Chef at Home

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By Nikki Werner • Photography by C&D Heierli • Recipes Luke Dale-Roberts

Not too long ago, whenever I saw Luke-Dale Roberts, I would instantly think ‘Linguine!’—the boy chef from the film Ratatouille. You see, when we first met, he told me some colleagues insist he bears a striking physical likeness to this hapless hero. I could see it too, until I spent a morning in Luke’s kitchen watching him toss rösti on demand.
“A rösti shouldn’t be a crisp ‘biscuit’,” Luke explains, “but more like a ‘cake’ with a juicy potato centre.” He talks about the contentious ‘to blanch or not to blanch’ when it comes to the potatoes, and pronounces the word rösti as it should be. The ‘r’ is like a Malmesbury brei, the ‘s’ is a shhh sound and the ‘o’ like the French oeuf (which we’ll get to later). So if it had to be spelled phonetically, it would be 'roeshti'.

Great for a Brunch

He’s demonstrating this shredded-potato pancake to serve ‘family-style’ as a heart-warming brunch, along with a soft-poached egg, mushrooms, wafer-like slivers of Black Forest ham, and plenty of hollandaise.

Luke’s mother is Swiss-French, but the technique for this Swiss-German speciality was learned fresh out of college and on his first job at Zurich’s Baur au Lac hotel. Elsewhere, fondue challenges rösti for the title of Switzerland’s national dish, but here it defines the menu. Every one of the chefs—no matter how green—was charged with getting the potato mother lode airborne and cradling it safely back in the pan on the reverse side.
How many rösti did it take Luke to get it right? He laughs. “I can’t remember, it was about 15 years ago now, but there was a lot of shouting.” He describes the floor surrounding the rösti station as covered with the shattered remains of failed attempts. He admits when he was getting the hang of it again for the Neighbourgoods market, his rösti stand didn’t look all that different.

The Tools and Tricks                                                             

Luke starts everything from scratch, setting the potatoes to boil—only a best-quality, waxy variety for good texture—and chopping onions. That’s when I notice him using a knife by Japanese brand MAC. “They are really light and easy to handle,” he says. “It has a thin blade which makes it great for chopping onions, and it doesn’t cost a lot.” 
Next up is the poaching. In a very old-fashioned method with a modern application, the eggs have been ‘truffled’. Previously they would have been stored in a basket of whole, harvested truffles for the deep, earthy flavour to infuse through the porous shell; now they are sealed in a Ziploc bag with a few drops of the truffle oil.

 Luke's Way with Eggs                  

Luke (and a little bit of truffle) has once before changed the way I view eggs. It was during the ‘Farm’ course of his Elements tasting menu with the Oeuf ‘La Colombe’. They are like Russian nesting dolls. You open a ceramic oval—shaped like an ostrich egg—to find what appears to be a boiled hen’s egg. It is, in fact, truffled chicken mousseline, surrounded by a frothy celeriac cappuccino, and in place of the yolk is a nugget of foie gras.
Today he changes the way I view egg cookery. Poaching the perfect egg has always seemed shrouded in mystery, as if only an initiation into a kind of culinary illuminati will allow access to the real secret. We all know about adding vinegar and using the freshest possible eggs so the jelly-like whites cling to the yolks for dear life. But how do you get rounded whites rather than something more akin to a frisbee?
“Making a whirlpool is nonsense,” says Luke. I can feel we’re close to unveiling some unspoken lore. “All you need is a really tall pot.” Aaah! “In the restaurant we would use a sauce pot, the kind used to store ladles. The egg coagulates as it falls down the length of the pot in a torpedo effect and then we just cut off the strands that trail behind it.” 
Luke uses a stock pot—it’s what most of us would have in the cupboard—and because the egg can’t drop as far, he makes sure the water is just breaking into a boil so that the egg falls and then bounces up—much like the way a jellyfish swims. (See recipe.) Once cooked, the view from above is like a bunch of white windsocks quivering in the water.

An Easy Hollandaise

The poaching done, Luke then turns his attention to hollandaise. It was never intended to be the focus, but some extremely useful information comes out while on the subject of this French ‘Mother Sauce’. The first illuminating step: After reducing the vinegar by two-thirds, add back a third of the water. “This helps to get volume and foaminess and gives the finished hollandaise a mousse-y texture.” Second, after whisking the egg yolks and vinegar reduction until fluffy, add warm clarified butter, not cold cubes. The sauce thickens almost instantly. “You’ve got the temperature right at 80 degrees,” says Luke, “and adding cold butter will just cool it down again.” Lastly, add back the milk solids (previously separated out) for creaminess.

Making the Rosti

Then the time for making rösti is upon us, and Luke turns to the grated curls of creamy-yellow potato. The size of your frying pan determines the size of your rösti, and once it’s shaped to fit, Luke takes a spoon and neatly presses down the edges. “You want to have a nice pillow shape,” he tells us. When the potato starts heating up but before it catches on the base of the pan, Luke slips teaspoonfuls of butter around the edge. “The butter shouldn’t be absorbed by the potato; it should slide down the sides and give the rösti a nice golden colour,” he explains.
Then, after some sizzling and caramelising, the moment of truth: Luke goes in for the flip. He gains momentum, pushes the pan forward, confidently flings the rösti heavenward, and in a brilliant display of hand-eye co-ordination, lowers the pan to come in gracefully under the falling disc. For those who have ever caught an episode of Iron Chef America, this has ‘Slow Action Replay’ written all over it. Luke proceeds to pull this off close to 10 times so we can get the shot.
As we eat the performing rösti, the silence is punctuated only by the occasional ‘hmm-mm’. Luke doesn’t need minions or state-of-the-art equipment to cook well. Without a whisk, he takes the Braun stick-blender whisk attachment in a claw grip—used this way it resembles an extension for Captain Hook’s arm—and whisks away to produce a voluminous, sheen-y hollandaise that looks just as he said it would. At a recent international cook-off, he won the respect of three-Michelin-starred French icon, chef Pierre Gagnaire—no small feat. When Gagnaire observed Luke cooking man-alone (the other big names arrived with an entourage), he commented, “Once that was me, like mon ami Duke [his nickname for Luke], passing the bisque at midnight.” Now there’s a resemblance that fits.

How to Flip a Rösti

To flip the rösti hold the pan in both hands at about waist height. Make sure the rösti is nice and loose and has not stuck to any part of the pan. The movement should be quite slow and there should be a little flick of the wrist as the rösti starts to leave the pan to get it spinning towards you. Drop the pan and let the rösti glide round 180 degrees catching it perfectly on the flip side. To watch a video of the flip, go to www.goodtaste.co.za

Try these recipes:

Poached Eggs

Potato Rosti