Cookery Elisabeth Luard
Michelin stars and mashed potato might seem unlikely table companions, but such is the legacy of Joël Robuchon, last of the great chefs of the post-nouvelle generation. Fed up with a cuisine that was essentially lean and mean, he chose to revisit the traditions of haute cuisine in the land of butter and cream.
By the mid-1980s, however, the idea of healthy eating – guiding principle of nouvelle cuisine – had taken hold, perceptions had changed, and the essential richness of what made food taste good could not be admitted either on menus or in print. According to the late Anthony Bourdain, irreplaceable distiller of the culinary zeitgeist, no Michelin-starred chef pressured by the ‘fat police’ into declaring calorie count would willingly confess to the amount of butter it takes to send a customer home happy and well-fed. Which makes Robuchon’s dish of potatoes and butter in proportions of 2:1 (observers put it at 50/50) doubly remarkable.
For the breakaway group – among them the late Paul Bocuse – the way to sell haute cuisine lay in the now-familiar procession of many courses served in tiny portions. Robuchon’s spiritual home was Paris, but success and 30 Michelin stars lay in exporting the idea of French culinary superiority to places where no one wanted to eat a fancy foreign version of what they cooked at home. Gordon Ramsay envied his temper and tells a story of the great chef chucking a plate of imperfect lobster ravioli at his head.
Within 800 pages of The Complete Robuchon (Grub Street, £25) are precise instructions for his famous potato dish. And his unmissably seasonal clafoutis aux poires is just one of many good reasons to rush out and buy the book.
Joël Robuchon’s purée de pommes de terre
Ingredients matter. Follow Robuchon’s advice and choose la ratte, a nutty, floury, naturally buttery potato. Normandy butter is slightly soured (ripened) and creamier and paler than English butter. If using the latter, replace milk with single cream, but don’t tell the caloriecounters. The drier the mash, the more butter it’ll accept: the challenge is 50/50.
Serves 6 as a side dish (but just right for two as a main course – why not?)
1kg la ratte potatoes, scrubbed but unpeeled Coarse salt 250g unsalted Normandy butter, diced and well chilled 250ml full-cream milk Salt and pepper
Put the potatoes in a saucepan with 2 litres of cold water and 1 tablespoon of coarse salt. Bring to a simmer, cover and cook until a knife slips in the potatoes easily and cleanly, about 25 minutes.
Drain the potatoes and peel them. Put them through a potato ricer (or a food mill fitted with its finest disk) into a large saucepan. Turn the heat to medium and dry the potato by turning it vigorously with a spatula for about 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, rinse a small saucepan with cold water (this stops the milk sticking to the metal). Add the milk and heat to boiling point.
Turn the heat under the potatoes to low. Beat in the butter bit by bit, stirring energetically as it’s absorbed. Pour in the very hot milk in a thin stream, still over a low heat, stirring briskly until all the milk is absorbed. For a lighter purée, whisk well to finish. Taste and add salt and pepper.