Le Cordon Bleu

By Patty LaNoue Stearns

PARIS–It is one of those rare and exhilarating moments: heading down the quiet little Left Bank street near the Eiffel Tower and up the stairs into the legendary cooking school Le Cordon Bleu. Celebrating its centennial year, this is the place that launched Julia Child in 1950, Audrey Hepburn’s Sabrina in 1955, and just weeks ago, actor Dustin Hoffman’s two teenagers. So, hey–why not me?

A few months earlier, my sister Nancy and I wrote to the school, enrolling in a couple of one-day courses, “Discover the Paris Markets” and “Traditional Cooking for Friends.” While the school’s main emphasis is on serious training for career chefs, anyone with the inclination, time and money–classes start at around $100–can attend the day courses. I have no pretensions about my two-day tete-a-tete with the French master chefs. I’m just hoping for a few basic tips on food preparation, a nice stroll through the outdoor markets, a mini hands-on foray into the wondrous world of French food. Oh, but I get so much more. Read on.

To market, to market

After serving us a buttery platter of warm croissants and steaming coffee, Bettina Thibaud, our interpreter, and chef de cuisine Christian Guillut whisk us away for a subway ride on the Metro to Place Monge. Our class is small–five American women–manageable enough to hear our guides and move easily through the open-air market. Chef Guillut’s English is fine; Thibaud only needs to occasionally smooth it out. “Everyone has a market in their own area,” Guillut explains. “Usually we know people in our markets, so we always go to the same one each time.” That way, he gets the best cuts of meat and other choice items. At Monge, canopied stands feature rustic bread, cheeses, meats, sausages, wines, fragrant fruits and vegetables–scarlet tomatoes, intensely green string beans, tiny charentais melons with bright-orange centers. Pigeons happily peck away at the foods. Guillut offers us a sample of tiny, delicate berries: “The first strawberries–or any first fruit of the season,” he instructs, “you have to make a wish.” More berries, s’il vous plait.

Not all the produce at Monge is French-grown. My sister spots a stand with grapefruit from Indian River Plantation, near her home in Florida. As we sample cheeses, eye the fresh fish and move toward the bread stand, we learn that French law requires bakers to stay open on Sundays. The citizens need a fresh fix twice a day, every day. Our trip also includes a stop at La Tuile a Loup, a kitchen shop with gorgeous pottery from the south of France, and La Librairie des Gourmets, which sells unusual cookbooks and vintage postcards. Back at the school, we feast on breads, cheeses and olives; jambon di parma–the French version of prosciutto–with ripe cantaloupe; country pate and sausage; a salad of tomatoes and frisee with Dijon vinaigrette, the standard in Paris; and a chocolate fondant cake garnished with strawberries, orange rind and mint.

“Don’t worry about how your mother told you to eat,” says Thibaud, our teeny, lovely interpreter, “Use your hands, and sop up the sauce with your bread.”

This is paradise: no food snobs, no temperamental chefs, no condescension, no silverware. Guillut’s afternoon cooking demo is sensational. The 40-ish chef began his career at age 15 as an apprentice and worked his way up to chef de cuisine at the Hotel Ritz Escoffier before joining Le Cordon Bleu. He explains that because most French culinary students learn their skills the way he did, few of his students are French. Working over a massive electric stove and giant butcher block counter–and repeating “Voila!” at least 18 times–chef Guillut with one assistant whips up a spring salad with asparagus, quail’s eggs and fresh herbs; crispy sea bass with raisin couscous, and strawberries Romanoff with orange sorbet and Chantilly cream. In one intense moment, he flicks strands of a caramel mixture from a cut-off whisk onto a rolling pin–and the floor below. “Quelle disaster!” he grimaces, miffed by the watery consistency of the strands. Having no idea what he’s doing up there, I think it looks fine. After his second try, he tops the strawberries and sorbet with fancy little caramel-strand nests. Our first day ends around six hours after it began with yet another tasting–it is magnifique. We waddle back to our hotel, needing no dinner.

Demonstration Derby

Our hands-on session the next day features a morning cooking demo with Chef Didier Chantefort and Lauren Alexander, our much-needed California-born interpreter. The chef speaks little English. “It’s more fun here on Saturdays,” Alexander explains, goofing around with the chef and quickly translating their patter. Chef Chantefort gets down to business: “The best way to mix salad and dressing is by hand,” he instructs, scooping greens, oil and vinegar from the depth of a bowl with his fingers. Chantefort, who also apprenticed for years at fine French hotels and restaurants, spent time in Japan and specializes in Asian cuisine.

“Japanese knives are the best in the world,” he tells our class.

