The Offal Truth

There are definite benefits to being a private chef over, say, working in a restaurant: cooking for many brilliant people and developing good relationships with them, better pay and working conditions and the opportunity to live and work in some amazing locations.

Champery, Swiss Alps – April 2009
Fochabers, Speyside – September 2008

As any good private chef knows, the client is usually right – you serve up what they want to eat, not what you want to cook.  This doesn’t mean asking them to provide detailed meal requests – some guests want absolutely nothing to do with the menu planning, but that certainly doesn’t mean they don’t care what they eat.  This is where a private chef needs to be imaginative, a good listener, pragmatic, experienced, quick-thinking, patient and resourceful.  Female intuition has served me well, although I know some brilliant men who do this job.  I always say that a private chef is like a certain other ancient profession – work out as soon as possible what your client likes and provide it better than they’ve ever had it before (yes, this has raised a few eyebrows, smirks and even the odd false hope, but it’s an analogy that I continue to stand by).  I’d love to say I’ve continually got it right, but I’d be outright lying… I can think of a handful of cringe-worthy situations where, with hindsight, I would have done things differently – therein lies the importance of experience.  I remember my first private job after graduating from Leiths, working for a lovely family during their holiday in the south of France.  By the end of the three weeks, I was happily and confidently knocking up lunches and suppers for up to 14 people, managing to fit in waterskiing and jet-skiing with the family in the afternoon and relaxing with them after dinner was over.  But the first few days… oh god, I was a mess.  I got lost trying to find my way around, the supermarket was baffling (even though I speak fluent French) and I was totally thrown by not being able to source many ingredients I had counted on for my meticulously-planned menu.  I made everything from scratch, from vanilla ice cream (the sugar-syrup method I learned at Leiths as there was no ice cream machine) to bread (in France, home of the baguette!) and all the cookies (and there were A LOT thanks to the hollow legs of the many teenagers lurking around).  Luckily, a tearful telephone conversation with my mother – a wonderful cook herself and infinitely more experienced – brought me to my senses.  Something along the lines of “Why the bloody hell are you making all that work for yourself?!  Just buy decent ice cream, fresh baguettes and some packets of biscuits to supplement the home-made ones!  Good grief, girl, you’ll have a nervous breakdown at this rate, and they didn’t employ a chef to add more stress!”  I’m so glad I had that wake-up call as I was able to really enjoy the whole experience and I continued to cook for the family back in London.

Jack the dog, my constant kitchen companion in Pyla sur Mer – August 2008

My ride in Pyla – a Wrangler Jeep

Going for an afternoon swim in the sea at the bottom of the hill from the house
Summertime in Cornwall is a real treat, both on a personal and a professional level, with amazing produce at hand and the freedom to cook interesting, enticing dishes for a variety of guests, most of them excited to try new dishes and make the most of the wonderful fresh fish and whatever the kitchen garden has to offer.  During the winter, I cook for a Swiss family spanning three generations – though a lovely bunch, the meal options and creative opportunities are rather more limited… suffice to say, I don’t think I’ll be voluntarily going anywhere near raclette, fondue or pizza for a while after this.  The head of the family, however, has a penchant for all things offal and so – being alone in his passion and thus finding it hard to indulge – he was over the moon when he discovered that, not only do I know how to cook the stuff, I also have a source here in Verbier.  From lamb’s brain to kidneys, veal sweetbreads to testicles (haven’t found the latter yet – not trying too hard to track them down, if I’m honest), he goes misty-eyed at the merest mention of offal.  While I fully applaud his attitude to nose-to-tail eating, I can’t quite share his delight at the end result – apart from the sweetbreads, which I’ve learnt to appreciate, I am no offal-lover.  But sweetbreads, I do urge you to try.  They take a bit of time to prepare and they ain’t pretty, but they are worth the effort and mild revulsion during the initial preparation… honest.  Mark Hix describes them as having “a delicate texture and taste… really well suited to all types of cooking, frying, roasting, braising and even mixing with such delicacies as lobster, langoustine tails and crayfish in either a stew or a salad.”  Not bad for a lowly thymus gland…

Calves’ sweetbreads with Madeira sauce or sauce Gribiche
If doing this for dinner, start the morning of the day before.
First, soak your sweetbreads in cold water for about 4 hours – this helps to remove the membrane and general gunk that coats them (I’m really selling this, aren’t I?).  
Bring a pan of water to the boil, add salt, then your sweetbreads – simmer for 10 minutes.
Drain the sweetbreads and place in iced water until cold.
Using your hands, peel the membrane from the sweetbreads and lay them in a single layer in a dish.  Place a dish (an identical one, if you have it) on top and weigh it down with a few cans.  Put in the fridge for between 12 and 24 hours to flatten the sweetbreads.
Dry the sweetbreads with kitchen paper and slice them on a slant, about 1cm thick.
Set up three plates – one for flour (season with salt and pepper), one for egg (beaten) and one for breadcrumbs.  Coat each slice in flour (shake off excess), egg (again, shake off excess) and breadcrumbs, then lay on a plate until ready to fry (if you wish, you can do this a few hours in advance and leave them, covered, in the fridge).
Clarify some butter (melt in a pan and pour off the white curd, leaving just the yellow butter – this burns at a higher temperature, meaning you can get the pan nice and hot) and heat up your pan.  Add clarified butter and fry the breaded slices of sweetbread for a minute or two each side (in batches, if needs be), until the coating is crispy and golden brown, but not burnt.  When cooked, lay on a warmed plate and keep warm until ready to serve.
Serve with some sautéed mushrooms and a Madeira sauce, which I make simply by adding Madeira to some reduced veal stock in a warm pan, simmer for a couple of minutes and finish off by whisking in a few cubes off butter at the last minute.  Or you can serve the sweetbreads with a sauce Gribiche, which you make by mixing together the following ingredients to a texture like that of Tartare sauce – if it’s too thick, you can add a few drops of water:

  • 2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped 
  • 4 gherkins, finely chopped 
  • 2 Tblspns capers 
  • 2 tspns Dijon mustard 
  • 2 Tblspns mayonnaise 
  • Juice of half a lemon 
  • 2 eggs, hard boiled and grated or finely chopped 
  • ½ Tblspn tarragon leaves chopped
  • ½ Tblspn chervil, finely chopped
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper

To accompany, I like a salad of baby leaves or lamb’s lettuce with a tangy vinaigrette dressing and some crusty bread on the side.

I’d add a photo, but I’ve never found this the most photogenic of dishes.  But trust me when I tell you that they really are delicious and they look a bit like chicken nuggets.  Instead, here’s a nice photo of my view, taken a few days ago…

Sunet on New Year’s Day 2012, Verbier


Follow me on Twitter @LauraLPope