Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Le Cordon Bleu Week 2: Two tarts

My second week at Le Cordon Bleu Paris began with a bang - or make that two: an onion tart and an apple tart. Check these out:
onion tart
tarte aux pommes
The onion tart (with anchovies, black olives, capers, garlic, thyme, and blanched tomatoes) is typical of Southern France, and the tarte aux pommes is a classic French pastry. I need to practice rolling my dough and perfect my cutting abilities in order to make the presentation more precise. Otherwise, these were fun to make and will make lovely additions to my meal repertoire.

As we enjoyed these creations, my in-laws and I commented on how much more real the food is in France. The idea of going to the market to buy fresh products is deeply engrained in everyday life. Of course processed foods are also readily available, but I feel healthier eating "back to basics". For example, I used flour, sugar, butter, an egg, cinnamon, vanilla, apples, and oh yes Calvados to make this tarte aux pommes. The recipe calls for very little sugar, actually, and so I didn't think twice about giving some to my son for dessert. They are real, clean, man-of-the-earth ingredients. I think this is why the French are generally not over weight - because the patisseries also use these same ingredients. No high fructose corn syrup, preservatives, artificial colors or flavors. I'm willing to bet that Parisians would rather be caught dead than purchase a frozen tarte aux pommes when there are pastry shops at every corner. In fact, I don't think I've seen frozen tarte aux pommes in my neighborhood supermarkets.

Return to the real stuff, and you'll loose weight, I say. Also walk a few miles a day, and this will do the trick. I don't miss driving a car and I don't crave food from a box. I feel healthier in Paris even though I'm eating enough to kill a small horse.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Le Cordon Bleu details

I've received many questions about Le Cordon Bleu and what I've seen so far, so these are my responses to some of them. Keep 'em coming!

Not everyone is studying Le Gran Diplome like I am. Those of us doing it are a minority by far. I believe that out of the 300 people who began some level of coursework in March 2011, only ten of us are crazy enough to be going for the full shebang - Le Grand Diplome. Quite a few people returned this term to continue their studies. They may have their Basic Cuisine certificate, for example, and are back to complete the Intermediate level (it takes three levels - Basic, Intermediate, and Superior, to receive a Diploma). Still others received their Pastry Diploma once upon a time, for example, and returned to complete their Cuisine Diploma.
*Here is a link to the list of courses available in the Paris campus.

The demonstrations are conducted in French and English. The chefs speak only French as they cook, and there are instantaneous translators who translate into English. Some chefs speak English, and so the practicals are a mix of both languages. However, not all chefs speak English, in fact one of our pastry chefs speaks only French, so I feel lucky to be able to understand French. Some people have no knowledge of French, so it's tough for them. However, LCB created a class in conjunction with the Alliance Francaise, and is offering basic French courses for LCB students.

Regarding what people want to achieve with this degree; there are some who want to work in restaurants or open their own restaurants. There are others, like me, who don't want to do this, and are thinking about being chefs in a different capacity. They love cooking. It's their passion and want to keep it that way, and think that working in a restaurant might take that passion away. So, they're here to enhance their knowledge by learning sophisticated techniques and also think of ways to be chefs without working in restaurants. By the way, I've met two French students. When I wrote my first entry about the school, I hadn't met any.

Ingredients are included in tuition costs, and everything needed to make a particular dish during practicals is waiting in the kitchen when class begins. We can take our work home! This is particularly great when it's 9:30pm and you've been in class for 13 hours. Of course you're starving but have no energy to go home and make dinner!

My guess is that the average age is around 25, but I've met a 19-year-old, a few a 50+ year-olds, and everyone in between. It's a very international crowd and many are married folk who've left their loved ones in their home countries while they study here. 

Many sacrifices have been made, but we all hope and believe it is necessary to ignite successful careers as chefs in whatever capacity we choose. It is evident that students are here because they love it. They love thinking about the flavors and textures, presentation, and of course the taste of food. And they all came to Paris for one thing - to study with the best of the best.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Le Cordon Bleu Paris: First Week

Thank you for accompanying me on this journey up to this point. The time has finally come for me to tell you about my first few days at Le Cordon Bleu Paris. The reason I didn't do so before is because I've had 13-hour days and when I come home, I'm more tired than I can express. I've had no energy to start typing and only manage to brush my teeth, put on my pajamas, and crawl into bed. Today I only had one class, so I'm bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and thrilled to finally tell you about how it's going.

