This story—on craft, care, and the French way with eggs—was originally published in the late, great Gourmet magazine, March 2008. We're bringing it back in honor of French Week on Gilt Taste. – Ed.
I hit it once, just once, but it was beautiful. It was exam time and I was nervous, waiting for my turn. I had the proper fire. The heat felt right. I made smooth, swirling passes with my spatula, and when I rolled my pan over the plate, I knew it. Chef took a look at my omelet and squinted at me. He poked at it, pinched it, and then he knew, too. He called out to the class, "When you show me yours, I want it to look like this." He set the plate in the window for the rest of the school to see, then turned around and gave me a quick wink.
Before Chef Skibitcky got ahold of my brain, I, like every other rational person, thought an omelet was something anyone can make. You throw eggs in a pan, stir them around, fold them in half, and put them on a plate. Done. No-brainer. It only gets interesting when you start tossing in other things—ham, some cheese, maybe a sautéed mushroom or two. Once, there was an omelet contest in my college cafeteria. The winner had it all wrapped up the minute he pulled an avocado and a wedge of Brie out of his bag. Young girls screamed and old men yelled. I stood and watched quietly, respecting him.
But there I was, years later, waking up at 2 a.m. for a class called a.m. Pantry. Still half asleep, I listened to Chef Skibitcky talk about French omelets, about how Escoffier himself used to test his prospective cooks by watching them make one. I perked up. I'd heard of roasting a chicken as a litmus test for cooks before, but an omelet? Really? What did they put in it?
Three eggs, salt, pepper, and a little butter. That's all Chef had in front of him when he began his demonstration. I was skeptical. He started to swirl the liquid in the pan, his hands moving slowly at first, deliberately. He curled his wrist and snapped into a sweeping motion, gathering all the eggs back together with his spatula. He shook the handle gently, his movements getting gradually faster. There was something going on here. I saw how careful he was to watch and respond to the eggs, even if I didn't know exactly what he was watching. He gave the pan a good whack with his fist and rolled it over a plate. The omelet slid out, tucking itself into a tidy cigar shape.
We passed it around to taste, and I couldn't believe what I was eating. It was fantastically tender, almost slippery with creaminess. Not quite scrambled and not quite custard, it hit my mouth and dissolved in a cloud of butter and egg. I raised my fork for a third bite, but the other students started looking at me funny. Reluctantly, I passed the plate along.
I wanted more. It wasn't just that it was delicious; it was that I realized that at that moment I was seeing for the first time something I thought I'd known my whole life. Like how, if you grew up with tomato-shaped rocks from supermarkets, your first explosive bite into a tomato off the vine in August shows you what a tomato really is.
Chef made another one, talking us through what he was seeing. It's a precarious balancing act—you want the pan hot enough so the eggs don't stick, but not so hot that they cook unevenly. You want to beat the eggs so that they're fully blended, but not so much that they get foamy and dry out in the pan. You want to cook them gently so that they're smooth and creamy, but not so soft that they weep. We weren't even at the good part yet, and this was really starting to not seem like something anyone can make.
Quickly now, Chef shook and stirred until the very last drops of liquid egg hit the bottom of the pan at the exact same moment, cooking together to form a thin sheet that, when rolled, wrapped around the moist curd inside. "You want baby skin," he kept saying. "Not elephant skin." In other words, you have to set the skin just enough so that it can hold the omelet together, but not so much that it gets wrinkled and rubbery. And then you have to make sure that you cook it long enough so that it develops a little flavor, but not so long that it browns and loses its delicacy.
It was astounding how something so commonplace, so elemental, could have so many variables. You just have to learn to see all those variables, to recognize what effect every moment of heat, every motion of the hands has. To get back to that thing I tasted, I would have to know exactly what to look for and nail it every step of the way.
Three eggs, salt, pepper, and a little butter. That's all there is in a classic French omelet, but it's enough to keep reteaching me this vital lesson: Things are only simple when you've stopped asking the right questions of them, when you've stopped finding new ways to see them. Because what you find, when you learn how to find it, is that even simple things can be wonderfully, frustratingly, world-openingly complex.
It's been half a decade since Chef taught me that lesson, since that morning when I went home and rolled out omelet after awful omelet until my roommate woke up to find plates covering every level surface in our kitchen. Eventually, I let my obsession revert to a healthy level of interest, until a couple of months ago, when I went out to breakfast with a friend. She thought the place was sketchy but ordered anyway, saying to me, "I figured, 'How badly can you screw up an omelet?'"
It was time, I decided right then and there, to get back in touch with my inner egg philosopher. Not long after, I invited some friends over for brunch. Twenty of them.
