In P.G. Wodehouse’s novel “Right Ho, Jeeves”, a character called Tuppy praises Anatole, the culinary maestro of the Jeeves and Wooster cycle. “The thing that I admire so enormously about Anatole is that, though a Frenchman, he does not, like so many of these chefs, confine himself exclusively to French dishes, but is always willing and ready to weigh in with some good old simple English fare such as this steak and kidney pie…” The same could be said of Arnaud Schon, the 44-year-old freelance chef who has cooked meals for guests of The Economist since June 2012. Slender, energetic, bespectacled, with a salt-and-pepper beard, Arnaud looks impeccably French despite spending the past 18 years in British kitchens. He is a native of Lorraine, in north-east France, and yet—“I love steak and kidney pudding,” he says.
Arnaud regularly produces meals for up to 16 guests (bankers, the board, politicians, the odd president) from a constricted 14th-floor space hardly larger than most domestic kitchens. As the dishes he makes are nearly all adaptable for home entertaining, he agreed to reveal his secrets in conversation with me.
In a tight corner of the kitchen one day this June, we dissected a dish served recently to Economist guests—from the bottom up. “You just make a dry polenta, roll it out, cut out circles and fry,” he told me. “It’s great but I don’t know if people are used to it.” He tutted. “A bit came back on the plates.”
“Maybe they were watching their carb intake.”
“Maybe—but they finished their potatoes.”
We discovered a shared passion for artichokes. “I used baby artichokes cooked in water with a drop of lemon juice and white wine. Too much acid and they turn white. You just simmer until they’re al dente.”
“Baby artichokes are fine, but I prefer the big ones,” I chipped in. “Do the French eat the leaves? I’ve often seen them trimmed in French markets.”
“My family ate them in Lorraine.”
“It’d be madness not to.”
The broccoli was cooked as small florets, but the carrots required more finesse. “They were quite big so we quartered them and then gave them the shape of carrots.”
“What? Did you whittle each one?”
“You just take the angle off the edge.”
We disagreed (mildly) about cod. In Arnaud’s rendition, blackened cod did not mean using Cajun spices but merely searing the skin, shallow frying for four minutes until it crisped and coloured. Then he flipped the fillets over for another two minutes, before a final three minutes in a hot oven.
“Cod is looked on with some suspicion in my native Yorkshire,” I said. “It’s regarded as a bit watery. We prefer haddock.”
“I don’t see that,” said Arnaud. “It was a nice dish. They were very happy with it.”
Moving on to dessert, I was pleased to learn that Arnaud used garden rhubarb to make his little pots of bavarois, a classic French dessert. He had to, since forced rhubarb, the delicate pink stems customarily specified in recipes by professional chefs, is long out of season. But the green stalks of outdoor-reared rhubarb turn pink when simmered and taste excellent—at least to me.
Arnaud’s rhubarb bavarois starts with the foamy egg-yolk sauce known as sabayon. In a separate pan, he stewed chopped rhubarb with vanilla and orange juice: “They go together really well.” He added gelatin to the puréed rhubarb then mixed in whipped double cream and the sabayon. The mixture was poured into ramekins and left in the fridge to set. Like me, Arnaud enjoyed rhubarb from an early age. But it emerged that he had never encountered a combination highly esteemed in Yorkshire. “Rhubarb and strawberry? No, I’ve never had it.”
He opened a fridge and produced a small jar of fresh strawberries marinading in kirsch. Picking out a fruit, he ate it with a spoonful of rhubarb purée. “It could work…” he said hesitantly.
“Of course it’ll work. Trust me. You need to simmer them together first for the flavours to meld.” Arnaud appeared less than ecstatic about this northern amendment to a French classic, but perhaps he’ll relent and, like Anatole, weigh in. If The Economist serves rhubarb and strawberries any time soon, you’ll know whom to blame.