Notre Dame de Paris | Find out what it's like to take a cooking class at the Ecole Ritz Escoffier in Paris

Notre Dame de Paris

I’ve been obsessed with Paris for as long as I can remember.  I’ve also developed a desire to learn everything there is to know about French culinary technique (a lofty goal, for sure). It seemed the best way to get started was to pack my bags and go straight to the source.

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, 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.

Find out what it's like to take a cooking class at the Ecole Ritz Escoffier in Paris

 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 me 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.

Find out what it's like to take a cooking class at the Ecole Ritz Escoffier in Paris

 

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 before Paris, 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.

Find out what it's like to take a cooking class at the Ecole Ritz Escoffier at the lxuurious Ritz Hotel in Paris

 

 

Menu d’Automne

Tart with Wild Mushrooms, Goat Cheese, and Walnuts

Stuffed Guinea Fowl with Yesteryear Vegetables

Roasted Apple with Prune Armagnac Ice Cream

 

Find out what it's like to take a cooking class at the Ecole Ritz Escoffier at the lxuurious Ritz Hotel in Paris

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.

Find out what it's like to take a cooking class at the Ecole Ritz Escoffier at the lxuurious Ritz Hotel in Paris

 

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.)

Find out what it's like to take a cooking class at the Ecole Ritz Escoffier at the lxuurious Ritz Hotel in Paris

 

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 flavored 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 clamored 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!

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

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Find out what it's like to take a cooking class at the Ecole Ritz Escoffier at the lxuurious Ritz Hotel in Paris