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Hotel Ritz Paris, by Barbara Redmond

Hotel Ritz Paris, by Barbara Redmond

It is easy to assume in the 1954 American film, Sabrina, that the character Sabrina, played by Audrey Hepburn, attended Le Cordon Bleu in Paris although the school’s name is never mentioned in the film. Here is my own “Sabrina” story from my classes at Le Cordon Bleu and The Ritz Escoffier in Paris, France.

One February morning in 1995, I found myself sitting in a classroom surrounded by about 50 students from Japan, Mexico, Panama, and a number of other countries. We were at the renowned Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris, France. Our instructor, Chef Michel Bernard, was preparing exquisite meringues adorned with pink and green roses and carnations of marzipan. Delicious!

This was where filmdom’s original Sabrina ― Audrey Hepburn ― came to get over her unrequited love for William Holden fifty-some years ago. She was the naive daughter of a limousine driver and he toiled for a family that included playboy Holden and his serious older brother, played by Humphrey Bogart. One day she set sail for Paris where she spent “the two most wonderful years of my life.”

How did I, a young woman with no professional culinary experience, wind up in a class at the “best cooking school in the world,” as the unmentioned Le Cordon Bleu was referred to in Sabrina?

Paris, City of Light

It all started the winter before when I heard about a travel promotion to Europe. I soon found myself making reservations for a week’s stay in Paris. Since I had to travel during the cold months to get the special airfare, I thought there would be plenty of indoor things to do and see in the City of Light.

I had always loved to cook and I spent many enjoyable hours of my spare time taking cooking classes and entering county and state fair competitions. I liked trying out my new recipes on friends at dinner parties, and on my co-workers at the food manufacturing company where I’m employed in quality assurance. A dream of mine had always been to take cooking classes at the ultimate cooking school in the world ― Le Cordon Bleu, which translates to “The Blue Ribbon” in English.

After Sabrina had been there two years, she wrote to her father: I have learned so much, Father; not just how to make vichyssoise and carp’s head with sauce vinaigrette. I have learned how to live, how to be in the world and of the world, and not just to stay on the sidelines and watch.

Me, I mainly wanted to improve my puff pastry prowess.

Le Cordon Bleu, Paris

Phone calls to some local cooking schools and stores yielded a toll-free number for information on attending Le Cordon Bleu, which is entering its second century of educating future gourmets. Founded in 1895, it held its first classes in 1896. Today, courses fall into two categories: pastry and cuisine. There are three levels of cooking classes offered: Basic, Intermediate and Superior.

I was ecstatic to learn they offer pastry and cuisine cooking demonstrations daily, and even a “Sabrina” class on Wednesday evenings. The three-hour demonstration classes are priced reasonably, $37 (approximately $63 US Dollars in 2010) and comparable to classes in the States. One Saturday a month after attending a demonstration, you can also “suit up” and go into their legendary kitchens and prepare the stuff that dreams are made of.

Pastry classes at Le Cordon Bleu

Since pastry classes were at the top of my list, I immediately signed up for two Basic Pastry classes to make sure I got in. From the literature they sent, I wasn’t entirely sure what I would be learning since my French vocabulary is very limited. One of the cuisine classes sounded a little too bizarre ― veal tongue and hoof salad ― and didn’t appeal to me. I later signed up for two additional cooking classes ― a Basic Cuisine and an Intermediate Pastry class.

After I faxed in my reservation, the Parisians left me a very cordial message letting me know I was officially registered and that they were looking forward to seeing me. They later called to ask if I really wanted to take the Advanced Pastry class since it was in French. Since my traveling philosophy is “when in Rome, do as the Romans do,” I said oui, because I didn’t know when I’d get this opportunity again.

I flew into Paris about noon on a Wednesday. Exhausted from jet lag but excited about the adventure ahead, I had a hard time sleeping that night. Finally, I dozed off, only to be awakened by an alarm ringing at 8:00am, with my first class only an hour away.

I made a mad dash to freshen up, get into my clothes, hike to the metro station, switch trains and find the school. Le Cordon Bleu sits a few blocks away from a major street. I was surprised at its size ― a portion of the block and several stories high. I checked in at the reception area and received my recipes for that day: Basic Pastry in the morning, and Basic Cuisine in the afternoon. I was directed to the large demonstration room, which was filled with students wearing their white chef gowns. Other fellow American students helped make me feel at home.

