Le Cordon Bleu, on its own, is a relatively unimposing building. It’s nestled in the middle of a quiet residential street in the 15eme, only about a mile away from my apartment.
Nevertheless, I was quite nervous walking up the steps to the main entrance of the school on my very first day. The moment I walked in, I was greeted with several bonjour’s and a courteous, gentle-looking man, dressed in a full chef’s uniform with toque and all, shook my hand. (I later discovered that this kind man was the head chef for superior cuisine… which was quite a relief since he resembled nothing like the harsh drill sergeants I had imagined to be the chefs at Le Cordon Bleu.)
Orientation started promptly at 9:30am and after a brief history of the school and a review of the internal rules, we separated into three groups and went off to tour the kitchens and demonstration rooms. Before heading out for lunch, we picked up our uniforms and tool kit, which included three sets of jackets, aprons, and neckties, two sets of trousers and caps, a knife set, a digital scale, two tea towels, a corkscrew, measuring bowls, and tupperware. We were told to try on our uniforms right away to check for size. As we all headed downstairs to the locker rooms, I couldn’t help but think of how quickly our pristine-looking white uniforms would soon be completely covered with various food stains… oh wells.
Standing in our oversized uniforms, we looked like a group of little school girls who decided to wear our father’s clothes to class that day. Our jackets hung over the tips of our fingers and our trousers were about fives sizes too large and more than a foot too long. The size tags on my uniform read ‘000.’ I had no idea what that meant, but pretty sure it couldn’t get much smaller than that so I decided to settle with it. At least I could get the trousers hemmed, but as for the jacket, hopefully it’ll shrink a bit when it gets washed.
Our first demonstration in basic cuisine was rustic vegetable soup, which surprisingly tasted quite good despite the fact that we used only water and seasoned with a little bit of salt. There’s really nothing better than a bowl of warm soup on a cold day. The chef showed us how to plate our soups with a spoonful of parmesan cheese on the side and toasted baguette croutons. In practical, we would be practicing the various cuts for vegetables, including brunoise (fine dice), julienne (matchsticks), and paysanne (a triangular brunoise cut).
After our first class, I felt pretty confident heading to school the next day, especially after Chef had praised my vegetable cuts as being ‘tres bon!’ Little did I know how accelerated our learning curve would have to be to keep up with our lessons. We went from cutting up vegetables on the first day, to cleaning, scaling, gutting, filleting, and skinning three whitings (a relatively expensive, small fish). Surprisingly, all of us in practical managed to get six fillets from our fishes, make a proper fish stock to poach the fillets, and make a sauce reduction to drizzle on top. The white sauce was quite delicious, but then again, of course it was made with an obscene amount of butter.
We ended the week with cleaning and trussing a whole chicken and making chicken stock from scratch. Afterwards, we were taught the proper way to cut up the chicken for plating and used the rest of the chicken stock to cook up a rice dish on the side with another white butter sauce. After tasting, I was actually grateful that I lived on the sixth floor with no elevator… at least I would get a workout after class.
The theme with butter continued into basic pastry… with our first practical being orange sable cookies! Unfortunately, these butter-filled cookies were incredibly addicting! The added orange zest made the cookies taste light and refreshing, but we all knew how much butter went into the recipe.
The next day we made our first attempts at making classic French apple tarts. None of us had problems with the crust… it was quite simply mixing butter with sugar using two distinct techniques. First, sablage the butter and flour to create a mealy, sandy texture, and then fraiser or smear the mixture with the palm of your hand to create a dough. This way, you’ll end up with a perfectly flaky crust every time.
The difficult part in this recipe was actually laying out the apple slices in the right positions to create an aesthetically pleasing tart. Trust me, it’s harder than you think. All of us struggled and were amazed at how simple Chef made it look during demonstration earlier in the morning. For sure, I will definitely not look at an apple tart the same way again.
Since that day, I’ve begun judging the quality of a patisserie by the looks of their tarte aux pomme. I definitely steer away from those that look worse than mine =P
After what seems like months, I’ve managed to survive through my first week of class without a single cut or tear. We have just one day of rest before week two begins…onward ho!