Stocks and sauces are the foundational cookery basics all chefs rely on, regardless of cuisine.

Hospitality speaks to Harry Lilai about the groundwork that goes into creating polished French stocks and sauces, who says the trials and tribulations are well worth it.

“What I’ve seen over the past 10 to 15 years is a decline in stocks and classic sauces,” reveals Harry Lilai, executive chef at Market Bistro in Maroochydore on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.

The reason, Lilai posits, is because of the sheer amount of time, space and labour that goes into making many of the stocks and sauces. “A good French-style [veal or beef] stock will take you 10 to 12 hours just to get to a point where it can come off; and then there are derivatives, like sauces, from there,” he explains.

“You’re starting with a good 20 to 25 kilos of veal bones, your mirepoix and 100 litres of water to end up with about 50 litres of stock. Then you end up with eight to 10 litres of derivative [sauce].”

Harry Lilai

Chicken stocks can take up to four or five hours, while fish stock can be made in a matter of 15 minutes — that doesn’t mean it’s a walk in the park, though. No matter the base ingredients, stocks require care and attention. It’s not surprising many kitchens look for shortcuts.

While there’s a great market for premade stocks, Lilai chooses to keep them in-house; not just for quality control, but because of the skills and attitude the process provides to early-career chefs. “I keep harping on about it, but good cookery comes from good stocks,” says Lilai.

“If there’s no care taken when making stock, you might as well not cook. I don’t want [the industry] to lose the art of [making] stock, and we’re starting to a little bit. It should be taught in trade school, but they’re rushing through and not teaching young cooks the proper foundations.”

In Lilai’s kitchen at Market Bistro, the entire team is tasked with looking after stocks. The stocks are kept on the stove throughout the day, which starts at 8am, with chefs taught to check in constantly. “There’s always a big pot and a ladle next to the stocks,” says Lilai. “And everybody knows you don’t walk past a stock without skimming. I really emphasise they need to be skimmed.”

The simple task is all it takes to stop disaster. An unskimmed stock will see fat boil back in, turning the end product rancid and cloudy. And any imperfections will be felt down the line. “You’ll end up with a horrible-looking jus at the end, so you need to keep it nice and clear,” says Lilai.

That ‘care and love’ needs to be given from the get go. Something seemingly minor, such as burnt onions, in a mirepoix will lead to bitterness. “You’ll taste it 14 or 15 hours down the track when you finally reduce the stock and wonder, ‘Why is there a little bitterness on the end?’ — it’s because you burnt the onions 14 hours ago. Make sure every step is taken properly.”

If shortcuts lead to an inferior stock, there’s no way around it — kitchens need to dedicate time, space and labour to the process. Over his 30 years in kitchens around the world, Lilai has had ample time to systematise his stock-making strategy. It all comes down to forward planning.

“I know the stocks will be made on certain days, so I cook my bones the night before, then the first chef who walks in the next morning knows the stock is ready to go on,” says Lilai. “The veal bones, mirepoix and herbs are all ready — they just have to top it up [with water] and then put it on a corner of the stove and work around the pot.”

Some kitchens will leave stocks on overnight, but Lilai prefers a day cook. It means chefs can keep an eye on their progress and reduces the risk of health and safety hazards. “I like to control it during the day,” Lilai says. “We operate from 8am to 12am anyway.”

On any given day, the kitchen will prep three stocks: veal, chicken and fish. The team follows a similar process for all three, with adjustments in place to suit the demands of each ingredient.

Essentially, the bones are prepared, a mirepoix is mixed and aromats are added before the mixture is topped with water and put on the stove. Veal is preferred for its neutral flavour. “Beef is a little strong for what I want and I find beef bones really fatty as well,” explains Lilai. “A lot of fat extracts out of the bones and you end up with an oil slick, which is a bit unfriendly to eat. Veal bones are more neutral, so you can get more derivatives from that. I can throw veal over stock over roasted duck trim and mix half stocks to make sauces.”

First, the veal bones are dry roasted for 45 minutes to an hour. Once cooked, they’re removed from the trays along with any excess fat or oil, then a classic mirepoix of onion, carrot and celery goes back into the same roasting pan. “I use a little more onion than carrot or celery because I like the caramelised sweetness that comes out of them,” says Lilai. “I throw some tomato paste over the mixture as well, and it gets roasted to a dark colour.”

The bones and mirepoix are then added to a pot along with aromats such as garlic heads, bay leaves, peppercorns, parsley and tarragon stalks. It’s then a matter of time and constant skimming.

At the end of the process, the veal stock should have a gelatinous, almost hard thin layer of fat over the top, with any sediment all the way down at the bottom of the pot.

“If there’s too much sediment, it hasn’t been strained properly,” says Lilai. “That’s another thing that’s really important. I strain through two different strainers. I use a fine chinois, then an extra fine. Once I make my sauce, I put them through a filter, too. You end up with a beautiful clear stock.”

For chicken stock, the time commitment is halved. “I don’t roast the bones, unless I want a dark stock,” says Lilai. “I just wash the bones out and I don’t roast any of the vegetables [for the mirepoix]. I just use raw ones.”

The same goes for fish stock, with carrots removed from the mirepoix. “Because fish stock is such a short cook, you won’t get any flavour out of the carrots unless you cut them really fine,” says Lilai. “But they have a tendency to go cloudy if they break down and you want to keep it as clean as possible.”

Both should be clean and clear when finished. “Chicken stock shouldn’t taste too fatty,” says Lilai. “It should have a good chicken flavour in it … [and] should be toward the back of the palate and balanced right through without any seasoning. You almost want to put salt in it to bring the chicken flavour forward, but don’t because you’re going to add [the stock] to something else.”

Ideally, fish stock should be made using the bones of white-fleshed fish such as snapper or brim. “I find barramundi tend to to go cloudy,” says Lilai. “Mullet tends to go cloudy, too. I don’t touch any oily fish such as tuna, marlin or sardines.”

The chef does include fish heads, though. “Some chefs refuse,” he says. “I like the gelatinous quality that comes from the heads. It gives the stock a bit of body. The more jelly in your stock, the more texture you have in your sauce.”

For Lilai, vegetable stock is optional, despite the increase in dietary requests. “I find vegetable stocks tend to go a little bitter and turn quite quickly,” says Lilai. “I can get the same flavour out of a dish just using water.”

Occasionally, Lilai will make a stock using a specific vegetable, but it has to make sense for a dish. “For instance, I put a corn chowder on,” he says. “I made a stock out of the corn cobs that were left, so it has some extra corn flavour. I’m doing it to extract the flavour I want out of that vegetable; I don’t just put a mixed vegetable stock over whatever. I wouldn’t gather all my vegetable trimmings, put them in a stock pot and boil them — I think that’s confusing.”

All in all, Lilai has been at it for 32 years, prepping stocks diligently in every kitchen he’s helmed. “And I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface,” he says.

Will chefs coming up through the ranks today develop the same passion for the foundation of classic European cuisine? Only time will tell.

Image credit: Inspired Taste