My first observation: wow.
Second observation: OMG, this is tough.

LCB classes are composed of demonstration and practical sessions. The school provides us with a binder that includes ingredient lists for the recipes, and we have to take note of the techniques used to make the recipes during the demonstration sessions. During practical sessions, we prepare some of the dishes we observed the chef make. I have two masters degrees from prestigious institutions. That was tough. This, however, is tougher because think about it - if the souffle doesn't poof, it doesn't poof. Period. There is no credit for writing a very well written essay to analyze why the souffle didn't poof. No way around it. You fail miserably.

Ok, so maybe I'm exaggerating a wee little bit. I actually haven't made a souffle yet (that's in lesson 18). The chefs have all actually been very kind, and seem to genuinely want to help us learn. It appears that they're sympathetic to the fact that none of us know what we're doing, and that feels better. However, they all say that things will become more exigent. 

I've done pretty well so far. The chefs have told me when I've done something wrong, or that they'd like to see me doing some things differently, but the results of all three practicals have been successful. Definitely not enough for a three-star Michelin rated restaurant, but good enough to get a "good" from the chefs.

However, because you've been loyal readers, I think I need to confess. During my first pastry practical, I was so nervous and obsessed with moving quickly and efficiently, that I didn't notice the difference between the salt (unmarked and coarse in texture) and sugar containers, and used 100 grams of salt for my shortbread dough. Yes, ladies and gentleman, I did that. I feel like the queen of morons. THE fool. Shameful. Awful. The worst part is that the chef didn't even notice, and he wouldn't even have had to know, but I needed to ask him for the vanilla because he'd put it away. The best part, however, is that I told myself I needed to redeem myself and get back to business. I told myself that I was in fact not a moron, and that not only did I have to get over it, but I had to catch up and make the best damn shortbread cookies ever. Well, perhaps not ever, but ever for me. So I rolled up my sleeves (literally), dumped out the original salty dough, made another, rolled some darn good looking shortbread rolls, and created these:

They turned out well. The chef said "very good" and pointed out the ones he liked the most. Phew. Disasters happen. Don't do it again, get over it, and move on.

Last night I scaled, filleted, skinned, and cooked sole. Sole is a very thin salt-water fish. Did you know there's a knife especially for filleting sole? Well there is, and I have one. Three hours of gutting, trimming, boiling, reducing, seasoning, buttering, and many other ing's later, I achieved this:
The chef said it was good but that next time I should add some lemon when reducing the sauce to give it a kick. This was a relief since other people got "too much butter", "too salty", and "no taste" as responses. Double phew.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Le Cordon Bleu: Orientation and a question

Yesterday was a day to fill out forms, listen to the rules, and receive schedules, uniforms, and equipment. The staff seem very nice and the chefs are professional with a pedagogical air. The students are from all over the world...but none from France.

I've actually noticed that not too many French people attend Le Cordon Bleu (LCB), and some don't even know too much about it. Last June I visited the school and got lost on my way there. I was three blocks away and the two people I asked for directions on the way there did not know what I was talking about!

My interest is peaked. I want to know where French chefs train, if they're not doing it at Le Cordon Bleu. Is it more about getting practical experience, and if so, do they take internships at the many fantastic restaurants and learn everything they need to know there, without having to attend culinary school? What I do know is that the chefs we were introduced to at LCB yesterday were the creme de la creme of chefs. They are a big deal here, and are even competing at Les Meilleurs Ouvriers de France this year, which is this country's most prestigious artisans' competition.

LCB Paris students are mostly Asian or from the USA, and actually a few Colombians and other Latin Americans. LCB couldn't possibly be so famous in the US only because Julia Child attended the school, could it? I mean, she did change food culture in the US forever, but the school must have other merits, right? I bet it does, I'm just playing devil's advocate. Has LCB focused its attention on marketing to foreigns countries, or are the French really not that into it? This is highly unlikely since some of the best French chefs teach here. Hmmm...I intend to find out what it takes to train as a chef in France.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Cafe culture

Tomorrow's the big day. My first day of classes at Le Cordon Bleu Paris. It's actually orientation day, so I'll get my uniform, equipment, schedule, etc. I was full of nervous energy today and cleaned the whole apartment. I'm not talking about a general Sunday cleaning, I'm talking about wiping light switches and under every conceivable surface, book, vase, shoe, and everything in between. You all know what I mean - I'm sure everyone has experienced this kind of instant-gratification-seeking cleaning frenzy before a big day.