First basic pastry class at Le Cordon Bleu: meringues

My first class, Meringues, was taught by Chef Michel Bernard, who was nothing like the drill sergeant instructor that Sabrina had to endure. In three hours, he prepared meringue cake layers, icing some with praline buttercream and others with coffee-flavored buttercream. He also explained the difference between French, Italian and Swiss meringues: In the French meringue, you beat the egg whites and gradually add the sugar. In the Italian version, you slowly add hot sugar syrup as you beat the egg whites, and in the Swiss variation, you combine the egg whites and sugar over a hot water bath (50 C) and whisk until cooled.

To these meringue bases our chef added food coloring, flavorings and nuts to create a variety of pastries: piping long pale pink meringue into “Fairy Fingers,” dropping meringue with added coffee extract and nuts to form “rocks,” and piping meringue to form baby shoes with pink meringue bows, as well as other shapes. While the meringues were baking, the chef colored the marzipan. From this, he made pink roses and carnations and green leaves to decorate the meringue-layered “cakes.”

What works of art! I could not believe all the items the chef had made in just three short hours and how beautiful everything looked. All finished delicacies are exquisitely displayed on white doilies atop the table in front of the classroom. After the students applaud, they run to the table to get a closer view and take photos to aid them in recreating the recipes. After that, all the goodies are divided up for the students to sample.

Basic cuisine class at Le Cordon Bleu: classic French soups

In the afternoon’s Basic Cuisine class, the agenda was consommé, French onion soup and fish soup. I was surprised to learn the secret of making a perfect consommé: the addition of egg whites to the stock as it’s cooking soaks up impurities, which can then be skimmed off to make the consommé perfectly clear. Our chef then garnished it with julienned turnips, celery, green beans and carrots just before serving.

The fish soup had eel and many other types of fish along with lots of onion and garlic. It was very strong smelling and I didn’t really care for it. But the French onion soup was great ― I enjoyed learning to prepare this classic soup. As a nice accompaniment to the soup, the instructor prepared allumettes Parmesan, or cheese straws made with puff pastry. Allumettes means “match sticks” in French.

Second basic pastry class at Le Cordon Bleu: puff pastry

The next morning I had my second Basic Pastry class ― this one was on puff pastry. After demonstrating how to make it, the chef showed us a myriad of variations using it. The piece de resistance was Pithiviers ― a scalloped-edged round delicacy filled with a wonderful almond filling. Talk about scrumptious! We got to taste warm puff pastries fresh out of the oven! Even though our individual samples were small, they were rich and to die for. After all, Sabrina returned to America with a poodle, stylish French duds and new hairstyle, but she gained nary an ounce!

My final cooking class was Intermediate Pastry. In this class, the instructor created fruit-based dishes with simple syrups, Petits Pots de Crème, and a dessert consisting of custard with meringue floating islands topped with a round ball of spun sugar.

Recipe and method at Le Cordon Bleu

The recipes we received at Le Cordon Bleu consisted solely of ingredients and amounts in metric measurements. As the chef demonstrates the recipe, you have to take notes on the method. They also used a convection oven in class with baking temperatures in degrees centigrade. While it would have been easy enough to convert the temperatures into Fahrenheit, after returning home I visited a library and found similar recipes so I had a better understanding of temperatures and baking times.

“A woman happy in love burns the soufflé. A woman unhappy in love forgets to turn on the oven.”

Oops, now I’m getting my memories mixed up with Sabrina’s. Nevertheless, I definitely enjoyed my visit to Le Cordon Bleu; it will always be one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

Cooking schools in Paris

Cooking school: L’École Supérieure de Cuisine Française – Ferrandi

The School of Culinary Arts in Paris is considered one of the best schools in France, although it may not carry the same reputation of the Ritz Escoffier or Le Cordon Bleu outside of France. They offer a bilingual 9-month program in Culinary Arts. ESCF – Ferrandi, 28 rue de l’abbé Grégoire, 75006, Paris. +33 (0)1 49 54 28 00

Cooking school: Françoise Meunier

Françoise Meunier, consultant culinaire, is a graduate of L’École Hôtelière de Toulous, and offers short-term and one-day highly regarded classes in Paris. Classes are in French, but Françoise does speak English. 41, rue de l’Echiquier, 75010, Paris. +33 (0)6 89 75 23 08 or (0)1 48 04 59 19

Cooking school: Promenades Gourmandes

Native-Parisian, cooking teacher and food consultant Paule Caillat’s cooking school, Promenades Gourmandes, offers cooking courses given entirely in English and is geared toward American tourists. Caillat has updated classic dishes to suit contemporary tastes. 187, rue du Temple, 75003, Paris. +33 (0)1 48 04 56 84

Cooking school: La Cuisine de Marie-Blanche

A small cooking school offered by Marie-Blanche de Broglie from her beautiful Paris apartment in the 7th arrondissement. In addition to the basics of classic French cooking, students learn table manners, table settings and table decorations. Classes are offered in English, French, or Spanish. 18 avenue de la Motte-Picquet, 75007, Paris. +33 (0) 45 51 36 34 Information: infocmb@cuisinemb.com.

