Paris’ Best Amateur Cooking Schools for the Hungry Tourist
Now that French Cuisine has been declared a World Cultural Heritage Listing by UNESCO, how could you dream of planning a trip to Paris and not penciling in time for an amateur cooking class? (Trust us: They’re not all like the onion-chopping nightmare in Julie & Julia.) Here’s a sampling of a few of the city’s top kitchen destinations to consider on you next journey to the City of Light — and Food.
Ecole Ritz Escoffier – 15 Place Vendôme, 75001 If you have a lunch hour to spend at a cooking school in Paris, Ecole Ritz Escoffier is your gig. First of all, it’s effortlessly easy to find, at 15 Place Vendôme. It’s posh, it’s excellent and the classes are given in both English and French.
Ecole Ritz Escoffier kitchens are located in the basement of Ritz Paris Vendôme Hotel, right next to the hotel’s working kitchens where they create all of the meals for the entire hotel. It is also, as legend goes, the inspiration for the kitchens seen in the celebrated Pixar film, Ratatouille.
But in spite of all the international outreach and friendliness (the school is also partnered with the Tokyo School, Vantana) it remains very much an iconic bastion of French Culinary Tradition. Executive Head Chef is the larger-than-life Michel Roth, the ninth Executive Chef the hotel has known in its 110 years of existence. His teaching team at the Escoffier Ecole is both accomplished and easygoing.
My class was scheduled for a Thursday afternoon from 1:00 – 2:00 pm. On the menu was: Suprême de volaille, lard fumé, patates douces aux noisettes (Poultry breast, smoked bacon and sweet potatoes with hazelnuts). Our instructor, Chef Adeline Robert, had spent time working in NY and in San Francisco so she would give the instructions in French and then once more in English. On this day, I happened to be the only English-speaking student in the class of 10. The others were all French and three of them were celebrating their birthdays, having received the cooking lesson as a birthday gift. Lucky for the rest of us, because after the meal – with which a fine bottle of Sancerre was served – the Ritz Staff brought 2 bottles of champagne and a plate of divine cream and raspberry-filled puffs which we all shared.
The hour-long class whizzed by. The Chef-instructor wasn’t shy about laying down the basics, including the proper way to hold a knife. I learned yet again a thing or two: hold the knife enclosed in your full palm, not with your index finger “guiding” the back of the blade. This allows for greater control of the slicing. I also learned a couple things about Auguste Escoffier: The French regard him as the “King of Chefs and Chef of Kings.” He was France’s reigning pre-eminent chef in the early part of the 20th century and his cookbook is the “Bible,” of French cuisine.
Back to class…The best thing about this chicken dish is that now I can re-create it for guests when I want to throw a dinner party at home. As a handout we were given the recipes and a Ritz pencil with which to take notes. Chef Robert gave us a few tricks to remember. 1) Always brown your meat before you cook it in the oven. When you brown it, the less you mess with it the better. In other words, place your chicken breast wrapped in bacon in the hot, oiled skillet and let it sit there and brown. Don’t touch it. Then after about 5 minutes, flip it over and allow it to brown on the other side. This is the browning that both seals in the juices and flavors and provides a nice crisped outer layer. Only then do you pop the meat into the oven, in this case for 12 minutes. This technique is especially true for scallops. 2) If you want to brown onions without coloration, start with a cold pan. Add a pinch of salt, this helps to absorb the water trapped in the vegetable. If you are adding garlic, crush the garlic with the skin on and throw it into the pan. The skin prevents the garlic from burning and the flavors readily permeate into the onions and the juice.
The room at the Ritz where you enjoy your meal is just off to the side of the Patisserie Kitchen and is a little dining room decorated with a pretty tablecloth and a full bookcase of all the best cookbooks in the world. On prominent display was Thomas Keller’s French Laundry cookbook. I asked Chef Robert if she had ever eaten there and she said, yes, it was magnificent! She added, however, that when she worked in NY – for two years – she didn’t have any time up until the very last day to make it to Per Se. The lunch conversation then veered toward a discussion of the long hours Chefs maintain and meandered onto what it takes to become a Meilleur Ouvrier de France, or MOF for short.
