101 Ways to cook perfect potatoes
It’s credited with the rise of the Western world and industrialised agriculture; it’s been associated with witchcraft, and its flowers worn by royalty have sparked fashion trends; artists have painted it and there are at least 13 museums around the globe dedicated to it. It’s a daily staple in almost every corner of the world, as likely to be found in a corner takeaway as on a fine dining menu.
Potatoes might seem like an obvious topic for an Irish chef, but in fact it was a French chef who inspired the title of this book many years ago with a throwaway remark that spurred me on to prove I could do more than cook potatoes.
My relationship with potatoes is personal. They ruled my childhood and, as for so many who start out at the bottom in a restaurant kitchen, they were a key part of my journey as a young chef.
Growing up in a working-class home in the Republic of Ireland of the 1970s, the potato harvest season meant we were allowed to stay off school to help pick potatoes, because potatoes meant income for families.
This happened in mid-winter, rainier than usual even for Ireland, freezing cold and muddy, and we’d be bent over the furrows all day long to scrape potatoes out of the wet soil and fill a bag. When no more potatoes were to be found, you yelled “bring the digger”, which meant the supervisor of the plot would come and turn the soil to reveal more of the deeply-buried tubers to be grubbed out with your hands.
The first time I did this, I was seven years old, and I remember it like it was yesterday.
My second potato-memory goes back to my first day in a professional kitchen and my introduction to “Lucy” – a garbage bin full of icy-cold water. My first job was to peel enough potatoes to fill three Lucys, and I did this every day, for months.
Still my most terrifying potato experience was a few years later, when as a trainee chef I almost wrecked a wedding dinner for 600 people by not paying enough attention to the industrial-size mixer/mincer used for mashing the potatoes. I produced a grey, gooey mess and had to ‘fess up to the hotel’s notoriously fearsome head chef, quaking in my boots just as the main course was about to be served.
Incredibly, he never shouted at me once, just got me running to rescue the disaster with instant “smash” potato …
But once the main course was out, he said to me: “When this wedding is over, you had better run. Because I am going to kill you.”
Sure enough, I ran.
The encounter that gave this book its title happened when I was 17, newly-qualified and freshly landed in New York.
“From Ireland are you? Can you cook anything but potatoes?” became a familiar refrain at every job interview.
One day, I went for an interview at the Plaza Hotel – the crème de la crème of hotels, owned by Donald Trump at the time, where they could have their pick of the best chefs.
The ever-elegant Bruno Tison, the hotel’s French executive chef, his chef’s whites sparkling, a wall of awards glittering behind him, peered at me from behind his desk and asked: “So what do you have to offer? 101 ways to cook potatoes?”
At the same time as I thought that would make a great title for a recipe book someday, I also never forgave him for that.
In those days, you never knew when Trump might appear in the restaurant looking for dinner and, as luck would have it, the night that Hervé Riou, head chef in the Plaza’s Edwardian Room, had risked taking the night off and left me alone in the kitchen, the big boss did just that.
I pulled out all the stops on his requested steak and fries – cutting the best piece from the centre of a whole sirloin, seasoning and basting it with care as it seared in the pan, while making a bearnaise sauce and deep-frying potato chips then finishing them in duck fat.
Trump called for Bruno and then for Hervé, at which point the staff had to admit that this young Irishman was the one who had cooked what he called “the best steak I’ve eaten in my life”.
Having hastily pulled on a clean chef’s outfit, I presented myself to Trump, who asked where in France I was from, to which I told him, to his astonishment, that I was Irish.
After that, he came in regularly, asking for his steak done the way he had it the last time, with “those Irish French fries”.
And to Hervé’s great distress, I left the Plaza not long after, with bucket loads of experience, memorable encounters, and the idea for this book tucked away in the back of my head.
The recipes highlight the versatility of the potato – from simple, comfort food through to intricate and elegant cuisine, working as an appetiser or main dish, hot or cold.
Some are old family recipes, others are classics given a contemporary twist, some are inspired by global cuisine.
All are intended to offer inspiration in these 101 ways to present potatoes – perfectly.