In Paris, food is something out of a dream. The smells of baguettes, baked daily in the artisan bakeries accompany you on your walks. Vibrant fruits and vegetables greet you at every corner. Cheese shops offer complete meals of mouth-filling chevre and brie. Specialty butcher shops await you with their extraordinary cuts for the perfect red wine meal.
A la illustrious chef Julia Child, I, too, have an unyielding passion to learn the art of French cooking, which is why I simply had to fulfill my dream at the Cook’n With Class cooking school on my latest trip to Paris.
Eric Fraudeau, the owner of the mini multinational school, recommended the market class, the most popular of the school’s offered courses, as my immersive crash course to cooking like a French woman.
As the clock dripped past 5, I emerged from the Jules Joffrin metro station (line 12) in Montmartre, the 18th arrondisement of Paris, where I met my four other classmates and Chef Patrick Hebert.
With 40 years of experience whipping up dishes for the British elite at the Hotel Savoy and Claridges in London, as well as owning and operating his own acclaimed restaurant in New Orleans, I knew my stomach was in expert hands with Chef Patrick. We decided on scallops and onions with a red wine vinegar reduction for our appetizer, veal and vanilla bean mashed potatoes with peas for the entree, a cheese plate, and fruit-based dessert. Happy with the menu, we walked a few blocks until we reached the Montmartre open-air market. Our first stop after scooping up some baguettes at the bakery was the Crusta Poissons fish vendor.
At each stop, Chef Patrick informed us of helpful tidbits to arm us with information for future gastronomic endeavors. For example, duck meat is leaner than chicken; one should never buy a dead crab because the toxins will linger even after it’s been cooked; and to tell if a fish is fresh, when you open the gill there will be a red coloring.
In the fromagerie, we bought five different types of French cheeses to have a tasting of between the entrée and dessert. “I like to think of cheese as people,” Chef Patrick said. “With age, they develop personality.” With the finale of our meal being an apple tarte tatin, we gathered the last of our ingredients from Le Fruitier de Montmartre and walked up Rue Baudelique to where the charming cooking school is situated.
Once inside, the other students and I tied the black aprons around our waists and gathered in the fully equipped kitchen, which would later serve as our community dining table. We rolled up our sleeves and commenced with dessert, the apple tarte tatin, working as a group to split up the tasks of cracking eggs, whisking butter, flour and sugar, and cutting up the apples. The small class size kept the experience intimate, keeping with the school’s concept of participation and enjoyment.
“The golden rule of baking is to be precise. A professional weighs everything,” our instructor said. Another rule of baking, it seemed, is to add more butter...to everything (see our buttery crust below!)
Throughout the playful, hands-on lesson, Chef Patrick demonstrated various techniques, such as how to chop properly without adding your fingers to the dish and how to julienne vegetables. While practicing the julienne technique on a tomato, he also added that tomato soup was an easy and quick recipe to make when you’re in a hurry—just blend, strain and boil.
In accompaniment, you can add a small amount of cassis (a black currant liqueur) to white wine and make a glass of Kir. See, life can be that simple!
In preparing the main course, we learned an incredible amount of cooking tips and techniques from Chef Patrick, who proved to be an encyclopedia of food and kitchen-related knowledge. More than halfway through the class, after we had diced, sliced and chopped up an appetite, delicious cheese and wine were served.
The first bottle of wine emptied, it was time to uncork the second and unveil the highlight of all of our cooking careers. The scallops were the freshest I've eaten (I even ate the plate of the reproductive organ which tasted like a mussel-scallop hybrid), and the onions with the red wine vinegar reduction were rich with flavor. When we moved to the main course, the tender veal, topped with juicy mushrooms, paired perfectly with the aromatic vanilla bean mashed potatoes.
The hint of sweetness from the mashed potatoes made for a seamless segue into the rich dessert of our apple tarte tatin. Just before it was served, Chef Patrick flambeed the caramel and the entire room filled with the smell of confection.
Aromatic flavors wafting, wine and banter flowing, it is easy to see why the house of cuisine is so successful amongst travelers. My class alone included a couple from California and another from New York City. The school teaches its classes in English and offers something for everyone, from bread-baking to French desserts, to a full four-course meal. The unpretentiousness of the staff and comprehensible learning techniques will assuage the fears of any new chef in the kitchen, providing a unique flavor of daily life in Paris's most romantic corner of Montmartre.