Last fall I went on an incredible 17-day adventure to Paris, and like most first-time visitors to the City of Light, I hit all the major attractions. I stood in line for hours to ride the elevator up to the second level of the Eiffel Tower, admired the spectacular view, and then took the stairs all the way back down. The famous women residing at the Louvre mesmerized me, the Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa, and I was so overwhelmed by the museum’s vast collection that I went back again a few days later to spend more time there. I took a day-trip to Versailles where I marvelled at the excesses of Louis XIV and his Court. I made the pilgrimage to Notre Dame, Saint-Sulpice, Saint Eustache, Sacré Coeur, La Madeleine and Sainte-Chapelle where the spectacular stained glass windows left me dazzled. I smiled at the mimes in Montmartre before going to pay my respects at Jim Morrison’s grave and Napoleon’s tomb. I strolled along the banks of the Seine during the day, and at night I joined the throng of pedestrians parading down the Champs-Élysées. I climbed 284 steps to the top of the Arc de Triomphe, then gaped at the sight of the traffic below. I had never seen an aerial view of a traffic circle before, let alone one with eight-lanes, or one where the cars entering the roundabout have the right away – a scene I can only describe as complete chaos!
I ate ice cream from Berthillon, falafel on Rue des Rosiers, macarons from Ladurée, and more pain au chocolate than I’d like to admit. I also ate the sweetest, juiciest slice of cantaloupe I’d ever tasted, directly from the knife blade of a burly vendor in the Bastille Market. But I didn’t have any of these things in mind when I booked my trip to Paris. All I could think about was indulging my fascination with the art of French culinary technique.
My first lesson took place at La Cuisine Paris where I got my feet wet learning how to cook duck confit from an English-speaking American chef. From there, I progressed to the venerable Le Cordon Bleu where I attended two wonderful culinary demonstrations, both taught by a French chef with full translation to English. In the first class at Le Cordon Bleu, we learned about pairing French food and wine, and in the second we learned how to use classic French culinary technique to transform seasonal market fresh food into an elegant feast. And finally, I graduated to the École Ritz Escoffier, the epitome of haute cuisine, for my last lesson.
Mural in the kitchen at the École Ritz Escoffier
The 4 hour culinary workshop took place on a Saturday afternoon in October, in the kitchens deep below the Hôtel Ritz Paris. Chef David Goulaze spoke only French as he guided the class through a menu of seasonal recipes. The chef’s assistant, Sophie, provided some translation but she had plenty of other responsibilities that kept her busy (setting the table, uncorking the wine, assisting Chef David) and she was often out of the kitchen. Even if she weren’t, it would have been impossible for her to translate verbatim since Chef David never stopped talking long enough to give her the chance. This wasn’t a problem for most of the students since the class was predominately French-speaking. Only myself and a young couple from London didn’t speak the language. If I were to take a guess, I would say that only about 20% of what the chef said was actually translated for the benefit of the English-speaking students.
We prepared the meal much like a kitchen brigade where each student assumed responsibility for certain tasks. Unbeknownst to me, the cutting board you positioned yourself behind at the beginning of the class determined which tasks you would inevitably be assigned. I had unwittingly volunteered for the role of garçon de cuisine (kitchen boy) when I chose to stand by a bowl of apples and a hotel pan filled with potatoes.
Having lived in the Okanagan Valley for the last twelve years, I was reasonably sure I knew my way around an apple, but I was wrong. Once I had removed the peel and sliced the apples in half, Chef David showed me how to use a cuillère Parisienne to spoon out the core. (In my life B.P.* I referred to this little tool as a melon baller.) The Parisienne spoon left a very small and tidy hole where the core had been.
I had also walked into the École Ritz Escoffier somewhat confident with my potato-peeling skills but Chef David still found a thing or two to teach me about spuds. In rapid-fire French, he explained how to trim the peeled potatoes into tournés. I didn’t understand a word he said but I watched spellbound as he carved a perfect barrel-shaped potato with seven sides and two evenly pointed ends. He demonstrated just once and then moved on to help the next student. Sophie explained that I should copy his potato so that all the vegetables were exactly the same size, ensuring even cooking while being aesthetically pleasing to the eye. It took me most of the afternoon to turn that pan of potatoes into little torpedoes.
