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Thinking Thin

David Lansing is a regular contributor to the magazine.

There is no culinary language more seductive than French. Consider that most basic of edible tubers--what the Germans call Kartoffel, the Italians and Spanish patata, and we know as the potato. A homely name for a drab vegetable, except in France, where it is lovingly referred to as a pomme de terre.

And what do the French do with these “apples of the ground?” They coif and rouge the little beauties, dressing the country bumpkins up as gratin dauphinois--what we unimaginatively call scalloped potatoes. Or they soak and press the ultra-thin darlings into pommes Anna, a buttery potato cake with a luscious, crispy crust.

The secret to most French potato dishes--from gaufrettes to gratins--is another creatively named Gallic wonder, the mandoline. No one really knows who invented or named the mandoline, though it’s not hard to imagine some romantic chef giving the cooking instrument a musical name since they were originally held the same way--pressed tightly against the chest.

Manual vegetable slicers, made out of blocks of wood with a sharp blade in the middle, have been around for hundreds of years, but the first metal version was made in the early 1950s by Jean Bron, a manufacturer from the Haute-Savoie region of France. The stainless steel mandoline became an immediate culinary classic, despite its humble beginnings, because its elegant, if simple, design has been as difficult to improve on as a baguette. Every French chef has a mandoline and respects it like an elderly relative.

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Chef de cuisine Gregory Short, of the Loft restaurant at the Montage Resort & Spa in Laguna Beach, remembers first coming across a mandoline while studying at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. “I had a French instructor who was so adamant about the care of the mandoline that you had to sign it out before you could even use it,” he says. But the hassle was worth it, particularly when Short had to prepare something like Vichy carrots or thinly sliced celery root.

Its efficacy wasn’t lost on the young chef when he went to work at Napa Valley’s legendary French Laundry. “I watched other chefs do things with knives that were really just a waste of time,” he says. “They’d be making very fine, tedious cuts that could actually be better done using a mandoline.”

The exact slicing of potatoes and other vegetables to be fried is very important, according to Alain Giraud of L.A.'s Bastide. If, for instance, you are making gaufrette potatoes, which have a waffle cut, each slice must be the same or some will burn while others will be undercooked.

In addition to relying on his stainless steel French mandoline, Giraud, like many chefs, also uses an inexpensive Japanese model, the Benriner. “The classic French one is stronger and more stable,” he says, “but sometimes I like to use the [Benriner] because it’s lighter and easier to clean.”

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Josiah Citrin, chef/owner at Melisse in Santa Monica, also has used both French and Japanese versions. While training in Paris, “we used only the heavy French mandoline. And the same when I worked at Chinois and Patina. But now everyone uses the Japanese one. It’s easier and gives you the flexibility to shave very thinly sliced vegetables right over the dish.”

It’s also a lot easier on the pocketbook. While a stainless steel mandoline will run you anywhere from $100 to $185, you can get the plastic Japanese version for $25 to $50, depending on the model.

“It’s a very cool tool,” says Jonathan Pflueger, executive chef of Hush in Laguna Beach, who keeps one with his personal assortment of knives and other must-have culinary tools.

“There is an aesthetic to food prepared using a mandoline,” says Pflueger, who talks excitedly about herb potato chips sliced so thinly they “look like stained glass,” or a steamed fish dish he’s developing that will be coated in thin, pliable slices of carrot, daikon, zucchini and yellow squash. “The visual is fantastic,” he says of his planned entree. “The steamed vegetables look almost like scales.”

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While almost all mandolines are designed with cutting guards to protect fingers, most chefs admit they seldom use it. “One guy [at Bastide] uses a towel,” says Giraud, “because he’s had a few nicks over the years. But I think most [chefs] just use their fingers to push the vegetables through--and try to be careful.”

Mais oui--tres, tres prudent.


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