Paris – A Class at Le Cordon Bleu
As soon as I knew we were going to Paris I knew I had to take a class at Le Cordon Bleu. This iconic institution has a long and prestigious culinary history and even going to a one evening class was a must, almost regardless of what was being taught. Founded over 100 years ago, the school attracts aspiring culinarians from all over the world and produces some of the best chefs in the world. The school was launched in 1895 as a culinary art school by Marth Distel, journalist and publisher of La Cuisiniere Cordon Bleu magazine in an effort to promote the magazine and launch a cooking school in Paris. Right from the beginning the school was a success, attracting great chefs to demonstrate and teach at the institution and students from all around the world begun to enrol in their prestigious cooking courses and diploma program. They have since opened satellite campuses all over the world but still, going to the Cordon Bleu in Paris is a unique experience that puts you in the center of this culinary capital.
One of their most famous students was of course Julia Child. Child attended a six weeks culinary training that launched her on a lifelong career in food beginning with the book Mastering the Art of French Cooking that took more than 10 years to complete. The Cordon Bleu even mentions the movie Julie and Julia on their website, you must remember this film about Julia who blogged about her attempt to make every recipe in Julia Child’s book (524 recipes) in 365 days.
I registered online for one class, a demonstration (or so I thought) of Appetizers in a Glass. Because of the Christmas season and the school’s closure for the holiday as well as my own schedule, I could only register for one class. Registration online was smooth, response was prompt and I received my confirmation and directions to the school, located in the south part of town, away from city centre. My friend and blogger Laura Goyer of An Uneducated Palate attended classes at Le Cordon Blue a few years ago and wrote about it beautifully in her posts here and here. Laura mentioned that it would be quite a track getting there.
The day arrived and I was set to embark on this short but meaningful culinary adventure. After all ITS THE CORDON BLEU. At the time we were staying at a hotel in the heart of Saint Germain and Jean-Paul at the hotel desk confirmed for me the metro route from the hotel to the school: line 12 to Mairie d’Issy, get off at Vaugirard ou Convention and walk to rue Leon Delhomme. I got off the metro okay and walked down rue Vaugirard, making a wrong turn on one of the side streets. I realized it pretty quickly and asked a couple of men chatting on the street corner which direction was the Cordon Bleu. They didn’t know where the Cordon Bleu was (only about a block away, how can they not know about this iconic landmark in the neighbourhood) but were able to point me in the right direction (I had the address of course).
When I arrived at the school in my usual fashion of barely a moment to spare everyone was already there and I was warmly greeted by Karine Carroy who organizes the Gastronomic courses at Le Cordon Bleu, as well as Rhona Poritzky who was the translator for the class that afternoon (the 3 hours class started at 3:30). Everyone was very friendly. I asked if it would be okay to take pictures and was assured that I was welcome to take any pictures I’d like. Soon we were gathered in a small room near the entrance and handed a plastic bag containing an apron and a towel with the Le Cordon Bleu monogram on. What? I was going to cook at the Cordon Bleu? I thought this was going to be a demonstration. If I had known I would have tried to sharpen my knife skills:). I tied on the apron and looped the towel chef-like over the apron string. No matter what, there was no way I was going to mess up this towel, it had to stay crisp as memento and for the pics. We left our personal belonging in the room in front of the reception and the door was locked to keep our stuff safe until the end of the class. Of course the camera came along on the adventure. It goes everywhere with me.
The class was to end at 6:30 and I had to fly out of there the moment it ended because we had tickets to an opera at the Palais Garnier that evening for a 7:30 performance. The opera was La Clemence de Titus, a Mozart opera I did not want to miss. The Garnier is on the right bank north of the river and two metro rides from the school. I mentioned it to Rhona who assured me that it would not be a problem getting there in time (she was right).
We soon followed Karine and Rhona up the stairs and through a door to what seemed like a hands on teaching kitchen. There was a long granite counter in the middle of the kitchen, already set with 8 cutting boards and several stainless steel bowls dispersed along the centre. There were knives by each cutting board. Six stoves (about), each with four electric burners were situated along the walls behind the working stations, and there were a few refrigerators below the counter. Whisks, spoons, blenders and other kitchen equipment were all there. What a fun place. Three young students at the institution were present to help the chef run the class and do some of the preparation. We were asked to take a position along the table. I went to the sink to wash my hands after the ride in public transportation before we started cooking.