On my mind is something more than just my first day of culinary school, however. I've also been thinking about where this blog is headed. Even though it's been successful at presenting my gushy, lovely, fluffy, and marshmellowy feelings about my first weeks in Paris, it's going to get more down-and-dirty. My sister, who has always been the person who gives me the best constructive criticism, told me that it was all fine and dandy to talk about hot chocolate at Les Deux Magots in St Germain, but that I needed to get to deeper anthropological stuff. She threw a good idea at me, and said: "what came first: the chicken, or the egg. Did cafe culture influence intellectuals, or did intellectuals influence cafe culture."

You may remember my reference to how Les Deux Magots was a favorite hang-out for Picasso, Hemingway, Sartre, among others. Cafes like these seem to have always encouraged stimulating conversations. They're cozy, and they're the best places to people-watch. Most Parisian cafes are strategically located at corners of intersections, and tables and chairs are placed facing the sidewalks and streets. 

It seems that every time we go to one of these cafes, something happens that reminds me that cafe culture is sacred, and important things happen there. Movements are created, proposals are made, and there is more than just coffee brewing in the kitchen. 

One day, the three of us were sitting at our table, and noticed a woman sitting at the table next to ours. She was not French, nor British, nor was she from the US. She was speaking loudly into her telephone and I'm proud to say my toddler was behaving better than she was. She was annoying and loud. The French gentleman next to her, who had a sophisticated aura about him and was an obvious regular, looked up from his Le Monde and yelled to her in French about how rude and uneducated she was. How dare she speak so loudly on a cellular phone at a cafe? He was angry, very angry. And even though his reaction was a bit extreme, I had to agree with him. She was disturbing the thinking caps and brainstorming waves that fly around Les Deux Magots.

Another visit to Les Deux Magots was just as enthralling. We sat next to a table of what looked like very wise, older intellectuals. They were speaking a mixture of French and Hebrew, and I imagined they were part of some kind of philosophical society, meeting to discuss this week's theory. A woman joined them at one point, and she seemed to mesmerize the other gentlemen with her take on the conversation. Other men joined the group, and all it took was for their comrades to pull up yet another chair to participate in the conversation. It was like being transported to the time of the existentialist movement and its birth at Les Deux Magots. I could totally picture it.

When we're in the US, where there is not a cafe culture (other than in perhaps NYC and a few other places), my husband yearns for them. [I'd like to pause and make a distinction between cafe culture European style, and Starbucks. It ain't the same thing.] In most of Europe and definitely Eastern Europe as well, you can sit and have a cup of coffee and people watch all year round. Even in frigid winters, space heaters and plastic tarps help cafe culture survive the dead of winter. It seems that here, people look forward to going to the cafe - it is where business meetings take place, where lovers meet, friends catch-up, writers write, thinkers think, and where people seem to create their own sacred, protected space but in the presence of others.

So back to my original question: Do cafes lead to intellect and creativity, or do intellect and creativity lead to cafes?

If you've read this far into this entry, then you probably care about what I'm talking about. If so, please tell me what you think.
P.S. Don't worry - I'll continue to include fluffy, pretty, gushy entries about my life in Paris.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Light stimulation

Today was a cold, rainy day in Paris. That's right - perfect for a museum. We'd heard that the Pompidou had a kids' gallery with hands-on activities, so off we went. Even though this section for kids is small, my son had a blast. He created his own water color painting and played with small plastic cubes of different colors to create prisms.

We then headed off to the Francois Morellet exhibit. I'd seen another exhibit of his in the NYC Guggenheim and even though I enjoyed it then, it wasn't nearly as fun as seeing my toddler running around the exhibit spaces, completely enthralled by the flashing lights and disorienting lines and shapes. Fascinating for adults, even more so for kids. 

It's fantastic to be able to expose your son to this kind of stimulation. I wonder what was going through his mind when he was looking at these lights:

Thursday, March 17, 2011

In love in Paris...and with Paris

The only thing better than being in love with Paris, is being in love in Paris. My husband and I celebrated our four-year anniversary today and had one of the most awesome days we've ever had together. It all started this morning, when we received the good news that our son had been accepted into a great little day-care. After all, as parents we are happy only when our kids are well. On our way home, we stopped at a boulangerie for a few pains au chocolats and croissants. Yum. Good way to start the day.

