Welcome to this week’s edition of French Fry-Day, the unplugged version. I tossed out all my sneaky, semi-scientific methods and entered the kitchen of The Grape for a first-hand lesson on fry making. Chef-owner Brian Luscher took time out of his busy day to talk and make fries.
Luscher knows a lot about potatoes. We spent a better part of an hour discussing water-to-starch ratios, how hot oil extracts water from the fries, breeds, and seasonality of potatoes, and his method for the fries at The Grape. He produces two varieties of fries, both made by hand from Idaho russets. The size is not-too-thin, not-too-thick 3/8 inch fry. For his bistro steak frites, he tosses the hot fries in a mixture of salt and spices such as chopped up parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. The fries that accompany his award-winning burger are simply seasoned with a salt mixture. They go through at least 300 pounds a week.
Potatoes at The Grape are cut fresh every morning and then blanched in 300-degree oil for three to five minutes depending on the size of the batch. Luscher held up a raw fry and a blanched one and pointed out the difference. “These raw ones are crunchy but look how the blanched ones have started to turn translucent,” Luscher said. “Our goal is to get them to what I call ‘rice-y’ like a fluffy mashed potato.”
He had me at rice-y. I could think of nothing else for the next 20 minutes. I could not wait to eat these fries. I spotted tiny bits that I knew would become crispy nubs. They were bound for my stomach. I tried to remain professional as Luscher continued his lesson and tossed the blanched fries into the table top fryer full of 350-degree canola oil.
“See all of that bubbling?” Luscher said. “That is the water evaporating from the potato. It’s the steam. It’s easy to overcook these guys and what happens is that once the water is out of the fry, the grease is able to penetrate the potato and make it soggy. You have to pull these out before that happens.”
Just as he finished that sentence, three tiny nubs hit the surface of the rolling oil. “See those little bits; they’re floating because they are ready. But the fries at the bottom are still cooking so I shake the pans a few times to keep them moving. Once they get firm, they start to tick against the spoon, and I know they are almost there.”
The next minute was a borderline sexual experience. We watched the fries blister and brown and tick against that spoon with great anticipation. Steam fogged my glasses and camera lens. Luscher reached for a metal bowl with his left hand as he pulled a basket out of the fryer with his right. The next fifteen seconds were magical. The fries landed in the bowl and Luscher immediately hit them with spices. The aroma of sage, thyme, and salt hit my nostrils. My hand darted forward, but he lifted the bowl to shake them a few times. “You have to hit these guys with salt and spices while they are still sizzling and dampish on the outside,” Luscher said. “This makes sure the spices stick to the potatoes. To me, this is the most important key to making great fries.”
I didn’t wait for him to plate them. I grabbed the nubs I’d watched in the oil. People, I can’t think of a more wondrous taste than this. Except, perhaps, the next 100 fries that I devoured all before they had turned warm. These are the ultimate hand-cut fry. They are crunchy on the outside and as fluffy as a baked potato on the inside. I found no evidence of grease in the bowl or on my hands.
You can order these fries at The Grape or, as Luscher pointed out to me, you can easily make them at home by using a small tabletop fryer. If you’re looking for a last-minute gift, I would suggest a gift certificate to The Grape or a home fryer.
As we chomped on fries, I asked Luscher if he had plans to resurrect his Luscher’s Red Hots restaurant. The beloved hot dog spot closed last December. He admitted he’s gone through much grieving after shuttering the place, but at the moment he doesn’t have plans to reopen. He did give me some sage advice. “Don’t eat a ballpark hot dog until the third inning,” Luscher said. “That’s how long it usually takes them to sell the leftovers from the night before.”