My guests trickled in, some still groggy and wielding bottles of cheap sparkling wine because nothing cures a hangover like the thing that caused it. As they mingled and mixed Mimosas, I put together my station at the stove. I picked up my pan and held it to my face to check the heat, a weird little habit I picked up somewhere along the way. It was time.
I put a ladle into my clarified butter, grabbed hold of my spatula, took a meditative breath, and promptly mangled my first omelet. It was brutal. The pan was way too hot, the eggs fried instantly, and the skin wasn't elephant skin, it was geriatric-elephant skin. It flopped out like a pancake when I tried to roll it onto the plate.
I gave it to the drunkest guy in the house.
My next two were similarly disgraceful, and I was running out of drunk guests. But soon things began to pick up. The heat was getting intense in my little kitchen; I was sweating through a film of butter. I was starting to feel like a cook again, and somewhere around my 13th try, there were a few that were pretty good. If an omelet can be art, can teach me a new way to see the world, it's funny that I had to feel like a laborer before I could make it.
Still, by the end of the morning, perfection was a long way away. If the beauty of the omelet is its seeming simplicity, that simplicity is unforgiving. Either you nail it and it's transcendent, or it's, well, just eggs. I needed a brush-up on my technique, but Chef Skibitcky had moved across the country. I called in a ringer.
Daniel Boulud is perhaps the finest French chef in America. He is certainly one of the most classically trained, winning national recognition when he was an apprentice in Lyon, where he had to knock out 30 omelets in a row for a staff meal. Today, though, he is a restaurant magnate with a presidential smile, a refined air, a team of beautiful assistants—far removed from his days as a cook, even further from his days as an apprentice.
So, despite his credentials, I didn't expect him to come out firing when I visited him in his restaurant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. But he was on it before he even took his seat. "To understand the omelet, you have to understand what the omelet represents," he said as he walked in. "You have to understand what the omelet means." Wait a minute, I think we're on the same page.
He started talking about his technique, how he likes to stir finely diced butter into the raw egg so that it melts on the heat, insulating the eggs and controlling how they curdle. He talked about using forks to work the pan because they break up the curds as they form, keeping them tender and creamy, rather than a spatula that just lifts and slaps around big sheets of egg. He talked about finishing the omelet with a touch of butter and a tiny kiss of high heat. He referred to this as "toasting" the eggs but then took it back. He tried "sear" but decided against that, too. He used these words gingerly, knowing that he didn't really mean them. For a man so articulate with the language of food, it's interesting that he struggled for the exact words here. Maybe our high-heat, ass-kicking cooking culture is so invested in brawny terms for powerhouse techniques that we lack words for an effect as subtle as the one he was describing.
As he talked, he motioned with his hands, illustrating his points with miming gestures the way I see only cooks do. I noticed a few burns and scars on his knuckles. They looked fresh.
He asked me about the pan I use, the type and the size, then paused thoughtfully. A second later, he held his thumb and forefinger maybe a centimeter apart. "So you have this much egg in your pan?" I nodded yes, but to be honest, I had no idea. It could be that much, it could be twice that much—I had never noticed. And yet, with just the information I gave him, he thought through the ratios of diameter and volume and could visualize what the beginnings of my omelet looked like. (He was right, by the way.) "Your Teflon pan gives a little magic ease," he said. "Black steel is more capricious." My pan would do, but a well-seasoned black steel pan would be better; it would let me use metal forks, and its angled corners would give the omelet a lip to roll out more evenly.
I scribbled furiously in my notebook, giddy with the sensation of having my mind blown and suppressing the urge to yell, "Yes! Yes! Of course!" When I sat down with Boulud, I thought that I had the theory of the omelet down, that I might just ask him for something like a little tip on how to shake the pan, or how to tell if the heat was right. Instead, our conversation revealed how much deeper he had thought about this than I ever had. The more you learn about something, the more you find out there's more to learn, and I was swimming in new questions.
We talked for almost an hour, causing one of his beautiful assistants to remind him that he was well late to his next meeting. He waved off the warning, pulling down an enormous book on the history of French cuisine to see what it had to say about omelets. In that moment, this Chef, this magnate, looked like an eager young cook again. A cook aiming for the top, because even though we were talking about eggs, we knew what we were really talking about was perfection, about giving the idea of perfection a physical form.
I left and immediately got myself a black steel pan. I've been scouring it with salt and oil to season it ever since, understanding that I'm deeper in a hole, further away from making my ideal omelet than I realized. The other day, as I was scrubbing on my pan again, trying to make new metal old, a friend found me. Gently, but sort of pityingly, she asked, "What … are you doing?"
Okay, so maybe it's a little much, this obsession of mine. But tell me: How many places in your life do you know, really know, what perfection looks like? How many ways do you know to chase after perfection?
For me, the first step is to figure out how to keep my pan from rusting.