The chef came into the kitchen a moment later and was introduced by Rhonda as Chef Patrick Caals. Chef Caals is French and had an impressive career that included such places as Fauchon, Hotel Ambassador and the Restaurant Maxim. He turned to teaching in 2006 at the Paul Bocus Institute in Lyon and then moved to the Alain Ducas Group. He joined the teaching staff at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris in 2008. Chef spoke in French, translated to English by Rhona. Rhona is a pastry chef who came to Paris from NYC fifteen years ago and never left. She was clearly knowledgeable in food and was able to translate everything into clear instructions that made everyone feel at ease.The 8 students seemed to be from around the world with a good representation of North Americans visiting Paris. We were not asked to introduce ourselves which was unfortunate as I like knowing the stories of those who attend the class with me, it’s part of the experience. Since this was a class format there was not much time for interaction or to learn more about each other informally.
Chef advised that we would be cooking our own food under his supervision. He would demonstrate and then we would follow his explanation and demonstration. We received a booklet with recipes, but the recipes were not what you think. These were merely lists of ingredients. No instructions, no written techniques. Chef suggested that we turn the page over and write the instructions as we work, so we remember how to prepare the dish at home. “We don’t teach you recipes, we teach technique” they say at the Cordon Bleu. I was okay with that as I am adventurous in the kitchen and don’t follow recipes precisely every time (who ever has all the ingredients anyway) but noticed others scrambling to write down everything and filling the blank page with line after line of notes. I took a lot of pictures that will serve in place of the notes.
We were to prepare three recipes for appetizers that can be served in a glass. I love this kind of cooking because it’s easy, simple and looks pretty in the dish.
We made the following recipes (At home I should be able to translate these into vegetarian versions quite easily):
- Sea bass, mango and cilantro tartare
- Red kuri pumpkin soup, diced fois gras and cep mushrooms cappuccino with parmesan crisp
- Crab, pear and lime “salad” with mustard mayonnaise and crispy croutons.
Before we started cooking Chef explained a few preliminaries that I think you may find interesting
- We will be using 2 of the elements on the electric stove behind us and Chef asked us to turn one on to high and another to medium-low. We will be cooking with these two elements and they had to be ready for the food, not the food waiting for the element to heat up or cool down. In a professional kitchen all burners but one will be turned on and the chef will move pans between them to control the heat required for the cooking, saving one to cool the pan off. Come to think of it I have seen chefs on TV shows flipping between burners and now I know why.
- We will use a diffuser (metal ring the pot sits on that separates the pot from the element) when letting food cook slowly (the soup got a diffuser at the end).
- Chef instructed to keep the work surface clean of scraps at all time. When one step was done the cutting board had to be cleaned and ready for the next step.
- A bowl for scraps was set in front of each student so we don’t run to the garbage can every time.
- A bowl with warm water and cloth was set in front of us use for to wiping the knives clean between steps.
- We were told not to place the knives on the cutting board before beginning to work. The board had to be clean and utensil set beside it, not on it.
- To clean the board we were asked to pull it just over the edge of the counter in front of us and scrape the peelings etc. into the scraps bowl that we held below it.
- Chef instructed to use the back of the knife to scrape the food into the bowl, not the sharp part of the knife, for obvious reasons (prevent from dulling it too soon).
- When peeling vegetables with a peeler Chef said that they peel away from you, not towards you. I have learned that from watching Jacques Pepin cook years ago and never forgot it. You have never seen knife skills like that, I guarantee.
With these preliminaries in mind we started cooking.
