The Origins of Oysters Rockefeller

by François de Mélogue

Recently I had the great pleasure of working with father and son restaurateurs Kaiser and Lee Morcus in reinventing their steakhouse menu at ‘Chop House’, located on Highway 111 in Palm Desert. If you are a bar habitué you may have noticed a lot of mixologists have sections for retro and classic cocktails alongside modern and sometimes very innovative creations. I have sampled forgotten classics like Corpse Reviver (late 19th century) and Police Gazette Cocktail (1901) next to modern takes on Bellini’s and Mai Tai’s to inspired combinations like the Snap Pea Southside. I always thought the same approach would be well suited for restaurants, particularly steakhouses where food expectations are more classically rooted.

One of the dishes I added is Baked Oysters Rockefeller modeled after the original recipe developed in 1899 by Jules Alciatore, son of Antoine’s founder Antoine Alciatore. The story goes that at the time there was a shortage of escargots coming from France and Jules, being a resourceful lad, substituted abundantly available oysters for the hard to get escargot in the classic dish Escargots Bourguignonne. New Orleans recipes always varied from their French cousins through additions of local flavor and culture.

In Roy F. Guste, Jr. book ‘Antoine’s Restaurant’ he offers a recipe for Escargots Bourguignonne made with a sauce of minced parsley, minced green onions, minced garlic and a copious quantity of butter upon which Oysters Rockefeller is thought to be based. Conversely in Delmonico’s Executive Chef Charles Ranhofer’s (chef from 1862 to 1896) recipe for ‘Edible Snails a la Bourguignonne’ printed in his massive tome, The Epicurean circa 1894, we see a more classic approach to the snail dish. He cites butter, parsley, chives, lemon juice and breadcrumbs as the key ingredients.

While sifting through my collection of cook books, I found ‘A Book of Famous Old New Orleans Recipes Used in the South for More Than 200 Years” written in 1900 that gives a very early recorded recipe of the oyster dish. Though the ingredients of the original Oyster Rockefeller recipe have been a closely guarded family secret since its inception, several laboratory analyses have been conducted and concluded a mirroring of ingredients between the two recipes. It is interesting to note how time has changed the original pureed herb combination to creamed spinach and Hollandaise or even Parmesan cream. Recently testing the original version I feel it has more character and bears closer resemblance to its escargot root.

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Mrs. Ella Bentley Arthur writes in ‘Mme. Bégue’s Recipes of Old New Orleans Creole Cookery’, 1937 “this is a dish for which New Orleans is noted and proves an epicurean delight to those who are introduced to it for the first time. Its richness gives it its commonly-used title, but the old-time Creole bon vivant knows it as Huîtres a la Montpelier. The secret of preparing oysters in this fashion has been jealously guarded by the noted restaurateurs of New Orleans, and this recipe was the first ever printed of this unusual and delicious oyster dish.

The sauce for Oysters Rockefeller is made by previously preparing parsley, spinach, celery and onion tops and other greens, in a meat grinder; the greens must be ground very fine; to this add the juice of lemon and melted butter. One tablespoonful of this sauce is poured over each oyster when being taken from the shells, and just before serving.”

The ‘Picayune Creole Cook Book’ from 1902 adds bacon as an important ingredient. ‘Long Island Seafood Cook Book’ written in 1939 gives a variation entitled Oysters, Gourmet Society in which oysters are baked with minced parsley, spinach, spring onions, breadcrumbs, tobacco sauce and butter. The author claims it to be a deviation of the original Rockefeller recipe leaving out the essential absinthe, which was banned in the United States since 1915. Herbsaint replaced absinthe after prohibition, which lasted from 1920 to 1933. Herbsaint, an anise based liquor was created in 1934 by J. Marion Legendre and Reginald Parker who learned how to make Absinthe during World War I.

The Final Word:

“The original recipe is still a secret that I will not divulge. As many times as I have seen recipes printed in books and articles, I can honestly say that I have never found the original outside of Antoine’s. If you care to concoct your version, I would tell you only that the sauce is basically a puree of a number of green vegetables other than spinach.”

