Chef Bruno Stril preparing sausages at the Cordon Bleu School- Paris
People often ask me what it was like studying cuisine at the Cordon Bleu School in Paris. When people think of the Cordon Bleu they conjure up images of students being taught by world-famous chefs and whipping up fancy dishes as they loll about in a perfect culinary utopia.
Some of these images are accurate, but in reality studying at this school can be bloody hard work, working at a frantic pace in a hot kitchen under the watchful (and sometimes grouchy) eye of the supervising chef. Even now, a year later, I still wake up in the middle of the night hearing the words Allez, Allez! or Vite, Vite! as I dream of the French chef waving a spatula in exasperation. But, then again, I loved the experience and will do it all again in 2014 when I return for the 10-week ‘Superior’ course. Here are some basic FAQ and answers:
(Also, see my post on Surviving the Le Cordon Bleu Superior Exam).
Where is the Cordon Bleu School located and what are the facilities like?
The school is located in the 15th District (arrondissement) on the Left Bank in a residential area. The building has 4 stories and used to be a medical supplies building. The quarters can be a bit cramped, particularly in the locker rooms. You have to be careful when bending over to tie your shoes in the locker room, or you might have an ‘eye-to-rump’ encounter with your neighbor.
Le Cordon Bleu school in Paris
I rented an apartment in the Latin Quarter (5th District) close to the quaint rue Mouffetard. I used to take a Metro train to the school and sometimes musicians would come onto the trains and play, in hope you would throw a euro or two their way. One of these men once saw that I was holding a large cake on my lap as I rode the train home. He stopped and asked me in French if he could have the cake and I said Non!
The kitchens where we did our practice cooking were rather small- just room enough for 10 students maximum. The ceilings were low and the kitchens could get quite hot- I’ve seen much larger kitchens being used for high school ‘home economics’ classes in Australia and the USA.
What is the class routine like at the school?
The day would start out with a 2.5 hour Demonstration Class where the chef would demonstrate three courses in French: an entré, main course and dessert. A translator stood next to the chef and translated each step, which included everything from filleting fish, dicing vegetables, cooking lobsters live and making homemade ice creams. Sometimes it was difficult to follow everything because the chef would sometimes jump from one dish to another and then back again, plus the French language sometimes made it très díficile!
This was then followed by a 2.5 hour practical class, where we split up into the individual kitchens and practiced what we learned. Sometimes these ‘practicals’ were held the next day, so we had time to practice some of the techniques before then. I think I was one of the few students who actually practiced making the dish before the practical class, so I would have more confidence!
At the end of the 2.5 hour practical class, we presented our food to the chef to be graded.
Translator getting ready for the Demonstration Class
What sort of techniques and dishes did you learn at the Cordon Bleu School?
In the Basic Class, we learned how to make delicious soups like Crab Bisque, using real live crabs, and Cauliflower Soup (Crème Dubarry):
We also learned how to fillet fish, including a trout while leaving the head and tail in tact:
However, we were all excited waiting for the chance to make ‘Lobster American’ (Homard à l’américaine). This dish was seen in the movie ‘Julie and Julia’ with Meryl Streep and involves first preparing the lobster; tying a string from the lobster’s head to the tail to keep it straight while being dropped live into boiling water.
Lobster being prepared for a dip in boiling water
And now for the finished product: Homard à l’américaine
Pastry is ‘King’ at Le Cordon Bleu so we learned to make pastry dough by first placing all the ingredients on the marble surface, forming a ball and then pushing the dough along the marble with the palm of your hand. This technique is called fraiser la pâte
After forming the dough, we made Guinea Fowl Pie which was delicious!
In Intermediate Cuisine, we learned recipes from different regions of France. Rabbit dishes are frequently found in the Loire Valley, so we learned how to completely de-bone a rabbit and then stuff it with a tasty prune stuffing. De-boning a rabbit is not easy- you have to completely remove the spine and there are lots of ‘fiddly bits’, but it was well worth it!
A Completely De-boned rabbit- spine located on the right
Rabbit Stuffed with Prunes; Potatoes Filled with Cheese
Just one more advantage of attending the Cordon Bleu school. Every time the pastry students make cakes or desserts, they place their goodies out on a table in the ‘Winter Garden’ sitting area and you can come by and eat what you want. I have even been known to take an entire cake home with me!
So, now I have a whole year to get ready for the 10-week Superior Cuisine course in June 2014. Wish me luck and I’ll keep you posted!
Me receiving the Intermediate Certificate at Le Cordon Bleu in 2012