On a dark night last week on the Upper East Side, a fierce wind whipped furiously at the French flag. On the second floor of the townhouse where the French consulate is located, two men brandished a sword, lifting it high above the heads of a chosen few.
There was neither a sense of doom nor bloodshed, though. Spirits were merry as Gilles Demange and Arnaud Bernollin called upon the patron saints of cooks, bakers, and butchers as they knighted inductees into their brotherhood, La Confrérie du Pâté Croûte (“The Brotherhood of the Pâté Croûte”).
The occasion? The semi-finals of a global competition meant to crown the perfect pâté en croûte, a traditional French dish whose closest equivalent could be said to be a meat pie.
The architecture of a pâté en croûte is fairly simple: dough encasing a stuffing of meat and perhaps some vegetables. After it’s baked, a gelée (essentially a stock reduction) is injected between the crust and stuffing to eliminate air pockets, explained Ariane Daguin, CEO of D’Artagnan, a purveyor and producer of foie gras and other fine meats. She was one of the judges of the competition, which was held on U.S. soil for the first time this year.
It brought together an esteemed panel of judges—including chefs Daniel Boulud, Elena Arzak, Andre Soltner, Jean-Louis Dumonet, Philippe Bertineau, and Gabriel Kreuther—who were seated at a long table.
With brows furrowed and taste buds unfurled, judges looked intensely focused as they tasted each dish and discussed its merits among themselves. Onlookers remarked that it looked very much like a certain painting of 13 men from a biblical scene.
What Is Pâté en Croûte?
The pâté en croûte is one of those dishes from practically the beginning of French gastronomy. In a phone interview, Daguin traced it to the French Revolution—which, she said, caused aristocrats to flee, leaving their chefs without employment. To earn their livelihood, they turned to making single-sized portions of pâté en croûte, much like chicken pot pies, which they sold to the masses.
“That was the first fast food in the world, ” she said. “It was sold and eaten standing up.”
There’s an art to the dish’s presentation: Not only is it often decorated on the outside with intricate patterns, but slicing it reveals a design inside. One pâté en croûte at the competition event sported a stuffing in the likeness of the American flag, albeit with fewer stars.
Its execution is tricky; it can turn out beautifully golden on the outside and still be raw on the inside. It requires the talents of both a pastry chef and a savory chef to get it just right, explained Daguin, and spotting it on a restaurant menu indicates a chef with multifaceted skills.
The winner was Guillaume Ginther, executive chef of Le Coq Rico in Manhattan’s Flatiron neighborhood. The restaurant, run by chef Antoine Westermann, highlights heritage birds with incredibly flavorful meats.
Daguin said Ginther’s pâté en croûte “was extraordinary because the crust was perfect.”
That crust, as it turns out, is not made from the same old pie crust dough, but unexpectedly incorporates pâte feuilleté (puff pastry).
“The gelée was incredible,” Daguin continued. “It was so flavorful … and then what he did inside was very original.”
Usually, a pattern—perhaps made from mushrooms or pistachios—would be found within the stuffing, she explained. But Ginther placed the stuffing in the very center, which he surrounded with a ring of chicken breast, and around that, pure Hudson Valley foie gras. Every layer “was perfectly cooked,” Daguin said.
For the award-winning dish, Ginther said he used Brune Landaise chicken (a heritage variety), Berkshire pork butt and lard, chicken liver, pistachios, spinach, five-spice, a mix of herbs (including parsley and chives), and the restaurant’s special seasoning mix on the foie gras.
“You have to have a little bit of patience, and also the desire,” Ginther said, of making the dish. It’s a familiar one for Ginther, whose mother used to make it at home. In France, it’s a dish you see not in restaurants, but in butcher shops—it used to be a way to use up cuts of meat that went unsold.
At Le Coq Rico, he does make a popular version—albeit a simpler one that encases only glorious foie gras.
Other winners included Eric Gauthier from Ateliers & Saveurs (in second place) and Nicolas Rafa from Le District (in third place). Attendees were also invited to cast their votes, and the popular vote went to Jack Logue from Betony.
As for Ginther, he is off to the finals, to be held in Tain-l’Hermitage, France, on Dec. 5.