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Cooking Through Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook Must Begin With French Onion Soup

All this week, The Takeout's Kevin Pang will be cooking from Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook and writing about his experience.

Anthony Bourdain, if I had to guess, would not tolerate mawkishness. But allow me to indulge in a few paragraphs of sentimentality and I promise to move on: Any time a pop cultural icon leaves us, there's a brief window in which we collectively relive the person's works. During those 24 hours after their passings, we all re-read our favorite Mary Oliver poetry, spin Aretha Live at Fillmore West, pull up Burt Reynolds clips on YouTube, then go on with our lives.

With Anthony Bourdain, I feel something different. I find myself thinking about him more than ever. As a writer, I miss his electric prose. As a citizen of the world, I miss his ability to make us realize we're not so different from a farmer in Rwanda or a vintner in Sicily. I mourn the fact he had more stories to tell and bullshit to call out. It says something that anytime my wife and I could not agree on what to watch on Netflix, Parts Unknown is always the one show we'd default to.

Consuming Bourdain's televised and literary canon in the nine months since his passing, I've noticed my relationship with food shifting away from nouveau and towards the classique. What once curled my toes—foams and dots on plates and other masturbatory culinary whizbang—now felt tawdry. Hell, the suburban red-sauced Italian chains were winning me over! How does Bourdain factor into this? Let us not forget before he became a globetrotting personality, he spent decades as a kitchen grunt, most notably as chef of New York's now-closed Les Halles Brasserie. (He said of dining at Les Halles for the first time: "It was perfect. The real deal. After years of wandering the culinary margins, messing about with metal rings and avocados, I was home.")

In re-reading his works (my favorite is The Nasty Bits, Bourdain's collected essays and vignettes from his travels), I got the sense Bourdain was wined and dined at the finest restaurants, practically showered in Perigord truffles and Romanée-Conti Grand Cru, but he found a million times more satisfaction in a perfectly seared fillet of sole with lemon and browned butter. Or someone who could nail a cacio e pepe. Bourdain seemed like a man who would find the words "hot new restaurant" particularly loathsome.

And so, inspired in part by the late Anthony Bourdain (still feels weird typing those words), I've fallen down the rabbit hole of French bistro food. A hearty bowl of beef bourguignon. A salad of frisée and lardons. Seared steak with a generous round of maitre d'hotel butter melting atop. Not only did I want to eat it, I wanted to cook it.

When I solicited Twitter for bistro cookbook recommendations, I shouldn't have been surprised by the top suggestion. If I'm allowed one last chaser of sentimentality, I almost think it was meant to be:

I've been spending a lot of time of late with the Les Halles Cookbook, published four years after Bourdain's bonafide bestseller Kitchen Confidential from 2000. If you've read Bourdain's other works, you'll recognize the sardonicism, humor, and real-truth-spittin':

The 110 recipes here are void of frills; in fact, many seem deceptively remedial. A lot of cookbooks send me on a wild ingredients goose chase, hunting down a $10 jar from Whole Foods I'll use once and forget about forever. Perhaps it's in the attitude and terseness of Bourdain's directions, but the dishes in the Les Halles Cookbook feel expunged of bullshit—find some good meat, season well, add in some vegetable aromatics, splash in some white wine you'd drink on its own, and the result will be deeply satisfying.

If deep satisfaction is to be achieved, then the first recipe I should make is Onion Soup Les Halles on pg. 45—the restaurant's take on the venerable French onion soup.

(A note: I have decided not to reprint recipes verbatim from the book, though I will mention ingredients used and my tweaks along the way. Really, it's my way of encouraging you to buy the cookbook from your local bookstore and follow along. However, if you insist, you can find the recipe to the onion soup here.)

My previous efforts of French onion soup have been lackluster. Even having made beef broth from bones in the Instant Pot, the resulting soups always suffered from, shall we say, meekness—they tasted like 75-percent versions. Cooking the Les Halles version made me realize the oomph required in French onion soup didn't come from animal proteins. It's about cooking down a gobsmacking amount of onions and spending the necessary time to release and caramelize onions' sugars. This recipe calls for eight large onions, which breaks down to one whole onion per crock, per person. I've rightly decided to halve the recipe.

Even slicing four onions was a pain in the ass, so may I suggest an indispensable tool for your kitchen: a mandoline. These cost as little as $15, shaves your vegetable paper-thin, and cuts your prep to a quarter of the time. The time saved here, however, was spent later sweating down the onions. The book claimed it takes 20 minutes to achieve a state of "soft and browned," but anyone who has caramelized onions knows it takes twice that. Four sliced onions barely fit my 7-quart Le Creuset enameled Dutch oven, and much maneuvering was required to get the top layer of onions to the heated bottom of the pot. Even with three-quarters of a butter stick used, it took about 45 minutes for the onions to develop fond—those flavor-dense browned bits stuck to the bottom of the pot.

This was when I added two tablespoons each Port and balsamic vinegar, which bloomed into an aroma of sweet onion candy. Then, I poured a quart of chicken stock to the tangle of soft onions, as well as the surprising-to-me addition of diced bacon, two slices, and a sachet of bouquet garni (parsley, thyme, and bay leaf, a combination of herb used in more than half the recipes in this book).

Because the book's recipes tended to be in Bourdain's direct language, I occasionally found myself asking "what do I do now?" and making tweaks on the fly. For example: I've noticed throughout the Les Halles Cookbook that Bourdain has a light touch on seasoning. Salt and pepper aren't always listed in quantities, often just a generic instruction to season. This is no knock. I believe this is a beneficial omission for the home cook, as it encourages the habit of tasting and adjusting. (It also presumes one person's bland might be another person's over-salted.) I also found myself with a pot that contained a whole lot of onions and seemingly not enough liquid. Should I or should I not add a cup of water, season, and adjust? The answer was of course I should—this is what cooks do.

After an hour of simmering, the fun part: I lopped off a few pieces of baguettes (I opted to pre-toast mine), sliced Gruyere cheese (Bourdain insisted on "real, imported Gruyere!"), then layered it on the bread and over the edges of the crock to achieve that hanging burnt-cheese aesthetic. A "rip-roaring broiler" was necessary, which I had via my $65 toaster oven. I had to grate more cheese than I thought was needed, because Gruyere is a highly fatty cheese and much of it disappears into liquid oil. More importantly, enough cheese is necessary for the piece de resistance: Using a propane torch to blast the cheese into crispy orbit. It's worth buying one just for this moment of pleasure.

Soon, I spooned off a soggy-crunchy corner of baguette, one shellacked with burnt-gooey cheese, floating in golden-brown broth and soft onions. I took a bite. The soup was sweeter than expected—the Port lended notes of raisin—but that beautifully redolent stench of cheese was the savory hit the soup needed. Adding diced raw bacon into the soup, I thought, would end up being a flabby mess; instead, the cooked meat practically disintegrated and added smoky depth to the soup. The best compliment I could give this recipe was it tasted like it came from a restaurant.

This was perhaps too many words spent for a realization so simple: I was amazed the bare combination of onions, chicken broth, and time could produce a bistro-quality dish I've longed wanted to make at home. No frills were required, no expensive roasted bones needed, just the sweetness Mother Nature imparted in her onions and grapes. A show-stopping soup if there ever was one, this recipe's ease-to-impressiveness ratio is in the home cook's favor.

Tomorrow: Beef bourguignon, perhaps the easiest recipe in the cookbook to tackle.