Bonne Chance!

Roy F. Guste Jr., great grandson of Jules Alciatore.

To sample this classic oyster dish please come join us for dinner at Chop House, 760.779.9888, located at 74040 Hwy 111, Palm Desert.

Here is our recipe:

Chop House Oysters Rockefeller

ingredients for four servings:

1/2 # Butter

¼ c. Celery, finely chopped

1 bunch Scallions, finely chopped

1/4 c. Parsley, finely chopped

1 T. Worcestershire Sauce

dash of Tabasco Sauce

1/4 cup Pernod

1/2 cup Panko

16 each Oysters

Directions:

Melt butter; add celery, scallions and parsley. Sauté five minutes, or until greens are tender and soft. Add Worcestershire and Tabasco, reduce heat and cook ten minutes. Add Pernod and Panko, cook 5 minutes. Cool. Beat mixture in mixer till light and fluffy. Spoon onto shucked oysters, put shells on rock salt to steady them, bake at 500 degrees till bubbly hot, about five minutes.

Artichoke and Goat Cheese Tarte Tatin Recipe

Artichoke Tarte Tatin

Chef François de Mélogue, the still unnamed restaurant in La Quinta

Ingredients for four servings:

1 each                       Red Bell Pepper

1 each                       Onion

1 each                       Fennel

4 each                       globe Artichokes

¼ cup                        Olive Oil

1 each                       Lemon, washed

2 ounces                   fresh Goat Cheese

1 ounce                    grated Parmesan

4 each                      Puff Pastry Circles (cut same diameter as tart pan)

Directions:

Julienne red pepper, onion and fennel, then sauté till tender.  You will have more than you need for four tarts.  Peel artichokes using a sharp paring knife carefully cutting around the bottom.  Continue trimming artichoke bottom till all the outer leaves are removed and there are no more green spots.  Use a spoon to scoop out the choke.  Cook the four bottoms in salted water mixed with olive oil and sliced lemon.   The lemon helps keep the artichoke from oxidizing.  The artichokes are cooked when a paring knife easily pierces the bottoms.  Remove and chill.

Sprinkle a little olive oil into the bottoms of four small tart pans, about four inches in diameter.  Slice each artichoke thinly and lay in bottom of tart pan.  Top with a tablespoon of julienned vegetable and ½ ounce of goat cheese.  Sprinkle parmesan over.  Then lay puff pastry circle over, pressing the edges firmly around the tart.  Bake at 450 till golden brown, about 12 minutes.  Invert onto warm plate.  Spoon olive emulsion on top, drizzle some basil oil around and enjoy.

Olive Emulsion

1/4 cup                    chopped pitted Niçoise Olives

3 each                     Egg Yolks

1/2 teaspoon          Black Pepper

2 tablespoons         Lemon Juice

1 cup                       Olive Oil

Directions:

Mix chopped olives with egg yolks, black pepper and lemon juice.  Whisk over boiling water in a stainless steel bowl till light and creamy.  Slowly whisk in olive oil.  Adjust seasoning and spoon over cooked tarts.

Basil Oil

1 bunch                   Basil

2 cloves                   Garlic

3 Tablespoons         Olive Oil

Directions:

Puree everything in your food processor.  The basil oil should be thinner than pesto when finished.

Chef Notes:

The artichoke Tarte Tatin is a playful dish based on the classic French Apple Tart.  Artichokes are always a hard vegetable to pair with wine.  Claudia Springs Viognier seamlessly marries with the rich flavors of olive emulsion and basil oil and provided an interesting foil to the goat cheese.

The Story of ‘How We Came to BE’, The Menu Exploded: A Deeper Look at Our Approach

 

“It’s a simple business: Develop good food

and get it into people’s mouths. The rest sort of takes care of itself.”

~ Richard Melman, founder of Lettuce Entertain You

I once read an article detailing Richard Melman’s approach to designing a new restaurant concept.  The very first step was to create a storyboard that told the story of the new idea, perhaps written by a person who worked there, and was asked to describe life and service in the restaurant.  Everything, from the menu, wine list, art work to even the paint scheme emanated from it.   The idea struck a chord deep inside because I am a visual and small detail oriented person. Since then I have tried to incorporate it into my approach writing menus.

