For three years Laurent and Valerie Devin have been running Elaine Bistro in Windsor according to the well-established rules of French cuisine. They cater to a clientele that values that time-honored tradition. Many have been to France and "know exactly what they’re looking for," says Laurent. That could mean red deer tenderloin in a red wine sauce, or duck maigret, or rack of lamb in an herb crust. Onion soup, yes, but of a class that has little in common with the American version that appears to be in competition with a cheeseburger.
The Devins purposely chose a 30-seat location so that they could do it all themselves. Laurent employs no sous-chefs or line cooks. "I don’t have to worry about people squeezing me from above, or how the people below me are going to execute what I tell them to do," he says with satisfaction. "The message goes directly from my brain to my 10 fingers. I know that the quality of the decisions will be pretty good, and that they will be transmitted accurately."
Devin began studying cooking in earnest at the age of 14, graduating from a boarding school in the north of France with a technical degree and later taking a master of business administration in hotel and restaurant management. Asked if there were particular chefs who inspired him, he says, "In France, everyone is taught exactly the same things, in the same ways. If you follow them, that’s roughly French food."
I watched one Friday morning as Devin made coq au vin in his one-man kitchen, destined to become a special for that weekend’s diners. This is not haute cuisine but peasant food, an ancient recipe, designed to tenderize a tough old bird — coq means rooster. Boeuf bourguignon, likewise, said Devin, is meant to contend with a tougher cut of meat. "We’re like the Chinese," he said. "We use everything."
The methods and ingredients Devin uses are disarmingly simple — there’s no reason why anyone can’t try this at home. I was impressed by the fact that not once did Devin use a spoon — instead he shook the pan to bounce the ingredients — but you’re allowed.
First, Devin prepared his mise en place, which simply means getting everything ready beforehand so that you’re not frantically searching for something or still slicing the onions the moment after they’re supposed to be added. He chopped a couple of 4-pound local chickens into serving pieces, since in modern North America roosters aren’t available. The birds were of good quality, with firm flesh, he said. The next step up would be free-range chickens, which have stronger, darker, more flavorful bones.
Into a deep, well-used pot, Devin plopped a big blob of canola oil margarine and a little oil. Margarine is less likely to burn and is healthier than butter, Devin explained. And it’s cheaper. I wondered what his teachers would have said. He then seared the chicken pieces a few at a time. The idea was not to thoroughly brown the skin but just to lock in the juices; the color was golden yellow to light brown. Without this step, the meat would fall apart too much. The sizzling was music to a cook’s ears.
Once all the pieces were seared, Devin returned them to the pot and sprinkled them, in layers, with flour, about a quarter of a cup total. Too much might mean you could taste the flour, which is to be avoided.
Next, a cup or so of L’Epayrié, a red table wine. "Lots of restaurants use this for their house wine," said Devin. "I use it for my cooking wine." Then 2 ounces of cognac. Light it and let the flames die naturally. "The cognac is to bring a little bite," said Devin.
He then covered the birds with more L’Epayrié, about a liter and a half, or two bottles. Imagine being from a country in which it’s considered thrifty to use lots of wine to save a marginal fowl. Devin then tossed in some bouquet garni (not tied up in a little cheesecloth bag as he’d learned in school), some sprigs of thyme he’d dried himself, still on the stalk, and a few bay leaves.
He covered the pot, brought the wine to a boil, and then put the pot into a preheated 350-degree oven. There it would stay for the next hour. As he continued to work and we continued to talk, a rich, golden aroma filled the little restaurant, which is open to the kitchen.
Next came what Devin called the garnishes. Americans think of garnish as "decorative parsley," but in this case they’re bacon, onions and mushrooms, an integral part of the dish.
Devin threw a cup and a half of cubed bacon into a skillet and proceeded to toss it around the way a professional omelet cook would. This was not your sliced Thorn Apple Valley but lard de poitrine demi-sel, from the belly of the pig, Devin explained — much more meat than fat. You can find it in some fancier markets. If you don’t, you can use American-style bacon, but "degrease it a lot or it will give a film to the sauce." It’s hard for me to imagine, though, that skinny strips could add the same feel to the dish as those delectable cubes.
Once it was browned, Devin drained the bacon into a pan, leaving what little fat it had rendered in the skillet. He tossed in a large onion, chopped — just an ordinary yellow onion, since the tiny white French ones are not available here. When the onions were medium brown, they too were set aside. Put a little oil in the pan, add three-quarters of a pound of everyday mushrooms and cover them. "Make them sweat," said Devin, i.e., give up their juices. And they too were set aside to wait the emergence of the birds from the oven.
When that happened, Devin would remove the chicken pieces, strain the sauce and boil it down a bit, "till it makes a nice glaze on the spoon, nice and oily." Actually, since coq au vin is better the second day, he would stop just a bit before that point. He’d add the garnishes to the pot, return the chicken and let it all sit in the fridge for a day.
Reheating on Saturday, with a bit of chopped garlic, would bring the sauce to just the right texture. Only here would the salt and pepper be added. "You never know how much the bacon is going to release of salt; you never know how the concentration is going to be," said Devin, "so you just do it at the end, how much you need."
It’s traditional to serve coq au vin with boiled potatoes. But Devin would serve his "family style." He’d make a "volcano" of mashed potatoes, with the coq au vin in the center, and let the plush, lovely sauce soak into the spuds. I would say that’s a good family to be adopted into.
You can sign up for an e-mail list for Elaine’s special event nights, such as the "Chateau Talbot" night coming up. It’s worth mentioning that the most expensive item on the Devins’ menu is $23.50 Canadian.
Read other chefs' stories in Chow!! (this week's special restaurant collection):
• Tribute's Takashi Yagihashi refines the yin and yang of multicultural cuisine.
• Mind-morphing means sweet surrender to Agave's chef Carlos Bonilla.
• Udipi's Thilagam Pandian cooks her way to places of the heart.
• Loving Spoonful ladles out the full flavor of Shawn Loving's approach.
Jane Slaughter writes about restaurants and cuisines for Metro Times. E-mail email@example.com