Did I ever tell you about Chef Albert Stockli, who had an eye for fish?
Born in Bremgarten, Switzerland, Albert Stockli took over housekeeping after his mother’s death when he was nine years old. His formal schooling was absorbed from an uncle who was a chef in a Swiss hotel. Albert soaked up knowledge, and grew in every way.
By the time he was 17 he was well over six feet, a height extended at least another foot by the ever present toque blanche that, it was rumored, he wore to bed and bath.
Albert rose to become the Director of Restaurant Associates, and for many years was Joe Baum‘s nurtured genius. For the Forum of the Twelve Caesars restaurant, Albert invented such dishes as Flaming Snow Mountain that Joe insisted on setting on fire because, as he wryly pointed out, “It doesn’t hurt the food much and you can charge an extra buck for the show.”
Albert bought Stonehenge, an inn in Ridgefield, Connecticut after having a rip-roaring “discussion” with Joe in the dining room of The Four Seasons shortly after the last guest had left.
For the first time in his life, Albert was now King of his own Castle and could cook and serve the food the way he wanted. His guests adored him and returned again and again.
Albert had an irascible nature and when he demanded “fresh”, “Fresh” was what he got.
Like all the other fish, the trout, (for truite au bleu) was delivered live. To prepare it, first stun the trout with a single blow in back of the head. Clean and gut it carefully, leaving the head and tail on. Slide the fish immediately into a pan of simmering fish broth. Poach it gently for five minutes. It will curl into a fetal position with its head touching its tail, and turn a delicate shade of blue. It is served with a beurre blanc sauce and tiny new potatoes steamed over champagne.
Albert created dozens of new dishes, many of which can be traced directly from his Swiss heritage. He did things his way, ritualistically.
Early each morning, dressed in his chef whites and wearing his tall toque, he strode through the kitchen into the adjoining garden to gather bouquets of herbs that he laid out in neat bunches along the length of the chopping block. Next he arranged one of each species of fish in military formation, heads forward and tails to the rear. Then the work began.
Stopping over each fish, he confronted it eyeball to gleaming eyeball. Hands on chubby knees, he smelled each fish and each herb. Then slowly and thoughtfully, in total silence, he selected one herb from this bunch and one from that and chopped them into myriad combinations. He put a little tarragon in this group, a touch of sorrel in another and a few curls of parsley here and there. The gentle, soothing rhythm of chopping continued until each herb was so fine it could dance an arabesque on the tip of his knife. Each combination of herbs was then matched to each fish until the parade was flanked with small mounds of fragrance.
Then the inspection began again. Albert picked up the first fish in line, rubbed a pinch of herbs onto its shiny skin, sniffed it delicately, smiled smugly to himself, wiped his hands on his clean white apron, and proceeded to the next. By the time he reached the end of the line, he was supremely content. His apron was green with sweet smelling herbs and ever so slightly fishy.
One memorable night, the youngest cook stole the master’s apron, which by now had become a historical record of the day’s activities. He dropped the flavored apron into a broth and simmered it gently for twenty minutes. The result was a gloriously nuanced soup.
Albert sipped it, smiled, stepped into the moonlit garden and yodeled into the night sky.
Side Note: I know this story because I helped Albert write Splendid Fare: The Albert Stockli Cookbook