Today’s demo, though, is strictly classic French. He and his assistant flawlessly prepare a salad with smoked and fresh salmon; stuffed chicken breasts with a garnish of artichoke hearts, cherry tomatoes, string beans and carrots, and a sponge cake roll with creamy filling and Cointreau. After we sample the amazing meal, it’s time to put on our aprons and head upstairs to the cooks’ kitchen and make it ourselves. There are eight of us–seven women and one man, who fortunately speaks near-native French. Everyone gets a cooking station with pots, pans, stove-top, cutting area and a bundle of knives and other tools, plus a pile of green beans, carrots, whole artichokes, chicken pieces, and suddenly much confusion–no interpreter. 

Commence,” Chef Chantefort bids us. But nobody’s sure what to do. The guy who speaks French doesn’t cook often, and is somewhat overwhelmed. Still, he’s able to tell us what the chef is saying, which is: “get going on the string beans.” We are to cut our dainty haricots verts into short, uniform-sized pieces, pulling the strings off first, like he showed us in the demo. The chef motions to mine and says something to the guy across from me. I hear him say “American.” They both laugh.

“What did he tell you?” I ask my ersatz interpreter. “He said he can’t believe that American housewives don’t know how to take the ends off string beans.” My sister Nancy cracks: “Tell him I know how to make reservations.” I say: “Tell him I’m an American journalist, and I’m writing about this class.” Chef Chantefort quickly is at my side, trying to teach me how to “turn” a carrot–a French term for creating a little orange barrel. I do a terrible job on my first try. This is a little stressful. Next, I botch an artichoke, trying to get to its heart.

Not wanting to humiliate myself further, I allow Chantefort to peel the other one. But this labor-intensive, frilly style of cooking is a gas–and even more fun when an interpreter finally comes in to give us the step-by-step. I hack away at chicken bones to make stock. Pots and pans, knives and peelers, pastry bags and tips are flying. Heavenly aromas fill the air. Several hours later, my classmates and I arrange our stunning meals on white platters, garnishing them just so with our artichoke points. All of us are hugging our chef and each other and feeling pretty danged smug. After all, we just earned diplomas from Le Cordon Bleu.

Want to vacation at a Parisian cooking school?

Here is a list of the best, all with English-speaking chefs or interpreters: Le Cordon Bleu, Paris. Daily demonstrations; classes include lean cuisine, pastries, regional cooking; short courses from one to four days. The school’s beautifully illustrated Classic French Cookbook (DK, $24.95) features a glossary of French cooking terms, menus and step-by-step cooking techniques. Ritz-Escoffier Ecole de Gastronomie Francaise, Paris, offers demonstrations and tastings, five-day cooking certificate and pastry courses. The hotel is closed for extensive remodeling until 2014. At Home with Patricia Wells offers intimate cooking classes at the Paris and Provence homes of the renowned author and International Herald Tribune restaurant critic.

Chicken Breasts with Tarragon Mousseline Filling

1 chicken breast half, boneless, skinless, washed, patted dry, chunked, or use meat from 3 chicken legs

2 egg whites

7 ounces heavy whipping cream

1/2 teaspoon each salt and pepper

2 to 4 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon or combination of fresh herbs, such as basil, sage and thyme

6 large, thick chicken breast halves, skinless, boneless, washed, patted dry

Chicken breast coating

1/4 cup flour

Salt and pepper to taste

2 eggs, beaten

1 tablespoon water

3 cups fresh unseasoned white bread crumbs (see Cook’s Notes)

2 tablespoons peanut oil

2 tablespoons clarified butter (see Cook’s Notes)

1 recipe (1 to 1 1/4 cups) Chicken or Veal Bouillon, heated (recipe follows)

1 recipe Green Beans and Cherry Tomatoes (recipe follows)

Fresh tarragon or other sprigs of fresh herbs, washed, dried

Mousseline filling: In food processor fitted with a metal blade, combine chicken breast half or meat from chicken legs, egg whites, heavy whipping cream, salt, pepper and fresh tarragon or other herbs of choice. Process until thick and smooth. Refrigerate until ready to use. Spoon mixture into pastry bag fitted with coupler and plain round tip.

To fill chicken breast: Starting at the thickest, narrow end of the breast, cut a slit in the center and push the knife forward so the stuffing mixture can fill the length of the breast, being careful not to cut through the top or bottom. Use the handle of a wooden spoon to widen the pocket. Insert the pastry tip into the chicken pocket and evenly divide mixture among all six chicken breast cavities. Make sure cavity is full but not overflowing.

