As a perennial stagiaire, it’s in one’s very nature to seek out new experiences from different kitchens and chefs. From learning how to operate a tandoor without burning my arm off to discovering the delights of calf ’s brains and how to properly use them, being a stagiaire opens the mind and fundamentally makes you a better chef. I suppose, then, it was only a matter of time before I came across foie gras.
Despite being a controversial item and not commonly used in UK restaurants, foie gras is a cornerstone of classic French cuisine. Perched on the highest peaks of gastronomic luxury, the infamous duck/goose liver, gleaned through the process of ‘gauvage’ (forcefeeding), will arguably never escape itself in terms of ethics and animal cruelty.
So there I was, clutching a spoon in the kitchen at Club Gascon in Smithfield next to chef-patron Pascal Aussignac – one of the UK’s most learned chefs in all things duck – about to prep a tray of four giant, raw foie gras. And when I say giant, these things looked as though they’d come from horses rather than ducks.
I admitted to Pascal that I’d never tackled foie gras before and so he, too, grabbed a spoon and offered to take me through the deveining process, which is done so as to keep a smooth texture throughout and to avoid discolouration when cooking.
The first thing he did was turn the spoon I was holding the other way around as, once we’d separated the two lobes of one foie gras, we were to use the ends like spatulas to push away the flesh and reveal the veins, which stretch out from top to bottom (in the shape of an upside-down hand) and peel them out. It was messy work, with the clingfilm on the counter underneath quickly starting to smear with gooey, yellow flesh as we pushed and pinched our way through, lobe after lobe.
As a stagiaire working with an ingredient for the very first time, and to be guided by someone of Pascal’s understanding, it was an unashamedly fascinating experience. I remained a little taken aback at how big the livers were, in my mind trying to size up the average mallard throughout the process.
Pascal told me that his first time prepping foie gras was as a 17-year-old at Les Trois Marches in Versailles, and that chefs generally have many different cooking and prepping techniques for it. They’re like eggs, he says, in so much as they’re so versatile.
While foie gras is an important part of traditional Gascon cuisine and, thus, plays an important role in the restaurant, it’s on the menu a lot less these days compared with when it first opened in 1998. “Times change,” says Pascal. “Twenty years ago, we were very macho: confit duck, foie gras, bankers smoking cigars and playing cards in the restaurant. We’ve naturally evolved with the times. Change is good! When we first opened, the pedestrian walkways in Smithfield hadn’t been completed yet, suppliers wouldn’t come to us because we were ‘in the middle of nowhere’ and I lived in a shit flat in Pimlico that had rats!”
Club Gascon celebrated 20 years in 2018 and underwent a major refurb the year before, with the kitchen tripling in size. Pascal has a video of himself breaking down a wall triumphantly in the old kitchen as part of the expansion, which also saw them get proper induction after nearly two decades of melting in the basement.
Tonight, there are 18 booked for dinner plus inevitable walk-ins and, with the four organs successfully deveined, I was snapped up by two Italians, Federico and Alberto, to work with perhaps the furthest thing from foie gras – freshly picked green tulips. Though a faithful servant to classic south-western French cuisine, Pascal has always been a highly imaginative chef, with his stuffed tulip dish one of his most famous creations. From October until the cusp of summer, his tulips come in many different forms. Today we are taking two green tulips and stuffing them with a mixture of boiled white quinoa, black fermented garlic, blanched garden peas, shallots, chives, dill, parsley, green courgette pulp, grated parmesan, a touch of olive oil and espelette pepper.
Once stuffed, we steam them for a maximum of 90 seconds with the tulip stems then able to bend easily. The cooked flowers then go up to Pascal (or his all-action head chef, Arturo) on the pass who plates with dill gel and foam, yellow courgette purée, black garlic purée, pea shoots, pennyworts, fried pieces of quinoa and peas.
“I first got the idea around 10 years ago after service one night,” Pascal tells me. “I was watching bad French TV at 2am and there was a gardener who was picking tulips for dinner. That got me thinking.” (Pascal looks after the floral arrangements across all of his restaurants, so he’s a man of many talents).
Dinner progressed steadily and I soon saw some of the previously prepped foie gras arrive on the scene with two orders for the barbecued foie gras ‘éclade’ (a Gascon term for smoking over pine needles) with pine mushrooms and razor clams, which left the kitchen purposely spluttering smoke from lit needles underneath.
After my dance with the tulips, I was handed over to a commis named Sean to help plate the ‘prelude’ on the à la carte: foie gras terrine with caviar d’Aquitaine served on painted coral with a seaweed crisp and one exquisite gram of high-grade caviar.
Finally, after being caught on pastry with a rather naughty Roquefort cheesecake, I got my chance to try a slice of simply seared and seasoned foie gras. It was soft, decadent and intense. In every way, certainly not simple.