Ecole Ritz Escoffier also offers professional courses. You can sign up for a three month class that meets four times a week, all day long. The patisserie courses are separate from the cooking courses and you must choose which specialty you will pursue. The kitchens were recently refurbished with all Molteni equipment which is a professional grade of kitchen stovetops and other heavy appliances. You can’t ask for a better setting. You are, you must remember, cooking underneath the Pl. Vendôme in Paris! And if the Ritz is somewhere you choose to stay, you’ll want to note that in their Prestige Suites, they offer fully-equipped Poggenpohl kitchens, the first luxury hotel in Paris to do so. The Ritz Paris was also the first luxury hotel in the world to be equipped with electricity on each floor and with a telephone and bathroom in each guest room. They’ve come a long way, baby!
Ecole de Cuisine Alain Ducasse – 64, rue de Ranelagh, 75016 It might be best to save Ecole de Cuisine Alain Ducasse for last. If not, you risk being spoiled for everything else. The friendliness of the school and its kitchens, the warmth of the staff who greet you upon your arrival, these are all ingredients you might not expect from the Cooking School of one of the world’s most famous chefs. A quick walk from Metro La Muette in the16th Arrondissement, 64 rue de Ranelagh is a mixed-use building that has a preschool-kindergarten in its courtyard – children’s toys are what first greet your sight-line upon arrival.
This sense of play – though the two schools have no affiliation! – is what awaits you in the kitchens of the Alain Ducasse Paris Cooking School. Opened just about a year ago, it is already a hit and its Thursday evening wine tasting courses are the really tough ones to get into. French companies have discovered how bonding a shared cooking experience can be among employees, so the Miele-equipped kitchens are often booked by private companies looking to offer their employees “team building experiences.”
I reserved the “Poissons et Crustaces” class for a Saturday morning, figuring that this is not the obvious choice for a cooking class and that I was sure to learn a thing or two about fish and shrimp. Class began at 9 a.m. sharp and lasted until 1:00 with the noon hour reserved for “degustation” or the enjoying of the meal you have just cooked. The meal, I might add, was served with a couple bottles of Crozes-Hermitage wine.
The affability of the 6’6” French chef was infectious. The class was cosy, shared with a mother and daughter, an older woman, a man who sold photovoltaic panels and myself. The Chef, Franck Loquet, speaks perfect American but chose to speak French throughout the class – thank goodness! – except for the occasional translation when he saw I wasn’t familiar with a specific word. He also welcomed questions throughout the class.
The joy of learning and working alongside someone who is fully confident in their competence is that there is easy effortlessness. Chef Loquet exhibited this in quantity: he had the techniques down, was excellent at demonstrating and teaching, and wasn’t afraid to add some creative flair as well. The kitchens are large and elegantly appointed with all state-of-the-art Miele equipment, which, Chef pointed out, can be used and had at home. In other words, you are not learning on equipment that is reserved for professionals, so everything you use and learn on at the Alain Ducasse Cooking School is similar to what you might have at home.
I learned: How to filet a mackerel, Check. How to de-vein jumbo shrimp, Check. I learned, most importantly, that one of the very basic elements of a Top French Chef’s technique is that they throw nothing away. Everything is used. Case in point: After we removed the heads and the carcasses of the jumbo shrimp, he tossed all of it into a hot pan sizzling with cooking grade olive oil, added some spices and sauteed it all up until the skins and heads and all had turned that bright shrimp pink. He then added several ladles-full of home made “Fond Blanc de Volaille” (chicken stock) and let it simmer for a good hour. [We later used this shrimp carcass broth – strained through a fine-mesh chinois – to coax the risotto-pasta to cooked tenderness.]
Meanwhile, he kept us busy shaving lacy tendrils of fennel with a grater for the salad, finely chopping the blanched skins of lemons and oranges for the citrus-zest garnish and frying up the de-boned pieces of mackerel. Interestingly, this chef noted that even when you use organic lemons and oranges for the zest, after the fruit is picked, often they add a polish to it so that it’s more appealing to the consumer. So his technique was to soak the skins in cold water, then blanch once, rinse in cold water and blanch again. Only then were we allowed to trim and finely cut the orange and lemon skins into zest for the sauce.
Takeaway: So many culinary nuggets! And also a new discovery: Vinaigre Xeres, a Spanish vinegar that is deliciously aromatic.
Yes, Ecole de Cuisine Alain Ducasse is more expensive than most of the others. But it is an experience you will be able to share with hearth and home and they give you a personalized Certificate of Completion of Course, signed by Alain Ducasse himself, at the end of your morning class.
