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Authors: Daniel Duane

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BOOK: How to Cook Like a Man
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“Branch water?”

The waiter laughed. “Creek water. Just, you know,
water
.”

Then the A5 arrived and melted my face. Before I get lost in describing it, let me say that it was only a nibble compared to what followed: a 10-ounce New York strip, a 16-ounce rib eye, and an 8-ounce filet, accompanied by sides that included truffled mashed potatoes and by an assortment of steak sauces: a peppercorn sauce with brandy; another with soy, rice wine, and roasted garlic butter; a classic béarnaise, with herbed butter; and an Asianinflected sauce with lemon zest, lime zest, orange zest, and grated ginger.

But back to the A5, because it was the big news. It was offered first as an appetizer: we each got four thin slices on a white plate, paired with balsamic preserved portobello mushrooms stuffed into a Japanese shishito pepper. And from the moment I placed the first slice in my mouth, I felt as though I'd eaten the red pill in that movie
The Matrix
, clearing out the delusions we all take for reality and exposing our life as it really is. That A5 Kobe, in
other words, turned out to be the most transporting single bite of food ever to pass between my lips, with a paper-thin crispy exterior yielding to such oozing and sumptuous fats that I felt as if I'd discovered a whole new pleasure organ within my own anatomy. (Brillat-Savarin: “The creator, while forcing men to eat in order to live, tempts him to do so with appetite and then rewards him with pleasure.”)

And sure, I began asking questions, picking up a few tricks. Cooking a pro-grade steak, I learned from the Prime chef, a guy named Robert, required the reconciliation of opposing demands, one for hell and one for heaven: hell because it took the fires of damnation to char flesh in the manner demanded by true steak aficionados, and heaven because only the slowest and gentlest of warming could possibly produce the tender interior that looked equally pink from just under the crust to the very center, and that still oozed with natural juice and blood. The basic trick was and remains hitting your meat first with high heat, searing the surface, and then lowering the heat to let the interior “come to temperature” more evenly. But the chefs of contemporary Las Vegas were pushing so hard at this core program that Moore's ceramic broiler roared at a terrifying 1,200 degrees, allowing him to char the steak's exterior before the interior even noticed he'd pulled it out of the fridge. And yet Robert was already upgrading, convinced he could get even more extreme and instantaneous charring out of a new 110,000 BTU infrared broiler capable of hitting 1,800 degrees, the temperature at which jet fuel burns, and also at which certain grades of steel begin to melt.

So the moment he got your order, the Prime grill chef yanked the meat out of a refrigerated drawer, covered it with salt and pepper, and slipped the whole slab into the blast furnace for about three minutes. Once he liked the color he was getting—the dark
brown exterior—he pulled that steak out and shoved it into a 600-degree convection broiler. Three minutes flat and now the interior was up to rare, so he hauled it out again, squirted on a thick layer of melted butter, ground a pile of black pepper on top of that butter, and shoved it back into the super-broiler, where the butter instantaneously foamed up, absorbed all that pepper flavor, cascaded down the sides of the steak, and then browned to a crunchy hard bark. Steaks are cut from muscles that contract in reaction to intense heat, toughening up and squeezing all their juices toward the center, so the final step was a resting period, a few minutes away from high heat so the steak could relax again, becoming more tender and redistributing moisture. Then the plate was on its way to your table.

Dashing out of Prime, having wolfed that whole meal in under forty-five minutes, we then trotted burping across a pedestrian bridge and slipped into Caesars for a reservation at Restaurant Guy Savoy, the eponymous eatery of the Michelin-starred French gastronomical artist. Apparently, when the casino bosses first came calling upon Mr. Savoy in Paris—“Okay, Kermit, name your price. What is it, ten million? Twenty? All we want is an exact copy of this here joint”—Savoy père had tapped his son, Franck, to head up the new project. So it was Franck we met, and Franck to whom we directed our questions about steak cookery.

“You can't really want to talk only about beef at Guy Savoy,” he said.

“I'm afraid we can.”

“But in Paris, we don't even serve beef.”

“Why not?”

“The quality of French beef is no good.”

“Couldn't you just fly in American beef? People ship fresh fish all over the world.”

“This would be very hard for the French clientele, to say you are using American beef in France. We would be dead.”

