As the train rattled and clacked toward home, I thought about bouillabaisse.
Bouillabaisse. Boo-ya-base. Booooo-yeh-baze. It sounded complicated. It sounded like an insult. Insult soup. It was the dish we made at school that night, and mine had turned out just all right.
When I told Didier that I was learning to make bouillabaisse in the style of Marseilles, he responded that “in the style of” wasn’t “the true one.” He was right, logistically, but then I’d never made fish stew before, so I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference.
I had filleted my fish with precision. Of course, Chef Mark was watching over my shoulder, guiding my hand with his the entire time. But it was my knife. So I filleted the fish. Excellent job. Most excellent job.
We added saffron and orange zest and tasted and tasted our broth. Earlier in the evening, Chef Tim had talked to us about sauces.
“They’re all a balance of three things: salt, fat and acidity. As chefs, you’ll learn to judge the delicate balance and adjust accordingly.” He said all of this before talking about fats and proteins and carbohydrates and anal leakage as a result of weight loss drugs, which I shouldn’t have found funny but did anyway.
A few of my classmates nodded knowingly. (They nodded about the sauce balancing scale, not the anal leakage.) I was perplexed. Intricacies of flavor are frightening, they are too much to think about when I am already worried about leaving too much meat on the bones of a fish. And also, I’m a girl who spent most of her childhood evenings eating 8 McDonalds hamburgers in a row and then throwing them up, so hell if I know about delicate subtleties in food.
I was a little worried about the boo-ya-base. I cut the onion, the fennel, the leek, leaving Lynn to do the things like actually cook them. Cooking makes me nervous because I am not very good at it. I don’t understand intricacies of flavor.
As I cooked the monkfish, bass, mussels and shrimp, Lynn worked on seasoning the broth. ”Taste this,” he said.
I dipped my spoon into the yellow liquid and brought it to my lips. ”Ugh!” I said without thinking, sticking my tongue out and making an accidental face. ”It needs salt!”
Lynn nodded in agreement, and I transferred the shrimp, pink and curled, to a plate. ”Lots more salt,” I said.
Handfuls and handfuls went into our pot, and still the soup tasted bland. ”Is there any more saffron?” Lynn wanted to know. I told him that I didn’t think so. He left and came back with an orange. He grated more zest over the top, added more juice. Acidity.
“Can we monter au beurre?” Dan called out to Chef Mark.
“No. I mean, you can. But this is a dish of Mediterranean flavors.” We nodded and continued tossing salt around. We should have added oil. It needed fat.
The next day, I ate my leftover bouillabasse for lunch. The fish was tender and soft, falling apart with the slightest prompting from my spoon. That part was very good. But the broth – oh, that terrible broth. It was bland, as though all that salt had crawled out, snuck from the refrigerator in the middle of the night. And fat? Acidity? I didn’t taste any. I couldn’t even detect the Pernod we’d cooked with.
I left the bowl on the table to fetch a bottle of extra virgin olive oil. As I drizzled it over the top of the soup, watching the bright green fat dress the fish, I thought about what Chef Tim had said. I was far from claiming a master palate, and I had just somehow made a bland soup out of four different kinds of fish, garlic, leeks, onions, fennel, saffron, alcohol, salt, cayenne, paprika. But! But I knew that it was bad, and that was the oddest sort of consolation. Success couldn’t be far behind.