"Turned" vegetables, or, more properly, vegetables "tournée" (tour-nay) are part and parcel of classic French cooking. The term refers to the carving of a vegetable -- usually from the root family -- into numerous oblong shapes of identical size and equal number of sides (five or seven). A small paring knife (straight-edge) or bird's beak knife (curved to a point like a beak) is used to pare the vegetables into these slender barrel shapes. There are varying sizes of cuts within the tournée repertoir: château (2.5 inches long, 1.5 inches thick); anglaise (2 inches long, 1 inch thick); cocotte (1 inch, 0.5 inches);and olive (0.5 inch, 0.25 inch).
Every culinary student has to grapple with the process, and it always starts in frustration: getting uniformity of size and cuts is much more difficult than it looks. Another tricky knife skill to tackle is "fluting" a mushroom, which is to take a paring knife and peel the uppermost membrane of skin from the cap, then using the knife to whittle the cap into a swirled pattern. When sautéed on high heat, the un-sculpted part of the cap browns to a darker extent than the carved crevices, which makes for an alluring two-tone presentation. Whether one is turning vegetables or fluting mushrooms, it is imperative to have a plan for leftover parts that have been cut away (for instance: mashed potatoes, carrot puree, apple sauce, cream of mushroom soup, etc.).
Most French stews will feature a tournée of potatoes, carrots, turnips and the like because the vegetables cook evenly, look attractive, and are conveniently bite-size. No respectable navarin of lamb would be without them. And when getting sautéed or browned, the turned shapes roll around easily in the pan and are conducive to even coloring (and, again, even cooking). A small cluster of equal-size purple beet, white turnip, and orange carrot can look gorgeous on a plate.
Fruits and non-root vegetables can likewise be turned -- zucchini, yellow squash, cucumbers, broccoli stems, celery, apples, pears...the only real qualification is to be of firm-enough texture.
When is the last time you took out a bird's beak knife and prepared vegetables tournée?
Jeff McInnis: I'm actually doing it as we speak for the Yardbird menu.
Jarrod Verbiak: Actually, last week, just before heading on vacation. I do it whenever there's down time in the kitchen as a perfect task to train our young cooks. We may not serve many dishes with classically "turned" vegetables, but for our Steak Frites we serve our own modern version of a turned potato. We start with a long narrow Idaho, cut it into wedges, and turn them into long banana-shaped pieces -- we don't count the sides, but the lineage is there. It's an excellent method for developing dexterity, speed and precision with your knife skills. And you're going to need superior knife skills no matter what kind of cooking you're doing.
Michael Bloise: A few months ago. Some of my cooks were attending Johnson and Wales and needed some extra schoolin' if you know what I mean.
Alex Pinero: The last time I used a bird's beak knife was at Casa Tua about four years ago.
Verbiak: It's been awhile, and it was really just to teach a cook knife skills.
Bloise: Fluting 'shrooms wasn't something required in the restaurant I worked at, but I'd practice at it anyways. I tried some a few months ago as well, just for fun.
Any other reason besides labor-intensiveness that chefs don't do these things much anymore? Are they dying arts?
McInnis: On the contrary, while these are labor-intensive processes, I still do both quite a bit as the outcome is impressive.
Verbiak: It may be dying in some places, but we make a point of taking culinary tradition and reinterpreting it in fresh new ways, combining technique, creativity, and innovation. Styles and tastes change, but this is still simply a part of the discipline and repertoire a professional chef should have, a sort of rite of passage. You can't progress without firm foundations. A task like turning vegetables teaches care and attention to detail. If a young cook has just spent 40 minutes painstakingly turning vegetables, you can bet he'll take extra good care of watching over them on the stove.
Zakarian: Well I personally believe that a more natural state of things appeals to people today. Also I loathe handling food too much. A lot of food is disassembled, then put back into unrecognized forms. This to me is torturing the product.
Pinero: I don't think that fluting a mushroom adds any beauty to it. I think sourcing impeccable mushrooms is a better idea.
Bloise: I feel like it's superficial and wasteful. When I began creating my dishes, I decided to focus more on coaxing favors out of the ingredients rather than superficial presentations. Does a boiled turned potato taste differently than a cubed one? I could give a flying fuck about getting criss-cross marks on my steak -- I'd rather get a hard sear on ALL of the meat, not just 45% of it, you know? Woo, got a little fired up there. Point is, for me, making food taste good is the priority. Maybe turning veggies and such is a little showy and antiquated. I prefer to be more unassuming.