Carolyn Wyman ate all kinds of cheesesteaks while researching her just-released The Great Philly Cheesesteak Book.
Her homage to the steak sandwich traces its eight-decade history from Pat Olivieri's hot dog grill at Ninth and Passyunk to its current variations, including the chicken steak and something the vegetarians call a cheesefake.
She hit about 50 spots, sampling cheesesteak spring rolls at the Four Seasons Hotel and cheesesteak pierogi from Czerw's. She got the recipe for cheesesteak soup from Campbell's.
Le Bec-Fin was not on Wyman's radar.
But she and chef-owner Georges Perrier have something in common: They appreciate a good academic exercise.
How would Perrier fix a cheesesteak? And what would Wyman think of it?
A Philly cheesesteak, as Wyman explains, "is not just bread, meat and cheese coming together."
It's a Philadelphia cultural icon - a subject of love and loyalty, politics and pride, history and hubris. It's brought families together (the Campos, whose kids work with their parents in the Old City sandwich shop) and torn them apart (the Olivieris, who founded Pat's King of Steaks and whose cousin owns Rick's in the Bellevue's food court and who have traded lawsuits).
Cheesesteaks are a new subject to Wyman, 53, who was raised on Steak-umms in New England. When she arrived in Philadelphia about seven years ago, "I would bike around and see all these restaurants had [signs for] 'steak' in the window," she said. "I was from a place where steaks were steaks - what they put on black eyes in cartoons. I thought, 'These people are really into beef' - until I learned better."
Wyman and her husband, Philip Blumenkrantz, first sampled Pat's and Geno's, the rivals across the corner of Ninth Street and Passyunk Avenue. "That's really the extent of cheesesteaks for a lot of locals," she said.
She had written books about single ingredients such as Spam and Jell-O, and seized upon the topic of cheesesteaks. Running Press bit.
The book is a travelogue studded with sidebars describing minutiae such as the many variations of meat and condiments. For good measure, tucked inside the back cover is a DVD of the locally produced documentary This Is My Cheesesteak.
The project is as much anthropology as it is about food.
"Steak shops reflect the character of their neighborhoods," Wyman said. "Having eaten at all these places, I found that what makes these local shops so great are the people who serve them to you."
When asked who makes the best steak in Philly, she was quick to reply: "This book is not a contest." She acknowledged her favorites as Johnny's Hots, Donkey's, Grey Lodge Pub, Philip's, Talk of the Town and Sonny's for "slab-style" beef, and Claymont, Dalessandro's and Pagano's for chopped-up steaks.
She's sampled Cheez Whiz, American and provolone.
And she never ate a cheesesteak served on Villeroy & Boch china.
In the kitchen of Le Bec-Fin, Perrier and his executive chef, a native Bostonian named Nicholas Elmi, go over the ingredients. Perrier's baker has come up with a baguette - crustier than most regulation rolls, sturdy enough to withstand sauces.
Perrier slices open the baguette, and turns to the stove.
He pours a puddle of olive oil into a cast-iron skillet, lets it heat and tosses in about nine ounces of prime filet (which had been frozen so it could be shaved thin). As he gives the meat a gentle stir under a dusting of salt and pepper, he pops in a healthy blob of butter.
After a few minutes, he removes the browned meat and puts it on a dinner plate to rest. In the skillet, he heats caramelized onion. It's time to assemble: Homemade Dijon mustard goes on the baguette, followed by caramelized onion and meat. From a container, he spoons on sliced, pickled carrots and onions - his version of "hots" - plus a spoonful of beef au jus reduced with red wine.
Perrier tops the sandwich with slices of Gruyère, the nutty-sweet Swiss cheese, and, because he's Georges Perrier and he's on camera, browns the sandwich with a blowtorch.
Last Thursday, as Le Bec-Fin's staff prepared for dinner service, Wyman sat beneath crystal chandeliers in the art deco dining room for a taste test.
Perrier emerged from the kitchen with a cheesesteak on a plate garnished with fries. (They're Le Bec-Fin's signature frites, which just might be the tastiest in the city.)
Perrier sat next to her as Wyman - assured that Perrier is a big boy who can accept feedback - picked up the sandwich.
"Mmm," she began, chewing through the cheese and hitting the roll. "It tastes more like a regulation cheesesteak than I expected. The onions are very caramelized. There's a lot of cheese. . . . The cheese is very dominant. I wouldn't send this back. I was afraid it was going to be too much of a gourmet riff, but it's got tradition behind it."
Perrier asked if Wyman noticed the mustard.
Wyman recoiled. "You don't put mustard on a cheesesteak," she said flatly, though she added that she didn't really taste it. She resumed eating.
"Everything should be subtle," Perrier said.
Asked if he'd add a cheesesteak to Le Bec-Fin's menu, Perrier replied: "Why not? I put on a burger."
Makes 2 servings
Extra virgin olive oil
9 ounces of prime filet of beef, frozen, and thensliced very thin
1 teaspoon butter
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 onions chopped and cooked until caramelized
1 tablespoon of pickled onion and carrots
2 teaspoons of beef jus
3 slices of Gruyère cheese
1. Heat a pan with extra virgin olive oil until very hot. Add the meat and the butter, and cook until medium.
2. Slice the baguette and place in an oven to warm.
3. When bread is heated, put mustard, onion, pickled vegetables, meat, a little beef juice, and cheese over the sandwich and melt in the broiler.