“In France, cooking is a serious art form and a national sport.” – Julia Child
My nights in Paris were a lot quieter than my days. The charming flat I had rented was in a beautiful old 18th century building and although it had been recently renovated, the amenities did not include the latest electronics. In fact, it didn’t even include a television. I knew this in advance but wasn’t concerned about it since I had brought my laptop along, but then the first time I plugged it in blue sparks came shooting out of the electrical outlet. I must have bought the wrong type of adapter. I didn’t have enough courage to go shopping for electrical gadgets in a country where I didn’t speak the language, and I didn’t want to risk burning down a piece of history, so I decided to just put the laptop away for the rest of my stay.
I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed spending my evenings unplugged. Most nights I didn’t get home until 10:00 or 11:00 pm, and by the time I climbed up the escargot-shaped stairway to my little retreat I was usually so tired that it was all I could do to open a cold beer, prop my aching feet on a bag of frozen hash browns, and map out my route for the following day. On those rare occasions when I could keep my eyes open, I curled up in my bed and lost myself in a good book. The night that I attended my first culinary demonstration at Le Cordon Bleu was one of those rare occasions.
With my impressions of that iconic institution still so fresh in my mind, I picked up Kathleen Flinn‘s memoir The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry: Love, Laughter, and Tears in Paris at the World’s Most Famous Cooking School, and continued reading where I had left off. Kathleen is one of my personal heroes. At the age of 36, she cashed in her life savings and moved to Paris to pursue her lifelong dream of attending Le Cordon Bleu Paris. After earning her Cuisine diploma, she wrote about her experience, drawing on over 600 pages of notes and 120 hours of audio recordings. In one of my favorite parts of the book, Kathleen tells the story of a particularly challenging day at the school when the fish recipe she recreated was harshly criticized by one of the teaching chefs. After class, she packed up her second-rate hake, brushed away her tears and set out for the Metro station and the long ride home. Within a block from the school, she saw a homeless man sitting on the sidewalk. She decided to offer him the fish that she now felt so much animosity towards. He accepted her gift, reached inside the bag, tore off a piece, popped it in his mouth and then proceeded to tell her it needed more salt! It would seem that being wealthy, pretentious or a member of the upper class are not necessary prerequisites for having an impeccable palate – at least not in Paris.
The next morning as I walked along rue Léon Delhomme to my second culinary demonstration at Le Cordon Bleu Paris, I realized I was looking for him – “the smartest man in the world” that Kathleen had written about in her book. Would he still be there three years later, sitting on the side of the street enjoying haute cuisine hand-outs from dejected culinary students? I secretly hoped so. After all, he was a bit of a celebrity. I was disappointed that I didn’t see him and couldn’t help but wonder what had become of him, but I didn’t have long to dwell on it because unlike the previous evening, I had arrived at Le Cordon Bleu with just moments to spare.
In the second session, there was a smaller group of students gathered in a larger classroom. I grabbed a seat at the front of the room and was pleased to see that Chef Marc Thivet would once again be instructing. The same culinary student who had assisted him the night before was also back, and the two of them were joined by another student who would be doing the translating.
THE PARIS MARKET MENU
The menu for the demonstration was not set until after the Chef had visited the food markets earlier that day. In other words, he chose the food before the recipes, based on what was fresh, in season and perhaps even on sale. This in itself was a lesson for me since I tend to do the complete opposite. I find a recipe I want to try, make a list of ingredients and then go grocery shopping.
The first dish we learned to make was the entrée (appetizer), a wonderful Risotto with Golden Chanterelle Mushrooms and Parmesan Shavings. I’ve made risotto before but not with the care and attention that went into this version. When chefs talk about cooking with love, what they’re really talking about is putting time and effort into a dish, about not taking shortcuts. Chef Marc certainly puts a lot of love into his risotto. First, he hand-washed each chanterelle and then peeled the stems so they would be extra tender. He sautéed them in butter until they were golden brown, then strained them and reserved the liquid so he could add all that flavor back into the risotto later on. He rinsed the Arborio rice under a cold tap until the water was no longer cloudy. At that point he added the rice to a sauté pan of finely diced onions softened in olive oil, and let it toast for a few minutes. Once the rice started to smell like popcorn, he added the first of many ladles full of chicken stock to the pan. Chef cooked the risotto gently over low heat and stirred it often.
Here are a few of Chef Marc’s rules for making risotto:
- Always use a sauté pan.
- Always stir with a rubber spatula.
- Risotto waits for no one. Do not let it sit and do not reheat it.
- Wait until the risotto is fully cooked and has been removed from the heat before adding any seasoning.
In addition, he shared some general rules that apply to all cuisine:
- Always serve hot food on a hot plate.
- Always use all 4 burners on your stove, even when you are only cooking with one pan. Turn one burner on high, another to medium, the third one to low and leave the last one off, and always use the same arrangement. Then control the heat by moving the pot between the burners.
For the main, Chef Marc showed us how to make Roast Monkfish served with Basil Infused Potato Mousseline and a Creamy Garlic and Parsley Sauce. This recipe actually consisted of six mini recipes, and if that weren’t complex enough, recipes from Le Cordon Bleu aren’t recipes as you and I know them. They are just a list of principal ingredients followed by a list of decorations. No cooking times or temperatures, no method, no technique, no instructions. Just a list of ingredients with the quantities given in metric. It’s up to you to take good notes and rely on your taste memory to recreate the dish at home. Unfortunately for me, I ran out of paper on this one.
Monkfish is sometimes called poor man’s lobster. I’m not sure why. I didn’t think it tasted anything like lobster. When cooked, it has a dense, meaty texture and an opaque mother-of-pearl sheen, but it has a much stronger fishy taste than lobster and it’s not nearly as sweet. Somehow Chef Marc managed to turn this ugly beast of a bottom-dweller into one of the most beautiful plates of food I’ve ever seen.
It also tasted heavenly and that may have had something to do with another one of Chef Marc’s rules – this one for making mashed potatoes:
- The correct ratio of potatoes to butter is 2:1, so for every two pounds of potatoes, you’ll need to add one pound of butter. He wasn’t joking.
For dessert, we learned how to make a simple Puff Pastry Apple Tart with Caramel and Guérande Sea Salt Ice Cream. The pastry dough was already made when class started so the tart came together quite quickly. Chef rolled the dough out to a large rectangle and pierced it all over with a fork. He then sliced Golden Delicious Apples very thin (about 1 mm thick) and arranged them on top. They were then sprinkled with a pinch of vanilla powder and some sugar, then popped into the oven to bake.
This dish was so fantastic and so easy to make, I couldn’t wait to try it when I got home from Paris. I’m proud to say that it turned out just as well as the original.
“If you’re afraid of butter, use cream.” – Julia Child
8, rue Léon Delhomme
ParisCulinary Demonstrations ~ Paris Market TourDate:
October 7, 2011
Cost: 45.00 €
Style: Demonstration, Small Plates
Duration: 2 ½ hours
Chef Instructor: Marc Thivet
Highlights: Receiving the signed official Le Cordon Bleu Certificate of Attendance at the end of the class.
Improvement Opportunities: The online course schedule could have been a little clearer. I wasn’t sure if I was registering for a walking tour of a Paris Market, or a culinary demonstration, or both. Although the name of this class was “Paris Market Tour” it did not include a visit to the market.