La Cornue, Ateliers des Saveurs – Galerie La Cornue, 18, rue Mabillon, 75006 Just this side St. Germaine des Pres and right in front of St. Sulpice is La Cornue’s cooking school, Ateliers des Saveurs. If you are the type of person who pastes posters of these exquisite oven/stove tops over your bed so that you fall asleep with visions of sugar plums dancing through your head, this is your dream-come-true-cooking school.
Yes, you get to use the absolutely beautiful La Cornue stove tops and ovens during your two-hour-long midday class or three-hour evening course. The attendant La Cornue representative will even show off the newest color: Ice Blue, a sort of slate grey-blue that is designed to match with any décor. But I digress…
Arrive promptly at noon for your class to get the full experience. The Ateliers des Saveurs is deliciously easy to find and the glass front is open to the street-level entrance. Classes are designed for up to 9 people which absolutely affords the chance to talk to the chef, interact with the other participants and fundamentally immerse in the aromas and sizzles of the cooking meats, the boiling sauces, the fragrant spices.
During a recent class – they’re scheduled about two weeks apart – the menu featured: Magret de canard aux poivres, sauce bigarade; Mousseline de Saint-Jacques, sauce cressonnette; and New York Cheese Cake. The “sauce bigarade” for he plump, juicy and lovely duck was a sauce made from fresh oranges and grapefruit and zest of lemon. The Chef, Stephane Bossard, made a point of instructing that it’s best to use organic lemons and oranges when doing a zest. If otherwise, scrub the skins thoroughly to remove any residual pesticides before grating the skins.
The last-minute substitution on the menu was: the vegetable, “topinanbourg” which was used instead of the mousseline de st. Jacques. In fashion now in France is the resurgence of these “old vegetables.” Both I and the other American present had never seen this vegetable before. The older French woman and the older German lady in the class both knew the vegetable and remembered it from war time. During WWII, when potatoes were expensive and hard to come by, French people bought “topinanbourg,” instead. The two young French girls explained to me that it is currently very “a la mode” to resuscitate the use of these traditional, and nearly forgotten, vegetables.
Topinanbourg looked something like a turnip. Chef Bossard emphasized adding thin slices of lemon to the water you boil the vegetable in. Once they are soft, sort of the consistency of boiled potatoes, you mash them up with a blender – by hand might require some effort. If they are slightly watery, you can add breadcrumbs to thicken the consistency. The taste is silky and satisfying and they look like a dollop of mashed potatoes on your plate.
The New York Cheese Cake, made with French St. Moret cheese – the French version of Philadelphia cream cheese was, well, nearly as good as cheesecake you get in NYC. This is a great class for observing as there was not much opportunity for hands-on participation.
L’atelier des Sens, Bastille – 10 rue du Bourg l’Abbe, 75003 Located a 5-minute walk from the Pl. Bastille is the comfortable, funky yet professional kitchens of L’atelier des Sens. Classes average at about 10 people but can accommodate up to 12. They have two professional kitchens in their enclosed courtyard Atelier and often classes are conducted side-by-side.
The theme of a recent Friday evening class was “Grand Cuisine Aphrodisiaque.” That needs no translation. The Chef, Mssr. Fabrice Seigner, was the Head Chef at Le Jules Verne from 1997 until 2007. Where else but in France can you sign up to take a class with a chef who once commanded one of Paris’s most famous restaurants?
And like any true -to-form commander, he had all of us chopping, peeling, stirring, whipping and washing in no time. These courses are hands-on and immersive. Wallflowers need not apply. For once I was the only American participating in something (we seem to be everywhere!) and actually got to practice my French. The entire course was in French, but even with my less-than-perfect Français (that’s an exaggeration!) I had no problem following the cooking instructions.
The menu was inspired by Cupid himself. Our chocolate mousse dessert, topped with cream of passion fruit, had a good dose of Maca as the added ingredient. Maca, as Chef Seigner delightedly explained, is “natural viagra.” It’s tasteless; It comes in powder form; and had I not, myself, witnessed the dosage, I never would have tasted it in my crème de fruits de passion. How does the saying go… A spoonful of honey…?
