André Soltner remembers when you couldn’t buy shallots in America. He remembers when you couldn’t buy crème fraîche either. He remembers because he is responsible for bringing them here. During his thirty-four year tenure as the chef of Lutèce, Soltner was the godfather of French cooking in America. Now he spends his days as the dean of classics at the International Culinary Center. We spent an afternoon under his tutelage, learning about mother sauces, or as we came to learn they were called, les fonds. —Ryan Healey
Mother sauces were the first things I learned when I started my apprenticeship in 1948. They’re the foundation of cooking, especially French cooking. But we don’t call them mother sauces in French; we call them les fonds, the basics. According to Escoffier, the first person to codify them, there are five of les fonds: espagnole, hollandaise, béchamel, tomat, and velouté. From each of these, you can make fifty or more other sauces. I spent the three years of my apprenticeship learning them.
I simplify it further: the true fonds to me are brown stock and white stock. For brown stock, you roast veal bones and then put them in a pot with vegetables and water. We used to cook it for twenty-four hours but now I think three or four is better. The gelatin and flavor is extracted from the bones by then; there’s no need to cook it longer. From there, you can thicken the stock with a roux—butter cooked together with flour—and add truffle juice to make a truffle sauce, or madeira to make a madeira sauce. If you do that same process with chicken or fish bones, you get a white stock. Bind that with roux and you get a velouté.
For home cooks, mother sauces are not as important. If you sauté a steak, you have residue left in the bottom of the pan that you can add a little port or vinegar to and make a sauce. But if you’re cooking for more people, you can’t do that. That is why restaurants need to use stocks.
At Lutèce, stocks were the first things we made every day. By five or six o’clock in the morning they were on the stove. By nine or ten, we’d strain the stocks and have them fresh for the day. Since they require so few ingredients, it’s really important to only use the best-quality ingredients. No, you don’t use filet mignon, but you have to make the stocks with fresh bones—never frozen—and good, fresh carrots and leeks. That’s makes the difference between a good stock and a bad stock.
The roux is also important, but maybe not as important as Escoffier said. He has three different types of roux: white, pale, and brown. But for me, I think just a pale one will do. You want to cook it just enough so you don’t taste the flour in your sauces; if you cook it for too long, it gets bitter. Sometimes instead of a roux, I make a beurre manié, which is just flour and butter kneaded together. That’s more useful for making quick pan sauces, when I don’t want to add more liquid.
As for the other mother sauces that Escoffier wrote about, they are not as popular now as they were sixty, seventy, a hundred years ago.
But it all comes back to the white stock and brown stock. These are the basics. Without them you cannot cook. These should be the same for all chefs but I am worried because in the past ten years, we have gotten away from these sauces. This has happened before. Forty years ago, when nouvelle cuisine was in vogue, chefs thought that roux-thickened sauces were too heavy. They tried to thicken sauces with purées or arrowroot or just butter. I think they were wrong, but we’re seeing it again. The younger generation of chefs doesn’t know how to make them. If they haven’t learned, they might be able to cook nicely—but they will not be able to cook properly.