 

a charcuterie market and a spice merchant’s market in Avignon

 

Lately I have been looking for the perfect Sous Chef and Pastry Chef.  I described to a recent Pastry Chef candidate what I was wanting from her, “What I would love is your expression of what should be on the pastry menu of a Mediterranean Restaurant specializing in French, Spanish and Italian with forays into Morocco, Greece, Tunisia, Lebanon.  It is our goal to convey the story, the history of the people, through food.  If somehow you can distill this into pastries than you have gotten what I am attempting.”

I am not trying to be too esoteric; my goal is to take people somewhere, on a three hour adventure from their homes in the California Desert to the shores of the Mediterranean.  I want the experience to be so authentic and real that if you closed your eyes, the flavors, smells and sounds may just well make you believe you are really there.

“The Mediterranean cuisine is one of the most colorful and vibrant in the world, providing sensual dishes flavored with wild herbs gathered from the hillsides; lamb and chicken are often roasted whole over coals; vegetables are abundant and used in a wide variety of soups, bakes and salads.”

 

a whole local pig porchetta straight off the rotisserie

the pig comes from Cookpig in California

 

My inspirations have come from spending a portion of my informative years visiting relatives all over the South of France, to comparative dining to reading a lot online, in books and vicarious trips lived through letters and phone calls of close friends. One of my favorite authors is Colman Andrews.  I recently picked up his book “The Country Cooking of Italy” and came across his recipe for Sguazabarbuz, a variation of pasta e fagioli.  The name intrigued me so much I researched it further.  I came across a web site mentioning the history, “The story tells that on May 29, 1503 Lucrezia Borgia came to Ferrara to marry Alfonso I d’Este and a steward of the Palace, taking inspiration from her golden locks, created this special pasta and passed down the recipe from generation to generation. The pasta is cut into irregular strips, in fact they are called “maltagliati” (cut badly) and if it is cooked in a bean and pork fat broth they are called ‘sguazabarbuz’.”

Another dish making its debut will be a Pistachio, Polenta and Olive Oil Cake served with ‘Spice Road Caravan’ cherries and cherry sorbet.  Individual three ounce cakes made from Sicilian green pistachios, polenta and olive oil batter cooked and served at room temperature garnished with fresh spun cherry sorbet and with what I term Silk Road Caravan spiced cherries.  The Silk Road was a series of paths and trade routes connecting the Mediterranean to Eastern Asia.  The famous camel routes brought cinnamon, nutmeg and other fantastic flavors into the Mediterranean melting pot.

My cake’s origins lay not in a cultural tradition passed generation to generation by any one culture but rather in my head combining bits and pieces of various experiences and references.

Pistachios are native to Western Asia and the Levant between Turkey and Afghanistan.  The earliest traces of pistachios being eaten is 7,000 BC in Turkey, and cultivated and introduced into Europe by the Romans in 1st century AD.  Polenta’s name was originally derived from the Roman staple puls, or pulmentum. Pulmentum also was the Roman’s soldier primary food.  The soldiers were issued grain which they toasted on hot stones and either made into a porridge or baked into crude breads.

Polenta was originally made from millet, spelt or chickpeas, only when corn came from the New World in the 1600’s did polenta’s turn into a cornmeal porridge we know and love.  Cherries originated in Asia and became well loved by the ancient Greeks first appearing in print in 300 BC in the writings of Theophrastus.  By the first century AD, Pliny the Elder had listed eight different varieties under cultivation, some grown in the far off parts of the Roman Empire like Britain.

In America we have the freedom to combine, mix and mutate without the same restraints my French family would face.  They would never dream to mix as freely as I will.  Noted British Chef Marco Pierre White once said the kitchen was his freedom.  The new, still nameless restaurant is my freedom.

Chef François

ps. Vote on the new restaurant name at my FaceBook Chef Page!