A few years ago, when I was a student at l'Institut Paul Bocuse, one of the premier cooking colleges in France, I watched an omelette-making class through a glass partition. I was in a hallway, in the school's zone culinaire, which is reserved for lessons in making food; theory courses are held on another floor, in small rooms with desks. This particular class was on French kitchen basics. I'd been exempted, on the grounds that I'd worked in restaurants. (The confidence the exemption implied in my skills would, alas, turn out to be spectacularly misplaced.)
A student presented his omelette. The instructor poked it and shook his head. He didn't bother to taste it; he just tipped it into the trash. An omelette must be soft in the middle, pillowy to the touch. It should have bounce. This one was hard.
The next student's omelette was too voluminous. The instructor admonished him. It was like watching a movie without sound. His gestures said, "Why did you use a whisk?" Un fouet. "I told you a fork." Une fourchette. A whisk aerates the protein. It is what you use to make a soufflé or a meringue. An omelette gets its tenderness by being mixed, not whipped. You want the egg whites quiet and small. The omelette went into the trash.
Hervé Raphanel, a member of the faculty, joined me by the partition. "How old do you think those students are?" he asked.
"Actually, I know," I said. I'd been in another class with them. "Most are nineteen. Two might be twenty." It was an unusually young class. Most students at l'Institut came from abroad, and were older, career changers.
"Exactly," Raphanel said. He reflected. "And they'll be twenty-two when they graduate? When I was that age I was already working in a two-star Michelin kitchen." His tone wasn't boastful. It was exasperated.
Another student presented her omelette. This one was too runny; it was seeping out at the ends. The instructor reënacted pressing the back of a fork on the eggs in the pan. When the tines leave an impression, your omelette is ready to be rolled. Not before. The instructor wiggled his finger side to side—non, non, non.
"Look at how those students are standing," Raphanel said. "They are so removed from the food, pushing it around at arm's length. Where's the love?" L'amour—où est-il? He sighed. It wasn't their ignorance that provoked him. "They should be breathing in their ingredients." He simulated dipping into a plate and inhaling the aromatics. "A chef needs to be transported by his food."
What little I knew about omelettes was from their American expression, which, in one respect, is not so different from American pizza. Like a pizza with everything on it, an omelette in America can be ordered with just about everything inside. The French omelette is quite simple by comparison. An omelette au lard is made with pig belly (poitrine in French, pancetta in Italian). An omelette parmentier with small potatoes sautéed beforehand in butter. An omelette chasseur with chicken livers and mushrooms. The omelettes that my children discovered in France, at their school canteen, were nature—i.e., just egg. When my son, Frederick, first saw me cooking omelettes—they served as both breakfast and practice, because I was still trying to nail my basics—he was surprised. By then we had been in Lyon six months, and he associated the dish so completely with our new French home that he never imagined his American father would know how to make it.
Eggs can have a rich, subtle flavor—especially when they're from active, small-farm chickens. In French omelettes, they also serve as flavor messengers, especially in the most classic version, the one done aux fines herbes. Fines, here, doesn't have the same meaning as its English equivalent. The herbs are not fine but delicate, consisting, traditionally, of a mix of parsley, chervil, chives, and (sometimes) tarragon—i.e., not sage (which, in my time in Lyon, no one used, even though it grew wild on the banks of the Rhone), rosemary (which made some of my French chef friends gag), or thyme (though some cooks, living on the edge, have been known to toss in a few leaves).
To make an omelette aux fines herbes, you need—
A pan. My favorite is a white, ceramic nonstick, ten or more inches across. If you get the temperature right, you can use a normal aluminum sauté pan instead. It needs to be hot enough that the eggs cook on contact, forming a skin and pulling off the surface, but not so hot that they brown. A French omelette is a creamy yellow, without the slightest suggestion of the eggs having toasted.
A utensil or two, conventionally only a fork: to mix the eggs; to tug the perimeters of the omelette inward while cooking (whereupon the runny top-surface rushes in to fill the space); to confirm a slightly wet, mushy doneness (that trick with the tines); and then to commence the roll. For my part, yes, I mix the eggs with a fork and never a whisk. But for everything else I use a narrow, red, floppy, duel-ended two-in-one rubber spatula-like creation called a Switchit, by now so chipped away at that it looks serrated. It was bought for me at a Florida Walmart, twenty-five years ago, by my mother, and whenever it is in my hands it puts her in my mind.
Two or three good eggs. According to the rules of French cooking, a three-egg omelette constitutes a main course (Jacques Pépin makes his with four), and a two-egg version is merely a starter (the French don't usually eat omelettes for breakfast). But I like the thinness that results from using two, pushed this way and that to cover the pan, and the resulting delicacy of the eggy membrane. (Harold McGee traces the origins of the word "omelette" to the Latin lamella, "thin plate.") Also, you shouldn't crack an egg on a rim, only on a flat surface, once, sharply, so that its contents aren't contaminated by the shell.
Herbs, plucked off their stems and gently sliced. The more traditional instruction is concasser—whacking your herbs into a near-pulp—but I prefer the texture that comes from ciseler, the method of rolling, say, parsley leaves into a sloppy imitation of a tube, then slicing across to form mini green chisels. Gaston Lenôtre, the legendary late pastry chef and co-author, with his wife, Sylvie, of "Le Livre de l'Oeuf" ("The Book of the Egg"), says that the important thing isn't which herbs you use but their freshness. They should taste of a spring garden—omelette aux fines herbes is a seasonal preparation—and be greenly vibrant, like the first young leaves of a garlic plant (just now available at the farmers' market) or even wild dandelions (coming soon). Lenôtre particularly loves spring parsley. Later in the season he loves it less, and by the end of the summer he recommends avoiding it—the parsley has become wooden—unless it's dipped briefly in boiling water.