In what seems like a blink of an eye, (or insert your favorite “passing of time” cliche’ here), weeks 6 and 7 of Basic Cuisine at Le Cordon Bleu are in the books, and even worse, I’m 2 weeks older!!! As has been the case for the last several weeks, the work here continues to transition from a state of fear and panic to being more and more interesting and fun. In the kitchen, we now seem organized and efficient which gives us the time to think about the important details, like the doneness of the ingredients, the textures , seasoning and presentation. The details are becoming more and more wonderfully subtle and I’m genuinely enjoying this experience now. I even now find myself going out of my way after school to walk past cooking stores. 😉
Of course, all of this will change shortly as we are only 3 weeks from exams. The exams at school here consist of a written test and a cooking exam. For the cooking exam, which is 50% of our grade, we were given a list of 10 dishes out of the 30 we have done (or will soon do) this semester. We are given 2:45 for the exam. We pick one of the dishes randomly out of a hat and then we are given 15 minutes to list out the ingredients and measurements by memory. After we submit that we are given the actual ingredient list and a basket of ingredients where we have no more than 2-1/2 hours to prepare and present the dish by memory and clean up the kitchen. We will also have to demonstrate proficiency in one “technical” task, which is going to be turning an artichoke and properly cooking it in a “Blanc de Cuisson.”
The prepared dishes are tasted and graded by a panel of 4 retired chefs, whom we have never met. Since we are in “Basic” cuisine, they look for proper doneness, seasoning, and respect for the ingredients and the techniques called for in the dish. I’ve started retyping all my notes and studying them, but at least right now, I feel pretty overwhelmed by the prospect of this test.
The Perfect Souffle
One of the rites of passage of Basic Cuisine here is the Souffle lesson. If you remember the original movie version of “Sabrina,” Audrey Hepburn was the chauffer’s daughter who went to Paris to study cooking at Le Cordon Bleu. In one memorable scene, she was reprimanded by the strict french chef for badly failing her Souffle lesson.
So I knew the bar was set pretty low when I entered the kitchen last Monday, whisk in my holster and ready to break some serious eggs and fold me some damn stiff peaks.
As I tentatively opened the oven and gently moved my creation to my workspace, I called the chef over. The chef immediately instructed me to get my camera out and take a picture. He proclaimed that “THIS is a Souffle – Parfait!”
So let me give you a bit of advice Audrey, you need to understand that the Souffle is not about following a recipe or mastering a specific technique. “Aue contraire,” no, the Souffle is something that is already inside of you my friend. It’s like being brought to tears at the Opera even though you don’t understand a word of Italian, or turning your wrists over at the exact perfect moment in order to compress the golf ball at impact. The Souffle can’t be explained or taught Audrey. But it’s there. You just have to look deep enough and you will find it. For the perfect Souffle is in your soul! (what do you think? a bit much?)
Beef and Veal
The recipe’s of the last 2 weeks have gotten more complex and more interesting. We are now regularly juggling 3-4 pans on the range at different heats, with something in the oven and doing some prep work such as cutting or peeling vegetables all at the same time. But it’s remarkably manageable.
Over the past 2 weeks, we have prepared deep Fried Shrimp Beignet’s where we made the mayonnaise and tarter sauce, Beef Burgundy which was a multiple day process due to marinating, Roasted Sirloin with Potato Puree, Traditional Veal Stew with Rice Pilaf, Roasted Duck with Turnips, Grilled Beef Filets with Baernaise Sauce and Potatoes “Pont Neuf” (steak fries) and Sauteed Veal Chops with “Grand-Mere” Garnish. I am attaching a few photo’s below of the dishes. Oh, one thing I should mention. Most of the photo’s I attach of dishes are of the chef’s presentation that is done during the demonstration period. For the most part, all of our student presentations in the kitchen are quite good and look similar to the chef’s (that is, when they only do a classic, basic presentation). It’s very difficult to take a photo in the kitchen, we are so busy trying to get done and also most of the chefs frown on us getting out out phones and cameras in the kitchen.
The Parisianne Life
Life continues to be pretty good here in Paris. I’m still so busy with school that we don’t find enough time to get out to do enough. But I have a break coming up and we are planning to spend 4 days in Lisbon and then a few days in London before coming back to the states for a while.
Susan has gotten involved with a couple of expat groups and seems like everyday she has an activity of some guided walk through Paris or a lunch or a coffee meeting. I decided to start using the bus system over the metro. It’s so much more civilized and I love being above ground. It takes a bit longer but I get to see the beautiful city in the daytime and at evening. Plus there is a great scenic bus route that almost takes me door to door to school and back.
The next 3 weeks will be busy preparing for the exam and hopefully successfully completing my first semester. I feel ok about my prospects and I’m looking forward to the next semester, Intermediate Cuisine, which has a special focus on respecting regional traditions in French cooking. Also I get the sense that Intermediate (and Superior) is difficult, yet a bit more relaxed in that you have already shown you are serious and can get past Basic Cuisine and therefore the chefs can really focus on teaching you more advanced concepts.
This coming Wednesday we are fortunate to have a friend of Susan’s coming to visit for a week or so. I’m planning on taking the Eurostar over to London for the weekend to give the “girls” some space and also hopefully get in some “study time” on the train.
I’m also pleasantly surprised at how much French I am picking up purely by osmosis. I can get around in a restaurant or market quite well now. I can’t really carry on a conversation yet, but when I hear people talk I’m starting to catch words or phrases that I understand when before it just sounded like a bunch of gibberish to me.
Oh, on the topic of “it’s a small world,” I was standing outside a cafe near school on Monday night when someone grabbed my arm and said “John?” It turned out to be a guy who used to work on my team in Paris for over 10 years. He didn’t even know I was living here. It was quite remarkable in a city of this size, what are the chances?
So What Does it All Mean?
I’ve been trying to reflect a bit lately about this experience and what it is that makes it so intriguing to me. When I signed up, I knew it would be a great adventure, but frankly I had no idea how rewarding I would find it.
It seems we live in a culture of “Me” where there is so little patience and there is a shortcut for everything. Political arguments (or so-called ones) on complex topics and personal attacks are made in 128 characters or less. We communicate via SMS messages instead of taking the time to speak to one another. We demand an instant response from any arbitrary information source from anywhere in the world. And worst of all, there seems to be little respect, even disdain, for the traditions, people and institutions that brought us to where we are.
In the last 2 months, I’ve learned something. I’ve learned that to “Cook”, means to understand the traditions, the regional character and the techniques of the dish. It is about using only the best and the freshest ingredients even if it means making everything from scratch. It means taking no shortcuts, and it often means performing hours of tedious and repetitive work, only to have it disappear in minutes.
I’m learning that at some level, cooking is about respect, patience, selflessness and doing something out of love for the enjoyment of others. I’m looking forward to learning a lot more…