For our scallops appetizer, he presented a bag of Goji berries to the assembled class: 2 young couples and 5 single ladies of varying ages with one pregnant young woman whose husband had gifted her a 20-hour subscription of L’ateliers des Sens cooking classes. My French classmates had never seen Goji berries! So I explained to them that in California we eat Goji berries with our almond and walnut trail mix. That impressed Chef Seigner. And he wasn’t an easy guy to win points with. It also gave him the opportunity to wax eloquent about the goji’s anti-oxidant properties and to show us a container of Aloe Vera jelly that he was using for a special recipe the next day. He’s “into organic,” he explained.
Besides the food, the great thing about the class is that Chef Seigner took the time to actually teach you how to julienne a snow pea. You learned how to dice a carrot (the orange ones). Which was altogether different from mincing a carrot (the yellow ones). Chopping parsley, he was quick to catch you out if you didn’t maneuver the knife just as he showed you – the proper way, of course. All too often us home enthusiasts never get the chance to learn these basics. Another plus, all the recipes for your reserved class are available for download from their website 48 hours before the class.
Class began at 6:50 and ended at 9:00 p.m. And then we all set the table and sat down to eat. The meal was immense. With the scallops appetizer in a reduction goji berry and ginger sauce tantalizing our senses and then followed by the main course of chicken (Fricassée de Sot l’y Laisse au gingembre confit et petits légumes) we were ready to stretch out for the night right there. And the dessert: the chocolate mousse, made from scratch, layered with that laced passion fruit cream and then all enrobed in a chocolate cup. My takeaway: To julienne is not to dice!
Alain Cirelli – Événements Culinaires – 24 rue Condorcet, 75009 Even though most tourists and travelers to Paris make the inevitable excursion to the 9th arrondissement, home to the Moulin Rouge and the Sacre Coeur, the Funicular of Montmarte and its Butte, I still have never spent much time exploring the quarter, despite its alluring charms.
So hopping off at the Anvers Metro stop one dark, Winter evening, I had to consult my pocket map several times before I found 24 rue Condorcet, the kitchens of Chef Alain Cirelli and Chef Yannick Leclerc. The evening’s theme was “Grand Amour de Menu,” in keeping with February’s St. Valentine calendar. The setting couldn’t have been more perfect: a Bold Lipstick Red kitchen, with state of the art appliances, a waist-level chandelier, at once chic and kitsch, that marked the winding stairway to the coatroom in the basement.
Couples dominated the class of ten with only a few of us stragglers there for professional learning- the other guy was a restaurateur. The atmosphere was genial: Chef Jérôme Thiers, 29 years old, was at home in his kitchen. His at-ease demeanor soon put the class in a relaxed attentive state and after a few potato peelings and appetizer preps, we were a friendly group participating in a culinary class.
Chef Alain Cirelli is known as the Italian French chef. He is well-known for his Italian cuisine and also for being the Chef-Director of three of the Printemps Haussmann – Paris’s luxury department store – dining establishments: Brasserie du Printemps, Deli-cieux and World Bar. His kitchen’s Italian Cuisine nights fill up fast, so best to reserve and book in advance.
For this February evening’s cours de cuisine, we had on the menu: Veal Filet Mignon with a honey-gravy reduction sauce and Sweet Potato caramelized Tarte-Tatin. The appetizer was a ginger-braised scallop carpaccio served with savory whipped cream and a balsamic reduction sauce with home-made breadsticks as accent; For dessert we indulged in a made-from-scratch molten-lava cake with passion fruit filling, graced with a lychee-liqueur infused lychee fruit. This wasn’t just an amour de menu but a menu made for culinary seduction. Unfortunately, the recipes were not readily available on their website or even provided as handouts, though Chef Jérôme was continually ever-ready to discuss ingredients, how much to use and where to get them. He made a point of mentioning rue Etienne Marcel in the 2nd arrondissement as the place to go to find professional culinary equipment for the trade, and added that the shops will sell to private individuals, as well.
My takeaways from the class are two things in particular: 1) It is unbelievably easy to make caramel sauce! Just heat a pan really hot, add sugar and wait for it to start to melt until it’s brown. Then shake it around a bit once it becomes the brown liquid so it doesn’t burn. Voila’! Caramel sauce. 2) It is very important to trim even the best cuts of meat. Trim, trim, trim all the fat and gristle. Then take the cooking string and wrap it all up into a neat piece of roast. Brown the meat first in a pan, all sides, even the ends. Then deliver it into the hot oven until it’s cooked to your taste.
The chocolate molten cake made-from-scratch seemed easy enough to do but I’d have to try it a few more times under Chef Jérôme’s tutelage before I’d dare it at home myself.