In the 1970s, when chef Ken Frank was first learning his trade cooking at French restaurants in California, the only truffles available were canned ones. He never even saw a fresh truffle, let alone cooked with one, until 1978.
That year, the then-22-year-old chef heard that legendary food importer and gourmet grocer Darrell Corti was bringing in fresh truffles from Europe. Ken detoured to Sacramento to purchase some, and ended up buying a pound for a whopping $80. At the time, it was the most expensive food item he had ever bought.
He was advised to store the truffles with eggs, as the yolks have a singular ability to absorb their flavor. He did so, then made an omelet with the eggs the next morning — and was hooked for life.
Today, chef Ken is the foremost truffle chef in America. For 34 years he has offered an annual all-truffle menu at his restaurant La Toque and its predecessors, and since 2010 he has been the host chef for the Truffle Festival, presiding over the Truffles and Wine dinner, which he cooks in collaboration with fellow Michelin-starred guest chefs.
At the All About Truffles Seminar during the 2016 Truffle Festival, chef Ken shared tips about selecting, storing and using truffles. He stressed that the fresher the truffle, the better (and said he is eagerly looking forward to being able procure locally grown ones in a year or two, once the Sinskey orchard starts producing them).
Truffles have a “half-life,” he told the group. Although they will keep up to three weeks stored in the refrigerator, they lose up to half of their aroma and flavor within a week of being picked. Most imported truffles are at least 3 days old by the time they reach us, so it is imperative to use them almost immediately.
Hardly any food suffers from a dusting of fresh truffle slices, but he said the best way to use them is with mild, fatty foods, as the complex volatile compounds that give truffles their alluring fragrance are fat soluble. Chef Ken’s favorite ways to use them are in combination with egg yolk, cream or butter, as well as under the skin of a roast chicken or with fatty fish like salmon. He avoids putting them in dishes with high acid or strong flavors that will overpower the truffle, though he has found a way to use them in salads by creating a low-acid crème fraîche-based dressing.
Truffles these days cost magnitudes more than the $80 a pound that shocked him in 1978, so he tries not to waste a scrap. He chops up the small bits of truffle that are left after shaving slices onto a dish, and uses them to infuse soft, fresh cow’s milk cheeses and mixes them into softened butter.
Unlike mushrooms, truffles are best raw. So he recommends adding them to sauces only at the end of cooking, or shaved on top of a finished dish.
Above all, the chef Ken Frank’s advice is “go big or go home.” Yes, truffles are expensive. But if you are going to use them, don’t skimp. Chef Ken Frank recommends about 5 grams per person, which translates to about 5 servings per ounce.