He looked disgusted, so I asked why he bothers to serve steak here, in Vegas.

“Hey, we are not stupid. No steak, no client.”

Then his waiters delivered flutes of Champagne and quite a load of new A5, every bit as face-melting as the stuff from Prime: slices accompanied by a sweet onion purée, and sliders on toothpicks. Moments later, after we'd inhaled all the A5, out came Savoy's “American prime beef tenderloin and
paleron à la française
,” which was essentially a pairing of a French pot-au-feu with a big filet mignon topped by bone marrow. And where Vongerichten nuked the exterior of a steak to satisfy the Inner Caveman, Savoy took the opposite approach: only lightly searing the filet's exterior, in a pan of hot grapeseed oil, and then simply lowering the flame beneath this pan and adding a bunch of butter.

“Our palate is not so aggressive,” Franck explained. “It is more subtle.”

We were surprised, however, by how quickly this American-char-versus-Gallic-finesse distinction collapsed at our very next restaurant, our final meal of that first night: at Stripsteak, inside the Mandalay Bay, where chef Michael Mina had a truly innovative steak-cooking technique. Just behind the grill, there was a long stainless-steel table with multiple rectangular openings in the top, each sized to hold a deep rectangular pan. Once set down into the tabletop, each rectangular pan was warmed from below by a separate bath of heated water, its temperature controlled by an independent digital thermostat, with one dedicated to each pan. These gently warmed pans were then filled with enough melted butter and fresh herbs to completely submerge even the biggest of steaks. (“It's like a warm marinade,” Mina told me.) In
order to skip that whole seize-up effect, from extreme heat, Mina used this process—a fusion, really, of industrial
sous-vide
and the old-world oil-poaching technique for preserving fish—to slow-poach his steaks for as long as three hours, never bringing them above 110 degrees, which was just below rare. All day, in other words, long before you even found the restaurant, your steak was drifting in a state of blissful suspended animation, changing ever so slowly. This way, when your order came in, your beef was already just at the brink of rare and yet profoundly, soulfully relaxed—so much so that the quickest of kisses on a mesquite grill would sear up the pre-warmed surface and pulse just enough heat through the meat's middle to make the whole thing perfect and also to make a man understand that, despite the glories of A5 Kobe, good old American Black Angus does have its moments.

All my life, I'd wished I could make myself vomit. I could always find the button, no problem: it was right at the back of the throat, that slippery-but-hard knob you could press, triggering the gag reflex. But no matter how stuffed and bloated I got, and no matter how hard I rammed my whole filthy hand down my own gullet, I could never quite evacuate my belly. Coaching was doubtless the missing link—puke coaching, I mean, of the kind M. F. K. Fisher once gave to James Villas. Having driven to Napa to interview the great lady, Villas became hideously ill from bad oysters he'd eaten in San Francisco. While he moaned and spewed in M. F. K.'s bathroom, she kindly alternated between interviewing herself (“Well, my friend … when I was a young lady, I learned how to cook and make love; when I reached the age of 50, I learned how to treasure friendship and grow old; now I'm learning how to die”) and giving Villas tips like “You must not simply lean over the bowl …”

But that didn't stop me from trying in the gleaming granite beauty of the bathroom in my room at Caesars—gagging and drooling while my old friend Jon and my father-in-law hung out at the blackjack tables. When I gave up and lay alone atop my bed, oozing saturated fat and alcohol from every pore, I realized that I had in effect turned my mouth into a meat grinder and my body into a sausage casing—a human hog-intestine, jammed to bursting with what the British call forcemeat. I got confirmation of this when I stepped onto the bathroom scale at midnight. For the first time ever I'd broken two bills, and I thought of Montanari's other great point about meat-eating—that vegetarian motivations are “doubtless the expression of a will to reject a life-style of carnivorous eating culturally long synonymous with the exercise of power, force, and violence. Denying oneself meat means distancing oneself from the enticement of power. It was not coincidental that the majority of monks issued from noble lineage. In their ‘conversion' a reversal of eating habits played a prominent role. The symbolic importance of renouncing meat is reflected in the monks' preference for ‘poor people's food,' borrowed from the peasant world as a sign of spiritual humility: greens, vegetables, grains.”

