Oftentimes I start writing these History Bites and am completely blown away by what I find, especially when there is an element of mystery to the creation of a dish. I love a good story, and I love good food, so when the two of those things intersect I’m as giddy as a boy on Christmas morning. That’s right where the Chicken Cordon Bleu takes us this week.
But before I get started on the Cordon Bleu, I’d like to introduce you to one of my secret research weapons. The Culinary Heritage of Switzerland. Up until a few months ago I had never heard of this delightful little thing, but for anyone interested in food history, it’s an amazing tool. The Culinary Heritage of Switzerland was a project started in 2000 after a Swiss MP passed a motion to start a private association for categorizing, recording, researching, and publishing all Swiss dishes. To do this, they had a team of researchers interview everyone from butchers and bakers, to historians, and even the wives of farmers. They really left no stone unturned.
The result of their work is an online encyclopedia of all Swiss cookery. They aren’t done either—it’s a living document, and anyone can submit an entry provided it’s Swiss and has been in production for at least 40 years. It houses an impressive inventory of over 400 products with remarkable detail on their origins and production. They don’t go into exact recipes, but they have a tonne of info on the production and method. Most importantly, they have a lot written on the history of the items, and from what I’ve read they share my nerdy enthusiasm. The writer of the piece on Cordon Bleu likened their work to Indiana Jones (clearly a fellow nerd). It’s only published in Swiss, German, and Italian, but with this remarkable invention called Google Translate, you shouldn’t have any trouble reading the info.
Now that you’ve gotten a chance to peer behind the curtain, let’s get to why we’re really here: Chicken Cordon Bleu.
The story (or at least the most likely story, and my personal favourite) is a simple one, but interesting nonetheless. Creativity often thrives within limitations. You give someone all the creative space in the world and there’s too much to fill, so creativity is stifled. You put someone in some kind of box, however, and they’re able to fill it with more than you can imagine. The story below is a perfect example of this. It’s hearsay, but it’s a wonderful tale.
Imagine yourself 200 years ago as a chef in Brigg, Switzerland. A group of 30 people come in before the lunch rush, all requesting the pork dish. This is no problem for you: they had a reservation, you have the pork. But then another group of 30 comes in. Turns out there was a mistake, and the place got double booked. The new group also orders the pork, and now it’s your worst nightmare.
This isn’t like today, where you could get something rushed over, or get something from the freezer or a neighbouring restaurant. In this case, you may as well be on an island. What do you do? After the initial gut wrenching panic subsides, you think about what you have available. And all of a sudden, you’re struck with an idea.
Pressure is one hell of a motivator.
You start barking orders to your cooks, and a flurry of movement ensues as you grab the butcher’s knife and a meat tenderizer. You quickly split all the portions of pork tenderloin in half while a cook wordlessly starts pounding them flat. The rhythmic beating of the tenderizer is like a drum echoing throughout the kitchen, keeping everyone in time. Another cook has set up the breading, and your sous chef has finally arrived with the uncooked ham from the cold storage. He quickly slices it as another cook arrives with the sliced cheese. You place the ham and cheese on top of the pork schnitzel, roll it, dredge it in flour, then egg wash, then breadcrumbs. It gets dropped into a pot of hot oil and then laid out on a baking sheet. After a few minutes in the oven, it’s finished cooking.
You’ve gone from not having enough food, to having plates go out the door. But now, the silence. The dining room is quiet, all you hear is the chattering of silverware against the plates. Is this good, is it bad? The silence is unnerving for a chef. Only time will tell.
As everyone is done eating, the roar of conversation picks up once again in the dining room. You’re starting to tidy up, when the owner of the restaurant bursts through the doors of the kitchen. This can only mean one of two things: he either loves what you did, or you’re fired. He throws his arms up in the air as you prepare for a dressing down, but then you see the smile on his face. He is ecstatic.
They loved it. Your stomach finally returns to its normal position.
The owner tries to give you the Blue Ribbon, a customary symbol of excellence in French cooking. But you turn it down, it was a team effort. Instead, you name the dish Cordon Bleu (The Blue Ribbon). After all, it did all the heavy lifting.
Whether true or not, this origin story of Chicken Cordon Bleu is awesome. Sometimes that’s worth more than historical accuracy. And with a story like this, it’s too good not to be true.
Chicken Cordon Bleu is enjoyed around the world. Though its origin is with pork, it is now commonly made with chicken, but can really be made with anything. In our case, we elected to move away from the classic tube of tenderized chicken encasing a slice of ham and cheese. We used a whole chicken breast, stuffed it with a Swiss fondue, some green onions for levelity, and some small diced house-smoked ham. We also aren’t deep frying it, because oven baked gives you so much more flavour when a dish has this level of nuance to it. But that’s where the fun in cooking is: the creativity. Finding new and exciting ways to play within the confines that are set for you.
So next time you’re in the kitchen, don’t be afraid to do something different. Who knows, you might have fun.
Until next time.
If you haven’t noticed the comments section down here, I have a little question for you.
What’s one time that you got creative in the kitchen?
Whether it worked or not, it’s all part of the process. I’ve made so many inedible test creations for myself that I choked down before I got to where I am, each one of them was a valuable lesson.