FRENCH ONION SOUP: AN ODE TO THE LATE KEVIN WILSON

Pictured above: Ferocious French Onion Soup that’s ready to be devoured—Jump into the screen and go for it!

French Onion Soup, courtesy of The LATE Chef, Kevin Wilson (RIP), and brought to you by the wanna be gourmet, Evan J.

The anecdote:
I’ve worked various catering jobs during the day in Seattle, while attaining my Master’s in Teaching at night (2000-2003). At first, I was employed in several Temp Agencies, which required me to be on call by 4:30 AM, work a mystery job until late afternoon, and then get to my 4-hour Graduate class. This routine was consistent during the week, so you can imagine that there were very few dull moments and a major dose of sleep deprivation. Moving forward, these catering jobs required me to wear several hats: Barista, cashier, line cook, cater events ranging from 100-3,000 people, muffin maker, salad bar specialist, inventory stock boy, prep, and grill cook (bordering or chef, but never getting recognition for it), etc. Then, I was hired permanently in a hospital setting on Capitol Hill in Seattle (you thought it was D.C.). Luckily, I was trained to do all of the above. While working there (an undisclosed location around 15th Avenue), I was fortunate to meet Kevin Wilson, a talented Chef. Just like Rachel Ray, Kevin did not attend a cooking school to learn about French techniques, multiple facets of the food industry, ice sculpting, wine tasting and pairing, reading several HUGE culinary texts, and other mandatory requirements to attain a degree. However, both Rachel and Kevin are talented; they possess an innate sense of culinary mastery. They learned tricks of the trade via some type of mentor and on the job training. Rachel is already famous so continually discussing her life is moot. In contrast, Kevin and I worked together daily. I didn’t realize it at first, but I was inevitably guided under Kevin’s tutelage to master tricks of the trade.

One day, the perfunctory New England Clam Chowder couldn’t be made, and a soup du jour was a necessary Lunch staple. Our manager, a whirling dervish with carpentry skills, was dumbfounded (a common occurrence) and deferred to Kevin to whip up a soup. Kevin was resourceful and told him that he could make a French Onion Soup to knock people’s socks off. The (ahem) manager agreed (like the shmendrick had a choice) and Kevin began his prep. Kevin prepared the mise en place: Onions, day old bread, Beef bones for a stock, Mirepoix, clarified butter, Sherry Wine, and Swiss Cheese. I’m guessing that the French developed the idea of French Onion Soup based upon leftovers, maintaining food costs, and resourcefulness…

I had my catering duties, but was able to take glimpses of Kevin’s soup making process. Later on, Kevin explained all of it. Then, he asked me to taste it before service began. I had a problem: My eyes rolled so far back into my head and had to be straightened out prior to the customer’s arrival. IT WAS THE ABSOLUTE BEST FRENCH ONION SOUP OF MY LIFETIME. I have many memories of Kevin’s cooking mastery…Prior to the French Onion Soup, Kevin would bring luscious desserts into work and share with the staff. The Cheesecake variations and Bread Pudding really stood out. Then, he prepared various sauces for the Bread Pudding: Port Zabaglione, some Rum concoction, Crème Anglaise, etc. Naturally, I was the major Guinea Pig, sampled all of the succulent variations, and gained several pounds. Kevin was rarely satisfied because he thought that there was always room for improvement. As for me, I still had that aforementioned eye rolling issue… Kevin was laid off from the catering job and became a well-respected Fish Monger in Seattle. I visited him whenever I could. Inevitably, I moved back to the East Coast to begin my teaching career in New York City. Shortly after that, Kevin passed away. However, I cherish both the good times and his priceless cooking knowledge. To wrap it all up, I did my best to reproduce and honor Kevin’s cooking legacy. I hope that my inspired version does some justice. It’s time to cook:

Ingredients:
1 tbs. of E.V.O.O. to coat the Dutch Oven
1 tbs. of Clarified butter (unsalted)
Several onions (2-3 medium) sliced 1/8″ THIN. I prefer Yellow, Sweet, Walla Walla, or White onions
1 tsp. of Cornstarch and water
1-2 quarts of a thoughtfully crafted Beef Stock; avoid salty versions
1 can of low sodium Chicken Broth
1 tsp.+ Pale Dry Sherry to taste
1-3 tsps. Worcestershire sauce to taste
French bread or day old bread -cut into cubes; light shmear of olive oil & minced Garlic (peppery E.V.O.O. is preferred)
Gruyere or other tasty Swiss cheese (If you’re not into Swiss, use Provolone or Muenster—you won’t be a purist, but you’ll still enjoy the soup)

Modus Operandi:
Prepare Beef Stock ahead of time, but keep hot on a low flame while preparing onions. There are some boxed versions to save time if you’re in a hurry, E.G. Rachel Ray. She pays me nothing, but saves time if I’m pressed.

Carmelize onions in E.V.O.O. and clarified butter- use a 4-quart stock pot or Dutch Oven.

Add Beef Stock to the carmelized onions and the sherry. At this point, you can choose to thicken it up with the Cornstarch–it really is a personal thing–Do you want a thicker French Onion consistency? It’s your call.

Add all of the Chicken Broth and the Worcestershire to taste. Maintain a low-medium boil for about 10+ minutes so the flavors blend (“yeah, you blend…” My Cousin Vinny).

Optional: some people add Soy Sauce for Salt content and a drop of Molasses for extra sweetness. Again, the choice is yours. As for me, I’m not a fan of hardcore salt as I like to control it whenever possible. And besides, people can add their own salt.

Pour the Onion Soup mixture into an oven safe ceramic bowl.  If you lack one of these, go to a thrift store and buy an old fashioned, brown crock soup bowl with a handle – should be about $1.00-$2.00 in U.S. currency.  Check out the picture at the beginning and end of this Blog…

Place one or two pieces of Swiss atop the coated bread cubes; put under a broiler element and brown the cheese. Obviously, don’t burn the cheese or you’ll want to invest in a different career, while you master anger management techniques.

Do I garnish the thing? Well, I guess you can sprinkle some Italian Seasoning, or Fresh Parsley… The green color will make it cute and digital camera material for uploading to Facebook…It’s the little things that add up to a big difference in any dish. Experiment, make it better, drop me a line. I always put the energy out there for improvement and “good eats.”You can also tell that I’ve been duping lines from Food Network without really ripping them off from start to finish.

Again, some of you have been holding back your comments. If you have ideas for a recipe and want to air it on my page for free, I’m okay with that. Just make sure your food contains love!

Best, Evan J. “wanna be” gourmet.

DIG IN AND ENJOY!