Pop Tart a bruschetta. He spent a lot of time trying to convince other judges that she had fired a torpedo into French cuisine.

So Casey, here’s your redemption, despite your recent ceremonial throwing-under-the-bus of your fellow Top Chef runner-up Carla, which I have to say, showed some cat-like qualities. At least you performed a mea culpa…

I would have offered an “authentic” recipe, but, believe it or not, I couldn’t find one. Not even in any of my “French” cookbooks – not even purist Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook. That should tell you that Thompson was probably cheated out of a win, since Collichio’s objection was seemingly what gave competitor Hung the win. It probably didn’t make any difference in the end, but still… 

If you actually want to make the real thing, I would suggest that you take a reasonable-sounding recipe and substitute rooster for chicken. Have your butcher find you some pig’s blood and reserve about a half a cup of it. Make sure that if flour or a roux is used to thicken the sauce, ignore that part of it. Make sure that you slow braise the rooster for a long time over low heat (I’d give it at least 6 hours). As you get to the end of the process, instead of adding thickener, slowly add a little blood and incorporate it, adding just enough to start the thickening process. Add a little more and keep repeating until you get the consistency that you are looking for. If you add the blood too quickly, it will cause the sauce to seize and harden. 

Here’s what it might end up looking like:

2 responses to “The great coc au vin controversy

  1. tipsfortips March 1, 2011 at 8:46 am

    This is a very interesting post. It reminds me of working for a French chef in the 90s. He often told us that the French used all sorts of meat and heavy sauces because they couldn’t go more than a couple decades without a war breaking out.

    Every year on our birthday he would cook for us whatever we asked for. It was one of the coolest parts of the job. One year I asked for Coq au Vin. This was not for any great culinary reason, but rather because it was the favorite dish of Jack Tripper in Three’s Company. He looked at me like i was crazy. He made it though. I can’t say that I was blown away. It was almost bland compared to most of his dishes. I was pretty accustomed to his cooking and told him there was a flavor I didn’t recognize. He said in his still very strong accent, “That is the blood of the rooster.” That kinda ruined it for me.

    Thanks for the explanation and walk down memory lane.

  2. tipsfortips March 22, 2011 at 1:36 pm

    Today is national Coq Au Vin day.

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