I've always been a touch apprehensive about the modernizing or re-imagining of a classic dish. In the late summer of last year, Nick and I began testing out a bouillabaisse dish for the restaurant. I have cooked many variations of this dish in my career, but I hadn't served the classic, two service, communal meal that makes a true bouillabaisse marseillaise* before. I began to dig back through my cookbooks to relook at the history of other chef's versions of the dish. Louis Outhier at L'Oasis outside of Cannes had his version, Jacques Maximin at Hotel Negresco in Nice had his, Roger Verge of Moulin à Mougins just above the Côte d'Azur had his. As a contemporary example, Gérald Passedat of Le Petit Nice in Marseille serves a modern, minimalist version of his own to much fanfare. Were there any more marks to be made?
As Nick and I chatted about different approaches we could take or clever methods we could use, it became more and more apparent that we were more interested in presenting a classic version of the dish rather than twist the classic into something it's not. In a way, bending a dish that has been countlessly reworked and contorted back to a more traditional rendition seemed a better route.
We started by finding the right fish for the dish. The Rascasse, or Scorpionfish, is quintessential to creating the correct flavor in the broth which is the heart of the whole dish. It is a gorgeous fish, dramatically colored to match it's surroundings, so no two have the exact same coloring. They are also an interesting fish to cut. Each filet, or side, yields 3 separate loins, as opposed to the typical toploin and belly loin found with most other round fish families. The texture of the meat itself is dense, chewy in a pleasant way, and perfectly white. The particular texture is owed to the muscle structure of the flesh (almost entirely quick muscle), which has a tighter and more variated separation between the muscle and connective tissue dividing it compared to other round fish who hunt in more open waters. This type of muscle structure is put to great use during the fish's life for very rapid, sudden movements as it snatches a crustacean or small fish from it's hiding place amidst the rocks. We save the heads, fins and bones of the fish, cut them down to uniform pieces, rinse them, then make a base fumet from them. This fumet also contains fennel, tomato, garlic, as well as claws from the Blue Crab. Together, this creates the classic broth (except typically the european brown crab is used; what can I say? root for the home team), traditionally served separate from the fish cooked in the liquid, accompanied by croutons and rouille.
And Rouille, the saffron garlic emulsion (note I do not use the word mayonnaise or aioli here) that accompanies the dish, has about as many different recipes for it as there are cooks making the condiment. Some use breadcrumbs as a binder, some use riced potatoes, others use hard boiled eggs which are finely chopped. I prefer a more rustic, simple approach. We begin by crushing the peeled garlic cloves from whole in a heavy mortar and pestle, with the egg yolk, saffron and salt to start, then slowly add olive oil to the mortar very gradually until we achieve the desired consistency. By using the mortar and pestle, and by working the mixture very gradually we end up with a texture that is almost sticky in feel, and denser in mouthfeel compared to a rouille or aioli made in a bowl with a whisk. It is because we have not emulsified the oil nearly as completely into the egg yolk, as we would with using a whisk, that we derive that distinct texture.
I wanted the diner to see these fish as well, whole. One of the hallmarks of sitting down to a meal of bouillabaisse is the wonderful platter of whole cooked fish; all of the different faces, shapes and colors of these fantastic creatures before you. Whole animals on a plate tend to trigger something primal in us, some basic instinct from ancient times, and I didn't want to lose that sensation. So, we devised to send a silver platter covered in ice of the whole fish we would be serving that evening in the dish just before your bouillabaisse. I like the additional benefit of whole fish being paraded through a modern dining room such as ours, harking back to the fish houses of yester year.
I'm happy with the dish, and I'm still serving it. Not because I think it's especially clever or innovative, but because it makes me smile to plate this dish. Because it allows me to feel at least momentarily connected to a place that I cannot call my home, yet through the craft that I have chosen as my profession, I can be a part of an idea and a sensation that is indeed timeless.
* Author's Note: There is indeed a distinction between a bouillabaisse and a Bouillabaisse Marseillaise. At it's most basic, a bouillabaisse is a stew made by the fishermen on a day gone by, using the leftovers of the days catch, by boiling the fish in sea water with fennel, onion and garlic. The bouillabaisse that owes it's name to the port city of Marseille, the Bouillabaisse Marseillaise, is a more refined version, using a perfumed and fortified fumet, which the fish is then cooked in. It is served in two courses, with the fish served whole first, followed by the fortified broth accompanied by croutons and rouille. Similar approaches are found up and down the Cote d'azur such as a Bourride where the whole fish, cooked in a fumet similar in characteristics to the bouillabaisse broth, is then ground into the broth using a ricer yielding a thicker consistency, without internal garnish, and served with croutons, cheese and rouille.