Tastemakers: Frite Accompli

A local chef’s quest for the perfect fry lands him in hot water, then medium-hot oil.

Tom Berry musters one gracious comment about the diner-style fries I’ve brought along to our meeting as a provocative gift. “The crinkle shape is nice,” he says, before tearing into one with the intensity of an entomologist inspecting a larva. Soon he’s shaking his head. “It’s got a processed, mealy texture—the basic problem with frozen fries. It’s not like a real potato at all.”

Obsessives fixate on the darnedest things: online gambling, a new romance, elusive white whales. For Berry, chef at Cambridge’s Temple Bar, it’s fries. Specifically, fries with natural potato texture but still crispy enough to “poke someone’s eye out.” His mission to create them began four years ago, when he left Ming Tsai’s Blue Ginger to run the kitchen at Bambara, which was set to serve frozen fries. They were plenty crisp, but Berry couldn’t get past their mushy innards. So he swapped them out for fresh.

Problem solved? Not quite. Unlike frozen fries, fresh ones go limp in minutes. (Indeed, chefs as mighty as Napa Valley’s Thomas Keller, of Bouchon and French Laundry fame, have copped to using frozen for just that reason.) Was fresh and crispy too much to ask? Berry boned up on potato science and discovered the culprit was the tubers’ natural sugar. When a sugar-laden fry hits the hot oil, the outside darkens long before the interior gives up its moisture—and a moist fry is a limp fry. Frozen fries, meanwhile, are heavily processed, which strips them of much of their sugar.

After months of testing—literally thousands of dud spuds later—Berry hit upon the magic formula. It calls for the potatoes to be aged 30 days, to convert some of their sugar to starch. (He never puts them in the fridge; when the little fellas get chilly, they produce—yup—more sugar.) Then they’re cut up, soaked in hot water to wash the residual sugar away, and fried—twice. The result is a fry of such superior crispiness that savoring real French frites now requires merely a trip across the river, not a hop across the pond.

Age, slice, soak, fry, refry; the recipe’s going like clockwork. We dig in. Piping hot, they’re like salty, crusty breadsticks—with just the thinnest layer of soft potato encased in a shatteringly crisp exterior. “This,” Berry beams, “is exactly what I want—long, golden brown, and very crisp.” Crisp enough to poke a writer’s eye out, should he dare reach for the last one.