Learning La Cuisine in Paris with 'La Cuisine Paris'
I'm no stranger to a cookery school it has to be said. I did a one day course at Le Foodist, Paris in 2015 and previous to that, I had had a few private chefs in my home as well as several stints at James Street South's Cookery School courses in Belfast. And, throwing it right back to 1997-98 and '99, I was a one time TV co-presenter on two series of RTE's Pot Luck programme, in which I was the on-screen assistant to various top chefs from across Ireland and beyond. On the show, I learnt knife skills and how to make a good bearnaise, a great stock and a cracking pepper sauce, among other basics - and it left me hungry (excuse the pun) for much more. So when we were booked this month into La Cuisine Paris for a half day course including a market trip, I was excited - and very ready.
Our rendezvous with the school chef was on a drizzly morning at the Marché Maubert, which takes places 3 times per week (most Parisian markets are twice a week). Paris is unique in global cities in that it has over 150 markets inside the city perimeters - and each one full of fresh produce from field, farm, sea, lake and river. We were lucky in this market to have some really great artisan food stores based on the square also - a fantastic butcher's, a wonderful boulangerie/patisserie - 'La Parisenne' - and, my favourite - the cheese shop called after its owner Laurent Dubois; which is, apparently, one of the top three fromagerie stores in all France. The counters and shelves were full to brimming with wonderful creations, some looking more like patisserie goods than cheese - except their delicious odour gave them away.
Our chef was Cyril Denis, a private chef-journalist-educator-TV chef and sake enthusiast all rolled into one. He had lived in the USA for a few years and spoke great English - he said this is almost a prerequisite of teaching at La Cuisine, given its popularity with international guests. We were given brollies and bags and set off among the stalls and shops to assess what was there and what was fresh in order to choose our menu.
Cyril moved fast and, on occasion when I found myself lingering at the back of our group of 10 or stopping for food photos, I missed info - and I wanted to take everything in, so I asked lots of questions, which, thankfully, he didn’t seem to mind.
April is the towards the end of the Brittany and Normandy scallop season, so I was pleased to see that our starter choices included some Coquilles Saint Jacques, but alas, our group didn’t vote for those and instead chose the traditional Provencal mini artichokes, known sentimentally as 'Les Petits Violets' which we would do à la Barigoule - i.e. with carrots, lardons and Paris mushrooms and olives.
For main course, the options from the market were:
i) Cornish Hen - which we'd baste with sage & tarragon butter
ii) Cod fillet (le dos de cabaillaud) - the back fillet, which is chunkier than the front fillet and more filling...
iii) A traditional south-western French maigret de canard - using the vaccum packed duck breast from a foie gras bred duck or, lastly,
iv) Pork fillet - done in rich herbs and a meaty jus.
Pudding was going to be one of the following:
i) Creme Brûlée
ii) Clafoutis a la Poire or,
iii) Creme Caramel
We had a diplomatic vote among the ten of us and, as well as the Barigoule starter, we chose the Cornish Hen main course - then we had to decide what to cook with it, roasted celeriac or a ratatouille, plus a gratin dauphinois or Pommes Boulangères.
The pear clafoutis won hands down for the pudding, and so off we set, on a 10 minute walk back to the school, which is located just behind Notre Dame. En route, we had some further titbits of local food knowledge and we learnt how what is now Chatelet Les Halles shopping centre/metro station, was once the city's mass food market. Rusgis - which is located outside Paris, serves this function these days - and to a foodie like me, hearing this story just meant I had to add a visit there to my bucket list.
Once in the school we got apron'ed up and washed down before taking to our stations and starting to cook. It was fast-paced and fun, with lots to do and so much to learn. Cyril demonstrated only once or twice for each task, then divvied up the roles and we each got to work. He helped out along the way with individual coaching around 'reading' ingredients and using taste, touch and smell to cook, as well as helping to direct students to use knives correctly, or teaching them to fold and stir the desert mix or even showing us how to use a mandoline correctly.
Without going into too much detail on how we prepared and cooked each item, we created a wonderful lunch for ourselves - my favourite part was making the herb butter with handfuls of fresh and fragrant herbs, which we got right under the hen's skin to baste it generously before roasting it. I also liked working on the Pommes de Terre Boulangères - sliced potatoes with lardons, onions and a wine reduction. I am Irish of course, so good old trusty spuds feature regularly on my staples list. Cyril's ratatouille was good - although I have my own recipe picked up in Provence from my French friend's half-Italian 'nonna' (who adds any spare Parmesan crusts she has lying in the larder for extra flavour) which is on the blog elsewhere... And I'm afraid to sound boastful or arrogant but my own handed-down recipe is better - in my opinion.
Cyril also showed us a cool way to make a bouquet garni using a spare leek leaf - and we added this to the ratatouille and to the starter dish.
Once the food was cooked (and the timing was impeccable for all dishes), we moved 'a table' and after inhaling the delicious aromas for 3 hours, we finally got to taste the fruits of our labour. It was worth it! The table chatter was fun and convivial. Cyril talked more about food and we asked lots of questions among us all. Wine helped the lunch slip down well and the company was great.
As a cheese lover, I adored the cheese course, which we had zero input into, of course. Between Cyril and the guys at Laurent Dubois fromagerie we ended up with two amazing cheeses in the form of Saint Nectar and Sainte Maure de Tourren. One a goat's cheese and the other, a cow's milk, harder cheese which were both delicious. I really felt like singing an old song I'd learnt in France as a 15 year old exchange student 'J'ai bien mange, j'ai bien bu, j'ai la peau du ventre, bien tendue!' - which basically means, I'm stuffed!
All in all, the course was a fantastic way to spend a morning in Paris and I would highly recommend! And, as an aside to the food element of this review, I have to point out here that this is a great thing to do as a couple - 'couples who cook together...' and all that. There were 2 other couples on the course besides us, two Chicago sisters and their respective husbands, then one mum & daughter (who were great fun) from Atlanta, Georgia, and then two single girls travelling in Paris - a lovely Moscovite mamma called Anastasia who extended a business trip to include the course as a bit of 'me time' away from her kids; and lastly, a quiet Jersey girl called Emily.
Like Anastasia and Emily, I'd not be afraid to do this alone either - and would love to do it as a bonding exercise with my daughter when she's older, or even my sister if she ever got time away from her job-kids-house cycle. My point is, I suppose, that whatever your circumstances, this is a great thing to do and, like many things in life, you get out of it what you put in...
Next stop Nevin Maguire's course at McNean's In Blacklion (a stone's throw from where my mother grew up) and maybe a course with Rachel or Darina Allen down at Ballymaloe (if we can ever actually get a place!)...
For more info on courses and tours offered by La Cuisine Paris, log onto their website at:
https://lacuisineparis.com/ Our course costs 160 euro per person.