So week 2 got us beyond much of the newness and confusion of life at Le Cordon Bleu. And by the end of the week it seemed that I had finally eased into the rhythm of demos and practicals that I will live for the next 10 months. It was an especially busy week given that we had 4 practicals and were in class Monday thru Saturday.
It was also the week that I was assigned to be an “assistant.” Every week, 2 students in each of the practical groups are assigned this responsibility. What this means is that we need to arrive in the kitchen 30 minutes prior to our class time and set things up for the rest of the students and the chef.
This involves a couple tasks. The basement of the school is the sous area. This is where a lot of the prep work is done, things like making stocks, pre-measuring out and cutting ingredients for the chef demo and assembling the ingredient packages for all of the student practicals.
The assistants go down to the basement and find the ingredients that the class requires and send them up to the proper kitchen floor via a set of “dumb waiter” elevators. Once we retrieve the ingredients up in the kitchen, we then set up the workstations for the students and distribute ingredients so when the students and chef enter the practical kitchen, we are ready to begin.
After the practical, the assistants are also the last to leave as they must stay and ensure that the unused ingredients are sent back down to the sous area and they are also responsible for making sure the kitchen is spotless.
The good news is that this week I finally felt like I was actually starting to learn to cook instead of just getting acclimated to the rules and procedures and the expectations of being a student here. This week also made me realize just how busy I am going to be trying to keep up!
Yeast, Doughs and Pastries
Lessons 4 thru 6 were designed to teach us how to work with some basic doughs and pastries that are commonly used in cuisine.
The Pissaladiere, is an onion tart with anchovies and olives. Its origin is the south of France. The lesson required us to make a savory yeast dough from scratch (which was the bulk of the challenge), demonstrate the proper techniques of emince’ (thinly slice) and sautee’ing an onion, peeling, blanching, seeding and slicing fresh tomato, assembly, baking and presentation.
This practical went fairly smoothly. At the end, the chef reviewed each one’s work, including their end product, overall technique and cleanliness. When he got to me he simply said – “Parfait!” Yes!!!! I’ll take a small victory at this point as I know there will be plenty of missteps coming.
After the lesson I was talking to the chef and I asked him if I could replace the flour in this dish with any non-gluten flours since my wife has Celiac disease. He told me because the nature of this dough is to be elastic, there was really no good replacement for the gluten in this case. I responded that I guess you can replace flour in heavier kinds of doughs and things such as “Brownies.”
Just as that word came out of my mouth, I realized that I was speaking to a classically trained French chef who had years of experience and skills in working with the most traditional, complex and beautiful pastries and breads in the world, and I had just said the word “Brownie” to him!! It took me a minute to realize that what I thought was his inquisitive stare was really his eyes searing an indelible capital “L” on my forehead. Je suis un Américan stupide!!!
The next lesson had 2 parts. First we were required to do the preparation for a “Puff Pastry” dough which we would use in the next lesson. The preparation required us to mix the dough from scratch, “turn” the dough 4 times, and wrap and refrigerate for the next lesson. Puff Pastry dough is that wonderful stuff that rises into those delicious buttery layers that you see in such things as beef wellington. These layers are the result of a tricky procedure of folding an inner layer of butter into dough and then folding or “turning” the dough 6 times in order to create those laters prior to baking. Technique and temperature are critical in this process.
For the Quiche, we had to make from scratch and blind bake a short pastry dough (basically a pie crust), trim, cut and sweat salted cured pork and make the filling with eggs, cream, nutmeg, and gruyere cheese.
The most difficult and time consuming part here was the Puff Pastry preparation as this required the most technique. As for the Quiche, I found this pretty straightforward and was complimented by the chef when she said, it looked perfect and I could sell this in a shop in Paris! She said I could get about 15 Euro!
Lesson 6: Things get a Little Harder
Lesson 6 is where things started getting a bit more demanding. This practical required us to finish our Puff Pastry, julienne and braise leeks, reduce chicken and veal stock, peel and Brunoise a red pepper, poach and trim 4 eggs, make an albufera sauce, thicken the sauce with a “beurre manie,” roll out and cut the pastry into designs, bake the pastry shells, assemble the dish by filling the pastry with the leeks, topping with the poached egg, covering with sauce and garnishing the presentation.
This was the first time I felt like I was juggling 5 things at a time in the kitchen and it really tested my multi-tasking skills. I think it’s a harbinger for how difficult things are going to become here. It’s truly amazing to watch the chef’s create these things, they make the process look so seamless and easy.
Well, my streak of perfects came to an end with this practical. Just as I put the pastry shells in the oven, I realized that I had over thickened my albufera sauce. It was like paste, it wouldn’t even go through the chinois. I also was supposed to reduce the veal stock to a glaze, but I burnt mine and had to borrow a Tbsp of veal glaze from a classmate. Sigh… I was disappointed but I also know that by screwing it up, I’m more likely to have learned not to do it again.
When the chef came by to review my work, I told him upfront that I ruined my sauce (as if he couldn’t tell – duh!!). He very politely nodded and pushed the egg over, tasted the leeks underneath and said “tres bien.” He then tested the doneness of the egg and said “tres bien.” And then he tested the texture of the Puff Pastry and said “tres bien.” I was grateful he acknowledged the things I did right. This was a complicated task for me.
About mid-week, I was having some serious doubts about my decision to come here and study at this school. It was a very demanding week and frankly I was physically and mentally beat up. I started thinking, why am I putting myself through all of this work for a year when I could just enjoy retirement? But I think that maybe this is exactly what I need. At 56 years old, I’m lucky to be so busy and challenged doing something of my choosing, something where I can grow. Being tested mentally and physically at this point in my life, is a good thing.
Something else even more interesting occurred to me this week. Part of our standard uniform in the kitchen is a simple cotton apron that we tie around our waist. Except for the school markings on it, the apron is identical to those that I tied around myself a million times as a young man working in my Dad’s market back in Muskegon, MI. Now, on the other side of the world here in Paris, each time I tie that apron on and I get my hands dirty either from cutting produce or handling meat or fish, I’m so vividly reminded of those days as a boy working in that store. I’m reminded of the place where I came from, the place where I started this 56-year journey and most importantly, I’m reminded of who I am.
The sapped and bone-weary feeling I get after a long day in the kitchen here at school, is remarkably reminiscent of how I would feel way back when, coming home to my parents house after working a shift in our family market. My feet and my back would ache, my hands would smell like food and I knew that I had accomplished something that day. It may not have been a glamorous accomplishment, but it was authentic and it was genuine. For over 30 years I had lost that feeling. It’s good to be home again.