My fascination with French food started when I stumbled upon Laura Calder and her James Beard Award-winning TV series, French Food at Home. Soon after discovering Laura, I fell head over heels for Julia Child, and that love affair quickly led to a burning desire to attend Le Cordon Bleu Paris. I made that dream a reality on October 6, 2011, when I took part in the first of two culinary demonstrations at what is quite possibly the world’s most famous cooking school.
The first demonstration was a lesson in food and wine pairing featuring red varietal wines. I would be lying if I told you I was a wine aficionado, but course choices were limited and this one fit my schedule. Besides, my goal was not to learn how to successfully pair French cuisine with red wines made from a single grape variety. It was to get a peek inside this iconic institution.
It took me the better part of an hour on the Paris Metro to get from my rented apartment in Le Marais to Le Cordon Bleu, but it seemed much longer. (When you are as excited as a 10-year-old girl on her way to a Justin Bieber concert, time just has a way of dragging.) In my eagerness, I managed to embarrass myself by arriving 50 minutes early. The school’s receptionist politely invited me to wait in the Winter Garden which isn’t a garden at all. It’s not even outside. It’s more like a café where full-time students hang out before and after class. I loved sitting there at my little corner table, soaking it all in, listening to the students chattering away in a half-dozen different languages. Men, women, young, older. They came from all over the world to pursue their dream, and despite their obvious differences in age, gender and nationality, they looked surprisingly similar with their white chef jackets and checked pants, with their hair pulled back from their faces. As 7:00 p.m. approached, the Winter Garden filled to standing room only with people dressed in street clothes, like me. It might not have been my first choice, but plenty of other foodies in Paris were certainly interested in a lesson on pairing food and wine!
Once inside the classroom, we all scrambled to find a seat, squashing ourselves into the kind of old-fashioned student desks that I hadn’t seen since I was in Elementary school. There were about 40 people in the class, and I think at least half of them were probably French-speaking. The sommelier, Jean-Michel Deluc, gave the wine lecture in French. Monsieur Deluc has had a very long and illustrious career as a sommelier in some of the most prestigious establishments in Paris, including Fouquet’s and the Espadon restaurant in the Ritz hotel. Chef Marc Thivet, the recipient of many culinary awards, was in charge of the cuisine part of the demonstration (also delivered in French). Fortunately for me, there was a third gentleman, a British chap, who acted as a translator for both Monsieur Deluc and Chef Thivet.
Carpaccio de betterave et sa petite salade croquante (Beet carpaccio with a crisp salad) paired with Val de pays de Loire Gamay 2010 Domaine du Moulin Camus
Ruby red beets sliced paper-thin, topped with a crisp salad of black radish, apples, celery and smoked haddock, drizzled with a sherry cream vinaigrette and garnished with chervil.
Chef Thivet had diced and blanched the smoked haddock beforehand so the dish did not taste the least bit fishy. This was my first time tasting smoked haddock, beets, black radish, and chervil, and I thought they came together to make a salad that was absolutely delicious.
Magret de canard rôti aux épices, purée de celeri et abricots, navets fondants (Roast duck breast with spice, celery root purée with apricots, and tender daikon radish) paired with Saint-Joseph 2007 Nicolas Perrin
Duck breasts (from a foie gras fattened duck, of course) rubbed with a blend of coriander, anise, cinnamon, cardamom, salt and Szechuan pepper, seared skin down and then roasted until rare. Served over a sweet creamy celery root purée flecked with diced dried apricots, a glazed daikon radish, and then finished with a rich gastrique sauce.
I have no doubt that the duck was cooked perfectly, but it was just a bit too rare for my taste. The daikon radish (another first!) tasted like candy, and the celery root purée and the gastrique were simply amazing.
Tarte Aux Figues Rôties (Roasted fig tart) paired with Maydie Vignobles Laplace Tannat
A luscious dessert of sweet pastry filled with almond cream, pistachio paste, and firm fresh figs.
It’s dessert. What’s not to like? This was my first taste of pistachio paste and I thought it was so scrumptious that I made a point of buying an entire jar of the stuff the very next day.
I won’t even pretend to have an informed opinion about the wine pairings since when it comes to red wine, I truly do have an uneducated palate. The only part of the wine lecture that I retained related to the dessert pairing. The sommelier informed us that it’s a huge mistake to serve champagne with dessert (especially an extra brut or brut). The dryness of the champagne competes with the sweetness of the dessert instead of complimenting it, and neither one ends up tasting right. Have you ever eaten a hot fudge sundae and then taken a sip of Coke, only to discover that your sugary cola has turned into tasteless soda water? Well, it’s the same concept at work when you drink champagne with dessert.
Class ended at 9:00 pm and everyone made a mad dash for the restrooms. I was waiting patiently in line when one of the Chef’s assistants came along and offered to show me to a second restroom located one floor up. Lucky me! She led me up a back staircase past portraits of some of the school’s most famous alumni! Gazing at those photos, I couldn’t help but sense the history and tradition of Le Cordon Bleu Paris. She also let me peek into one of the immaculate professional teaching kitchens where hands-on practical classes are held.
I was ecstatic! I got what I came for – an inside look at Le Cordon Bleu Paris – and it did not disappoint. As I walked back to the Vaugirard Metro station that evening I was already looking forward to returning the following afternoon for my second session.
Le Cordon Bleu Paris 8, rue Léon Delhomme 75015 Paris Culinary Demonstrations ~ Food and Wine Pairing Date: October 6, 2011 Cost: 65.00 € Style: Demonstration, Small Plates Paired with Wine Duration: 2 hours Chef Instructor: Marc Thivet Sommelier: Jean-Michel Deluc Highlights: Seeing the framed photos of past alumni (including Julia Child and Giada De Laurentiis) hanging in the back stairwell. Improvement Opportunities: A little more elbow room would have been nice. It was almost impossible to balance a plate of food, a glass of wine, a recipe booklet and a camera on that tiny desktop.