Off we went to my favorite restaurant in Paris. It's called Au Bon Accueil, and it's wonderful. 100% quality and elegance, 0% pretentious. The fun thing about going there is that we usually don't know what we're ordering. I'm sure that will change after I complete my culinary course, but for now, we choose at random, our french lacking food vocabulary. 
Today we ended up eating sea urchin, two types of fish, and quail - all absolutely amazing. The sea urchin was made into a souffle and was of a smooth texture and full of taste. The presentation, I have no words for. The souffle was served inside the hardened sea urchin on a bed of sea salt (the crunchiest I've ever had). Gorgeous. Next came the quail served in a beet sauce and sauteed mushrooms. Delicious. Finally, we had a chocolate tart and a souffle a la chartreuse. The souffle was like eating a cloud. If you could eat clouds, this is what they would taste like. The tart was decadent and dark. 'Nough said. Oh, and the wine was awesome. I can't remember the name, but it was "fort et rouge", as the sommelier said - just like I like it.
After this degustation made for kings, queens, and everyone in between, we walked to the Musee Rodin, which was as lovely as ever. The gardens are getting ready for spring, its roses about to pop. I melted over The Kiss and was humbled by The Thinker. This was my first time in the museum as a mom, and I was particularly moved by Rodin's mother and child sculptures. If you're a mom, take a look at this, and you'll understand:
We headed back to St Germain and stopped at Restaurant Procope for a capuccino. It was founded in 1686 and was a hang-out of none other than Rousseau and his buddies. The place is beautiful - the walls decorated with framed letters dating back to the 1700s and its ceilings and walls are crooked from having stood for so long. I'm sorry to say, however, that the capuccino was not very good. It was bitter and as I write this, five hours after having drunk it, my stomach still aches.
Finally, we went to the movies to see The Fighter. Excellent. 

The best part of our day, however, was coming home to our son and singing his good night song. He's starting to sing it himself, and it melts my heart, more so than the souffle or Rodin.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


The indoor gourmet market of St Germain is a hop, skip, and a jump from my house. I'm fortunate to be so close to such an abundance of perfect fruit, vegetables, cheese, wine, meats, poultry, seafood, bread, pastry, and summer rolls? Yes, a Vietnamese eatery sits among the typically French stalls. Whatever you're craving, it's probably waiting for you at this market.
These kinds of markets are important reasons why I wanted to come to Paris. This city is teeming with markets where everything is displayed in all its brilliance and where shop keepers take pride in every single tomato, and it shows.
This is the place where only the vegetables that took their time to ripen perfectly are taken. Only the best cheese, olives, fruits, and bread. Only the best. I'll say no more, just take a look:

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Croque for you, Madame?

Today I had a croque madame for lunch at Les Deux Magots. My husband and I can't seem to get enough of this place (and its hot chocolate). My in-laws arrived today, and it was the logical place to take them for their first truly Parisian lunch experience. My croque madame was perfection - the most perfectly fried egg and delicious cheese and ham on toast. Oh so French, oh so good.
croque madame
Speaking of in-laws, you may be wondering how I propose to take an intensive eight-month culinary and pastry course with a toddler on board. The answer is simply that I have the best in-laws a girl could wish for. Recently retired, they've decided to come to Paris to be with our son while I'm in class. They rented an apartment near ours, and are about to embark on their new career - being awesome full-time grandparents.

So to all those fantastic grandparents out there, I say hooray. In Beijing, China, it is very common to see grandparents with their grandchild (it is usually only one that they have, after all.) The Chinese have an unparallel respect for grandparents and they hold important roles in the family, unlike other countries, where they are often cast off to a nursing home. They have, after all, lived through more of the good times and bad and can share more about life than others. For this reason, I'm thrilled that my son will have this exposure to wisdom, experience, and most importantly, love.

Monday, March 14, 2011

La patisserie des reves

I stumbled upon something I know you'd like to see. It's a very aptly named pastry shop "La patisserie des reves"*, or "The pastry shop of dreams". We were on our way to visit our dear friends and hosts here in Paris. They live in the elegant 16th arrondissement, and I wanted to take a sweet little something for our dinner date. Look at what I discovered on rue de Longchamp:

A palette of pastel colors, shiny and new. Each dessert, or should I say creation, is exhibited in its own glass case. Actually, that's exactly what it felt like - a museum exhibit that showcases only the most perfect and original works of art. The sales lady walked me through the displays, explaining what each of the masterpieces were. It was almost impossible to choose only one of these desserts, but the tarte au citron de saison called to me. Of course, it was a hit at our dinner party. The merengue was perfection, the lemon filling tart but not overwhelming, and the crust was an extremely special crumbly goodness.
tarte au citron de saison
Next time, I'll try this one. Chocolate glory with a funky sugar-steel contraption on top:
chocolate gateau
The pastry shop also has a "salon de the" and so I'll be sure to return and try their tea selection.

