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Peter Brave wields a mean chinois and makes a bon beurre blanc, and he learned it all in Little Rock. Maybe that’s why the down-to-earth Brave, who serves up some pretty fancy food at his Brave New Restaurant, willingly rises early on a Saturday to show folks how to cook.
In January, the 45-year-old chef, in his customary ball cap, red and yellow baguette-print chef’s pants and red rubber clogs, offered a steady stream of cooking facts to a River Market audience to “demystify” his culinary art. He’d made a citrus salsa — a beautiful concoction of grapes, strawberries, apples, kiwi fruit and grapefruit heated with tarragon — and a line of 50 people who’d waited two hours to eat what he’d been cooking were putting dollops of the salsa on mahi mahi broiled in clarified butter.
But it’s the beurre blanc that starred that morning, both in its simple savory form and variations that jazzed it up with Grand Marnier (a cognac-and-orange liqueur), a pesto of roasted sweet bell peppers, saffron and cream, the latter to partner with the chicken he’s broiled in a hot, hot oven.
What do you call that kind of pan? a reporter asks about the high-sided aluminum rectangle that holds a pile of chicken breasts. “Borrowed,” he replied, and pulled out a 2-inch chef’s knife to begin quickly and deftly — with no blood loss — slicing the breasts into equal portions for the hungry audience.
A man — a regular at the River Market’s Saturday cooking classes — asked Brave if he makes a marsala sauce. The man said his wife loves marsala sauce, but has been disappointed so many times … “If a person was to ask,” Brave said, “it could be done,” but it’s not on the menu; it’s a “very involved” sauce.
He abandoned the chef’s patois when he answered another question about the pesto, saying the peppers must be “smoushed” before being added to the butter sauce. He explained how chefs use the “finger test” to determine how thoroughly a meat is cooked. If it feels like leather, it’s well done, and a damn shame, but he’ll serve whatever his customers want, he said. Then he talked about how to make clarified butter, and that “you can’t go wrong” when you roast vegetables coated in honey, dill and butter.
But about that beurre blanc: He reduces a dry white wine (the box variety keeps longer and is fine, he said), white wine vinegar and shallots. He adds parsley, mushrooms until it’s “au sec,” which Brave defined as “smack out of moisture.” Then he whisks in “gobs and gobs of whole unsalted butter” and strains through the aforementioned chinois, a cone-shaped collander with super fine mesh. He pours it on a delicate white-meated fish, like sole, that’s been broiled with a dash of seasoned salt on top. (To make the seasoned salt, combine salt, pepper, paprika and cayenne in a bowl and let sit awhile so the salt will absorb the flavors.)
Brave didn’t go into precise measurements with the River Market crowd. “I’m about throwing things together,” he told them; the chemistry involved in cooking has become second nature. Using a recipe, he said, is like “dancing while you’re looking at your feet.”
Brave New Restaurant enters its 15th year of business this year. It’s been a success in the hands of a chef owner who didn’t study at a fancy cooking school (“too darned expensive”) but learned his way around a kitchen initially to earn enough money to buy Led Zeppelin albums (real albums) and then to perfect the skills for a job he discovered he liked. Working in the kitchen of Sam Harrison’s in the 1970s, Brave met a British cook named Julian Darwin who “opened my eyes to what cooking is all about.” Darwin gave him “Paul Bocuse’s French Cooking” and the “Larousse Gastronomique” and the stairway to cooking heaven opened up.
Today, Brave still gets a “rush of adrenaline” being on the line in the kitchen of his restaurant. And if he ever gets tired of the restaurant business — and the kids are out of college — he said he may just turn his full attention to his Brave New Shrimp. All the shrimp you’ve eaten the past year or so at Brave New have come from a nursery near Wilmot tended by his partners in Inland Seafoods. Home-grown shrimpers: just what you might expect from an Arkansas-trained master chef.