It goes without saying, of course, that our putative graineating poor man craves nothing so much as that nobleman's rejected steak, and I found my own culinary allegiances shifting right back to the Social Register by the next day, over lunch at the Delmonico Steak house, Emeril Lagasse's operation inside the Venetian, where my father-in-law announced that he'd won $1,100 in forty-five minutes the prior night. I felt a curious ache in my belly that I finally recognized as—could it be?—hunger. We tore like champions through a bone-in New York strip, a filet
mignon, and a bone-in rib eye—all accompanied by house-made potato chips flavored with (gulp!) black truffles and Parmesan. And, just for good measure, we devoured some New Orleans BBQ shrimp.

“Non! Non! Non!” This was super-chef Joël Robuchon, a few hours after the Delmonico feast. He was standing in the red velvet cocktail lounge of his eponymously named MGM Grand restaurant, Nevada's only three-Michelin-star dining establishment. Dubbed “the Chef of the Century” by a top French culinary review and the possessor of a total of seventeen Michelin stars, the most held by any living chef, Robuchon looks and dresses like an avant-garde international architect, a severe intellectual in a black turtleneck and black plastic eyeglasses, and I'd provoked him by asking if he, like all other chefs, salted and peppered his meat before cooking.

“Non! You must salt the meat only
while
it is cooking and after, but
never
before.” Salt draws out moisture, was the point; moisture is golden.

So what about pepper?


Only
once the meat is cooked. This is because the flavor of pepper changes intensely with heat. The only exception is for steak au poivre, and even here, you would never, ever add salt before pepper.”

Why?

“Because the moisture the salt pulls out will release the pepper. So: for au poivre, pepper first. Then salt.”

I loved this guy. He was clearly out of his mind.

And sauce?

“Je suis
contre
le sauce!” he barked, like a Trotskyite terrorist opposing bourgeois reforms to the Communist Party Platforms.

Robuchon's translator interrupted, to clarify: “Monsieur Robuchon would like to explain that he is opposed to sauce,
always
.”

Not that Robuchon wouldn't drizzle a little
jus
over the finished steak, but where classical French technique often called for
jus
built around butter, vegetables, and red wine, Robuchon was a fierce minimalist. (“Pas du vin! Pas du vin!” he shrieked. “No wine! No wine!”) Trimming a raw steak of all its imperfect fat, gristle, and stray meat, Robuchon would sauté the trimmings in a small skillet until they were well browned. Then he would pour in just enough water to release those brown bits from the surface of the skillet and to barely cover the trimmings. Simmering this pure beef-water liason, Robuchon would then strain it, reduce it, add a little salt, and voilà!

The result, as we experienced on a 16-ounce A5 Kobe rib eye, the biggest single serving of A5 available anywhere in Vegas, was a miracle of pure beef flavor that, if I had to guess, must have clocked in at around $300. (In case it's not obvious, I paid for none of this.)

Our joy was tempered, however, at our next stop, another Michael Mina restaurant, when my father-in-law's BlackBerry picked up an e-mail from his cardiologist, answering his query about the possibility of a dangerous cholesterol spike in a single piquant word: “Yes.” And we began truly to disintegrate at the stop after that, Tom Colicchio's Craftsteak, the second-to-last meal of our campaign and the scene of our first genuine filet mignon taste test: a 10-ounce USDA Prime filet ($56); a 10-ounce Wagyu beef filet from Snake River Farms in Idaho ($115); a 6-ounce filet of grade 10 Wagyu beef from the Blackmore Ranch in Queensland, Australia ($138); and an entire 6-ounce filet of grade 12 A5 Wagyu beef from Kagoshima, Japan ($180). A
once-in-a-lifetime comparison opportunity that, at any other moment on any other day, would've elicited sobs of ecstasy, and this is all I heard out of Jon, the single worst influence I've ever considered a dear friend:

“I'm guessing porn stars.”

“What?”

“Those chicks over there.”

Thirteen women gathered around a nearby table: loose dresses falling off salon-browned shoulders, hair so teased wild it looked like they'd just crawled out of an orgy, reapplied their lipstick, and gone hunting for protein. “What's your guess?” Jon asked me. “Hookers?”

BOOK: How to Cook Like a Man
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