I have only been in this city a few days, and already I am in awe of the creativity that chefs bring to their shops. A millefeuille, for example, such a classic, can look completely different in two of Paris' best pastry shops, but still keep its basic feel. These chefs have mastered the classics and made them their own. 
millefeuille with a twist - it's only made on sundays and they make it right in front of you
This shop also offers courses for those of you who are not satisfied with only eating these treasures, but would also like to learn how to make them.

*Apologies for the lack of accents - I don't know how to add them on this blog program. If anyone uses blogger and can tell me how to add accents, I'd greatly appreciate the information.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Spring is coming to Paris

We've been living in the Caribbean for a few years and are not accustomed to the cold. When the temperature in Trinidad fell to 80 degrees, I usually wore a light sweater. So you can imagine the shock for all of us facing the chilly winds that still linger in Paris these March days. My son is not only getting used to the chilly air, but also to wearing clothes. His preference in clothing tended to be Pampers size 4. And that's it. Maybe, if we had company, he would wear a t-shirt. And only if we left the house did he wear shorts. So take a look at the dramatic change:
He is seen here running around in Jardin Luxembourg in a puffy red down coat and covered from head to toe. He complained the first few times but now he's come to terms with it. In this photo, he's happy chasing pigeons and glad to be nice and warm.

The good news is that there are signs that spring is coming to Paris. Trees are letting loose some tender, lovely buds and cherry blossoms are in bloom. I lived in Washington DC for many years, where we are very proud of our cherry blossoms. Their appearance always made me happy. They are like little puffs of sugar, painted with a watercolor brush to tell us that winter is over.
This is great news for us. Paris in the spring time. I dare you to think of something more beautiful. 

Saturday, March 12, 2011

A chilly afternoon in Paris

Yesterday our little family of three was cold. It was four o'clock and the logical thing to do was have some hot tea. As soon as I started heating up the water, my husband said "I'll be right back!" and walked out the door. A few minutes later, he showed up with a beautiful pink box - ribbon and all. In it were macaroons from Gerard Mulot. Please pardon yet another mention of this patisserie, but he couldn't resist. This little pink box was the perfect addition to our tea time. 
Macaroons are heavenly little creatures made of almond paste whipped with egg whites into oblivion in order to create a kind of merengue cookie. Various ingredients are added, creating a seemingly infinite variety of these little pastries. It seems that every time I enter a macaroon shop, there is a new flavor they've come up with. For example, my favorite yesterday was the passion fruit basil macaroon. I would never have thought of these two ingredients together, but it works. Oh, it works very well. A bit of tang and a bit of earthy basil - almost minty and definitely refreshing.
After drinking our tea and eating the entire contents of the little box, we decided we were warm enough to face the chilly evening. We took the loveliest stroll to St. Sulpice, and looked up:
A fountain sitting elegantly under a magical sky.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Gerard Mulot

A Gerard Mulot patisserie, which is considered the best in Paris, happens to be very conveniently around the corner from my flat. Please do yourself a favor and feast your eyes on their website. Just looking through the window, your heart skips a beat in about the same way as when you see the love of your life. 
The window displays almost brought me to tears. This is the good stuff, ladies and gentlemen. This is artistry. This is sugar manipulation at its best - a perfected art form that I appreciate at an almost spiritual level. I mean, just look at this stuff:
What did I choose, you ask? Well, it was almost impossible to do so. I'm glad I live around the corner because it may just take me eight months to try everything in the store. Today, I took A-L's advice and ordered the crunchy orange tart, which had the right kind of tang and the right kind of sweet. I also chose the dark chocolate tart, an opera, and a millefeuille, a classic that never gets old. The best part about these little bits of pastry goodness were sharing them with friends. We visited a friend of mine who I haven't seen in about ten years. She now has a toddler son as well, and he and my son hit it off immediately - they'll be best friends living large in St Germain - eating pastries and frolicking in the Jardin du Luxembourg fields - what a tough life.