Le Cordon Bleu course a challenge
Food & Wine
About three minutes into the first practical session, I had smoked out the student kitchen with unattended potatoes, peeled my finger bloody and come dangerously close to setting myself on fire.
Everyone else seemed a lot more collected - even the 13-year-old.
We had three hours to make a traditional seafood soup called cotriade and a black pudding, apple and onion tart.
The hardest thing about a cooking class is working with unfamiliar recipes in an unfamiliar kitchen. Not to mention the time limit.
Chef de cuisine Francis Motta was very patient - even when he saw the state of my mussels - something else I forgot to keep an eye on.
Day one of boot camp is cuisine, or savoury dishes. The morning is spent in the auditorium with the chef demonstrating the day's recipes. On, then, to the kitchen, where you make your best attempt at reproducing the morning's demonstration.
I should have taken more notes.
Seafood is not usually on my list of must- eats. I dabble with fish and enjoy the odd prawn, but am by no means experienced with marine-life prep. At boot camp, I notched up my first mussel-beard removal, first encounter with scampi eggs and first taste of black pudding (not a fan). Fortunately for the other seven participants, the seafood dish was a huge hit, and much better executed. Engineer Mike, the only male on the course, proved the dark horse of the kitchen and produced an enviably smooth broth with well-cooked seafood.
Self-described cooking-class junkie Susan had the unfortunate experience of working beside me. Her nous with seafood was considerably greater - she beheaded her scampi with nary a flinch. A family cook, Susan learned to debone quail alongside chef/restaurateur Martin Bosley and has spent time in Asia mastering dim sum.
Her cotriade was subject to a lot less muffled tutting from chef Motta.
Motta recently emigrated from Provence after being offered a job at the new Wellington cooking school when he was on holiday in New Zealand with his Kiwi wife.
With traditional French training and more than 20 years of experience, Motta is both a relaxed personality and an exacting professional. Despite no formal teaching training, his natural tutoring style probably stems from a lifetime spent perfecting his skills.
In France, Motta began working towards a career in food at the age of 14.
"At school I wasn't very good. More than that, really: I was terrible. I had no discipline, so I chose to work instead."
Motta's choice of profession stemmed from a family interest in food. As a child he visited the Sunday markets with his father and came home to cook the family meal.
"For me, being a chef was the best possibility."
Earlier this year he spoke to an auditorium of students for the first time, worried more about his English than the cooking ahead.
In front of the boot-camp class, his every movement is projected on to flat screens so details can be scrutinised by his students.
An entree of black pudding, apple and onion tart is a simple dish in theory but, as with everything French, there is a good deal of technique and care behind the scenes. The result is a clean, professional product.
The French are often thought of as having a natural knack with food, but what is obvious when watching these chefs at work is the technique on which all their efforts are based. There are no cut corners.
Chef de patisserie Sebastian Lambert is a fantastic example of how an exacting nature can be transferred into success.
When I bake at home, I roughly follow the recipe. If something doesn't go quite right, or I run out of something, I'll just replace it with the next best thing or give it a whirl anyway.
Such an approach borders on sacrilege with Lambert.
The sable breton (butter biscuit) dough calls for twice-sifted flour (maybe even three times if you're not sure two is enough), butter melted to a paste (not a liquid), and the dough combined just so - not over, not under. That's just for a biscuit.
Crepes are a whole new world of technique. Getting the thickness of the batter just right is a bit of a process, and the cooking is something of an art form.
My mistakes included a cold pan, too much butter and overly thick crepe batter. After making seven with holes in them and burnt edges, I finally got the hang of it and produced a few decent-looking ones.
The crepes were used in a mousse and custard dessert. Green apple mousse and a calvados anglaise were poured into crepe- lined moulds and set in the fridge.
Adding cream to the anglaise proved my undoing. I was not patient enough to bring my mixture down to 28 degrees Celsius. Fortunately, it did set and was an excellent dessert later in the evening - much oohing and aahing was done.
For the home cook, as all boot-camp participants are, a course such as this really instils the value of method.
Le Cordon Bleu insists on everything being done by hand first time around. The insistence on technique gives a new perspective to that perfect dish in a restaurant - the hours of work and layers of recipes that contribute to a finished plate.
Using a thermometer for mousse and custard is probably not even considered by many home cooks. The lesson is a valuable one and a peek into why French cooking is so prized and takes so long to master.
Despite our incompatible cooking styles, Lambert's attention to detail has no doubt produced some amazing patisserie graduates. The school's demand for perfection is not be scoffed at.
The first batch of students left the school last month having completed arduous nine- month courses - and New Zealand dining will surely benefit from their education at the hands of such consummate professionals.
CORDON BLEU TIPS
When making stock, use butter to deglaze your pot three times. This picks up all the pot flavour and caramelises it into the stock.
Eel is a cheap and flavoursome replacement for expensive seafood in a sauce base.
When making crepes, use a pastry brush to butter the pan so you don't overdo it.
Always learn to make things by hand first, then use the fancy machines later when you know what to look for.
Creme anglaise is ready when you swipe a finger through it on a spatula and the clean line holds.
Sift your flour twice.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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