The kuri soup was first as it needed to be cooked and took a little longer to prepare. We did everything from scratch, including peeling the skin off the kuri pumpkin and chopping the flesh into pieces. Some were struggling with the thick peel. To make the soup we chopped onions and carrots, crushed a garlic clove (do not remove skin) and sautéed the mixture in a pan with a pat of butter (“this size” showed the chef), a couple sprigs of thyme and some chervil. We were told to be careful not to brown the vegetables. Mine begun to almost brown and I quickly removed the pot from the element and showed it to Chef, who advised to add a few drops of water to cool things down, a step I proceeded to follow. Once the vegetables were nicely coated with butter and beginning to soften we added a beautiful clear and light chicken stock just to cover, not to drown them, enough so you can still see the top of the vegetables in the pot. Chef said that it’s easier to add more stock if necessary then to correct if there is too much stock. We brought that to a boil and as soon as it boiled we moved it over to burner #2 already set to lower heat, covered the pot and let it simmer gently at the back of the stove . This is when the diffusers were passed around and we placed a diffuser between the element and the pot. I didn’t fully trust the system and checked it a few times as we went along, but things seemed fine for quite a while. At some point chef instructed to remove the soup from the heat and it was handed over to the assistants who proceeded to purée it and pass it through the chinois strainer, each soup separately, and return it to the pots behind our work stations. Chef had the assistants prepare a porcini mushroom cappuccino to garnish the soup with, made by whipping the mushrooms together with soy milk to a frothy consistency. Chef cooked the foie gras and ceps at the end of the class. There was a little more to the making of the soup but you get the idea.
For the sea bass and mango verrine chef first diced the mango and mixed it with the minced shallots, lime juice and olive oil. I think the cilantro went in as well although I wonder if it went in later to keep its colour. We each added salt and Tabasco to taste. Chef then removed the bass filet off the skin with a sharp flexible knife, then sliced the thicker part in half horizontally to create even thickness filets. He then proceeded to cut these into strips and then cut each strip into small dice, same size as the mango. We did what he did (not as gracefully) to prepare our own version. We added the sea bass to the mango and the salad-like mixture then went into the fridge (each two students shared a fridge just below the work surface) and on we went to complete the other recipe.
Next came the crab, pear and lime verrine. The crab was already cooked (it would have taken forever to cook that from scratch), so we peeled the pear (away from us), removed the seeds, cut it horizontally into a few slices and then vertically into strips and then diced the strips. We drizzled the pear with freshly squeezed lime juice (chef turned the lime skin inside out as he was squeezing it) to prevent discolouration. We added the prepared crab meat (shredded) and mixed, tasted for seasoning and refrigerated. Now we made mayonnaise from 2 egg yolk, peanut oil, salt and lime juice. We partnered for this step and my partner and I made a lighter, not too thick mayo. We added a little of the mayo to the crab and pear mixture and returned to the fridge. We were then given bread slices (perfectly square, which we proceeded to dice and the assistants fried them for us in a deep fryer in the back. These were to sprinkled on top of the verrine.
By then the atmosphere was rather relaxed and we were talking a little among ourselves and with Rhona the translator. I managed to keep my apron and towel crisp and clean, using paper towels to wipe the board clean between steps. I told you I wasn’t about to mess it so quickly.
What really surprised me at the end is that we were to take home all of the food we prepared. I thought we would just taste it in class but, no, they had verrines glasses (plastic) and little spoons ready for us together with a Cordon Bleu paper shopping bag and we were invited to pack our foods in covered containers they provided and take it home to enjoy later. Amazing. As I mentioned, I was going to the Garnier opera straight from class but there was no way I was leaving anything behind (I knew my husband would love a taste of these foods after the opera). I will have to check the bag in at coat check at the opera, together with my coat.
With class over I packed my food, said a quick goodbye to Rhona (chef was out of the kitchen) and ran down the stairs. As I was going down the chef came to the staircase to say goodbye and inquire if we enjoyed the class. I was embarrassed for leaving without seeking him out to thanks him for the wonderful experience and I apologized and said my thanks and goodbye on the stairs.
I made it to the opera just fine with plenty of time to spare. I checked the food together with my coat at coat check and not one was the wiser. I even had time to sip a short espresso at the counter on the second level, to keep me alert after a long day. It was only one class at the Cordon Bleu but I was on a high. Can’t wait to take another one.