While I whittled away, the students who had positioned themselves near the mushrooms focused on preparing the appetizer. At one point, we all stopped what we were doing to watch Chef David give a very lengthy lesson on the intricate folds and turns required to make puff pastry.
Chef David also demonstrated how to mince shallots…
And gave a lesson on butterflying Guinea Fowl breasts…
Déguste sur place (dine after cooking)…
Tart with Wild Mushrooms, Goat Cheese and Walnuts
Stuffed Guinea Fowl with Yesteryear Vegetables
Roasted Apple with Prune Armagnac Ice Cream
Tart with Wild Mushrooms, Goat Cheese and Walnuts
We started off our Autumn feast with puff pastry tarts filled with a mixture of goat cheese, cream, eggs, chopped walnuts and nutmeg, topped with sautéed mushrooms, then baked until golden. We paired the tart with a teacup filled with creamy mushroom soup that the chef improvised from some of the leftover mushrooms. I imagine French children grow up eating this stuff, much like American kids eat canned tomato soup, but to me it tasted very French and very exotic. It was rich and satisfying beyond belief. I only wish the soup had actually been on the menu because then it would have also been included in the recipe booklet.
Stuffed Guinea Fowl and Yesteryear Vegetables
To make the main course, we prepared a farce of chicken meat, egg white, cream, brandy and finely chopped pistachios, and then used it to stuff butterflied Guinea Fowl breasts. Using a farce (also called forcemeat stuffing) is a classic French culinary technique where you basically stuff meat with meat (or in this case, poultry with poultry). Once stuffed, Chef browned the fowl in a sauté pan then braised it in ruby port, veal stock and aromatics.
The yesteryear vegetables fascinated me – a strange-looking collection of root vegetables including parsnip chervil, Jerusalem artichokes, Chinese artichokes, salsify and the more familiar carrots and potatoes – cooked using a method called blanc de cuisson, or white cooking. (If you look at the photo above at about 7:00 o’clock you can see my contribution to the dish, one of my ‘turned’ potatoes.)
Roasted Apple with Prune Armagnac Ice Cream
For dessert, we poached the apples I had prepped in simple syrup for about 5 minutes, then rolled them in warm honey and roasted them in the oven for another 8 minutes. We also made ice cream flavoured with Armagnac and dried prunes. Although this was a simple dessert, the taste was incredible! Back in the real world, I probably wouldn’t garnish each plate with an entire vanilla bean and a handmade chocolate, but on this day at least, we were dining at the Ritz!
After dinner, Chef David called each of us forward to present us with our Certificates. It was the only time in my life I’d heard my given name pronounced with three syllables, and I loved it!
My Saturday at the École Ritz Escoffier was as much a cultural experience as it was a culinary one. Julia Child once said that “in France, cooking is a serious art form and a national sport”, and that was certainly the case with this group. Every time Chef David asked for a volunteer, people clamoured over each other for the opportunity. When it came to cooking, there wasn’t a timid soul in the entire class. The students approached their tasks with confidence and seemed to feed off of the Chef’s exuberance, creating an atmosphere that was energetic and at times even a little chaotic. I was most surprised when we sat down to eat, and dinner genuinely felt like a family affair. Everyone ate with great gusto while they carried on animated conversations peppered with plenty of laughter. My dinner companions passed the bread basket often and kept my wine glass filled throughout the meal.
“Food is our common ground, a universal experience.” ~ James Beard
There were times during the day that I felt like I was in over my head, but that had more to do with my inability to understand French than my lack of culinary skill. I probably wouldn’t recommend this class to beginners and I would also hesitate to recommend it to anyone who doesn’t speak the language, but knowing now what I didn’t know then, would I do it again? Absolutely!
*B.P. = BEFORE PARIS
The Ritz Escoffier School of French Gastronomy 15, Place Vendôme 75001 Paris Samedi Du Ritz ~ Menu d'Automne Date: October 8, 2011 Cost: 150.00 € Style: Déguste sur place (Dine after cooking) Duration: 4 hours Chef Instructor: David Goulaze