Place stuffed chicken breasts on a platter, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 1 hour. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Meanwhile, prepare coating: Using three pie plates or shallow dishes, mix flour, salt and pepper in one. In the second, mix egg with water. Place fresh bread crumbs in third plate. In a large oven-proof skillet, heat peanut oil with clarified butter over medium-high heat. Remove stuffed breasts from refrigerator and dredge or roll chicken breasts in flour mixture, turning to coat all sides. Pat to remove excess flour. Dip breasts into egg mixture, turning to coat all sides. Drain excess egg, then place chicken in bread crumbs, again turning to coat all sides.

Working in batches if necessary, saute the breasts in peanut oil/clarified butter over medium-high heat for 4 to 6 minutes on each side or until golden on both sides, turning only once. Place skillet in oven, uncovered (any baking dish can be used if not using an oven-proof skillet). Bake, uncovered, for 10 to 15 minutes, or until firm to the touch. Remove from oven, cover and let stand 5 minutes.

Slice breasts into medallions; arrange on individual serving plates surrounded by green beans and cherry tomatoes . Drizzle chicken or veal bouillon sauce around the edges of the serving plate. Garnish with sprigs of tarragon or herb of choice and serve.

Cook’s notes: To make fresh bread crumbs, 8 standard white slices of bread will give you 3 cups of fresh, unseasoned white bread crumbs. Tear slices into 4 to 6 pieces each, place in food processor fitted with metal blade. Pulse on and off until even crumbs are achieved.

To make clarified butter: Melt 1/4 cup of unsalted butter. Remove 2 tablespoons of the golden liquid on the surface; this is the clarified butter. It can be taken to a higher temperature than unclarified butter.

To make this dish ahead, cool the chicken after browning, then refrigerate. At serving time, bake an extra 5 to 10 minutes or until heated through. This dish will freeze well for up to 6 months wrapped in freezer wrap or freezer plastic. Serves 9.

Chicken or Veal Bouillon

2 tablespoons olive oil

5 chicken wings, washed, patted dry, chopped into several pieces

1 cup mixed, diced carrots, onion, celery and shallots

1/4 cup white wine, heated 3 cups veal or chicken stock, divided

1 leek leaf, washed and dried

2 to 3 sprigs of rosemary, washed, dried

2 to 3 sprigs of thyme, washed, dried

1 bay leaf

In a heavy-bottomed large saucepan, heat oil to medium high. When oil is hot, add chicken pieces. Brown until crusty. Add diced carrots, onion, celery and shallots and sweat 5 to 10 minutes. At that point, the onions will be translucent and the other vegetables will have started to brown. Remove from heat.

Deglaze the pan with the heated wine, stirring until all the brown bits from the bottom come lose. Add 2 cups of the veal or chicken stock.

Meanwhile, to make bouquet garni: Lay leek leaf on work surface. Layer rosemary and thyme sprigs, top with bay leaf. At the base of the leek, fold in half to encase herbs. Tie with sterile kitchen twine in two places. Place bouquet garni into the stock and increase heat to high until stock is reduced by half, about 25 minutes.

Add in remaining 1 cup of veal or chicken stock and continue reducing bouillon over medium heat, about 25 minutes. When reduced, place a fine mesh strainer or sieve over a deep bowl. Pour bouillon with chicken pieces and vegetables through strainer or sieve. Discard chicken pieces and vegetables. You should have at least 1 to 1 1/4 cups of sauce.

Green Beans and Cherry Tomatoes

1 quart boiling water

1 teaspoon salt

1 pound small string beans, strings removed, uniformly cut in half 15 small cherry tomatoes, washed, stems removed

1 quart ice water

Pepper to taste

1 to 2 teaspoons unsalted butter

1 tablespoon minced shallots

Snipped chervil, optional

In a large saucepan, mix boiling water and salt. Add green beans and cook uncovered for 10 minutes or until beans are soft but firm to the bite.

Using a strainer or slotted spoon, remove beans from water. Place in covered dish. Plunge cherry tomatoes in the same boiling salted water for 20 to 30 seconds or until skin pops open. Remove from water using a strainer or slotted spoon. Plunge immediately into ice water.

Peel and discard skins from tomatoes. If tomatoes do not peel easily, return to boiling water for another 20 to 30 seconds. Add tomatoes to green beans, tossing with pepper, butter and minced shallots. Serve with Chicken Breasts Stuffed With a Tarragon Mousseline or other favorite recipe. Garnish with chervil if desired. Serves 4.

All recipes from “Cooking for Friends” class at Le Cordon Bleu, Paris. Tested by Patty LaNoue Stearns for the Detroit Free Press Tower KitchenThis story was updated in September 2012.