Cooking School: Le Cordon Bleu®, Paris

For more than a century, Le Cordon Bleu has helped culinary students realize their dreams. Students often have some culinary experience and are looking to begin a new career, broaden their culinary interests or advance their current occupation. 8 rue Léon Delhomme, 75015, Paris. +33 (0)1 53 68 22 50

Cooking school: Ritz Escoffier School®

At the Ritz Escoffier, lessons alternate theory with practice in a setting opposite the world-famous kitchen of the Ritz Paris. Disciplines range from fine cuisine and pasty making to wines and the secrets of cocktails to the art of flower arranging. The school has a kitchen/classroom for cuisine and a kitchen/classroom for pastry. Ritz Paris 38, rue Cambon, 75001, Paris. +33 (0)1 43 16 30 50 For information and enrollment: ecole@ritzparis.com. For special events and personalized courses: groups-events@ritzparis.com

Cooking school: At Home with Patricia Wells

Well-known author Patricia Wells offers a select series of cooking classes in her Paris cooking studio on rue Jacob on the Left Bank of Paris. The five-day course, given in English brings guest into Patricia’s personal world of food. For information: mail@patriciawells.com

 VOCABULARY: French to English translations

Allumettes: Match sticks
Consommé: Clear soup usually of beef or veal or chicken
Instituteur/instructrice: Instructor (male/female)
Julienned: To cut into long thin strips
Le Cordon Bleu: Blue ribbon
L’école des trois gourmands: The school of the three food lovers
Pâtissier/ Pâtissière: Pastry chef (male/female)
Pithiviers: Round enclosed pie usually made with puff pastry
Petits Pots de Crème: Small custards, variously flavored
Toque: Traditional chef’s hat
Vichyssoise: Creamy potato soup flavored with leeks and onion, usually served cold

Karen Cope works in the food industry in quality assurance and is employed by one of the world’s most famous food corporations in Minneapolis. She earned certificates in pastry at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) at Greystone, in Napa Valley, California and at L’École de Pâtisserie Française in Uzes, France. She also attended classes at Le Cordon Bleu and The Ritz Escoffier in Paris, France. Cope is a multiple sweepstakes winner at the Minnesota State Fair for her cookies, bars and ethnic baking. She has recipes published in the 1994 and 1995 Minnesota State Fair Winning Recipes from Minnesota’s Greatest Cooks and The All-New Blue Ribbon Cookbook.

You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® post, Julia Child: French Cooking for North Americans, by Philippa Campsie writing about the challenge of making a simple birthday cake in Paris, from finding the familiar whipping cream, measuring cups and spoons, to the search for birthday candles to top the cake! Recipe for Yogurt Cake by Sophie Dudemaine, cookbook author and French TV star, from her cookbook titled, Les Cakes de Sophie.

French Women Chefs: Les Mères Lyonnaise, by French writer Laurence Haxaire who tells the story of the former house cooks for affluent families in Lyon who set up their own businesses after the French revolution in the 19th century. And later, when their reputation reached beyond the edge of Lyon, the most famous of them even welcomed General de Gaulle as VIP at their table. 

Boulangerie Poilâne: A toast to French Breads, by Barbara Redmond who shares her face-to-face encounter with the French baker during her visit to the 18th century ovens of Poilâne in Paris. Could she steal a pinch from the raw, soft-white boule in its proofing basket resting close by? The penetrating aromas of bread; strong, yeasty, and hot… Recipes included for Tartine Chocolat et Poivre (tartine of melted chocolate and black pepper), and La tartine For’bon (tartine of cheeses and ham), from Boulangerie Poilâne. 

 Wherever you go, you always meet a Breton, by Bénédicte Mahé, who is in her mastère-spécialisé final trimester doing an internship in Paris. Bénédicte, who was born in Rennes, asks us to take out our notebooks and pens and get ready for a lesson on Brittany. Recipe included for Far Breton (with prunes), a crêpe for your sweet tooth! 

Text copyright ©2012 Karen Cope. All rights reserved.
Illustration copyright ©2012 Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.
barbara@awomansparis.com

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