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Beautiful Cooking at a Belle Ecole
Back when I had a kitchen, I started wondering if maybe I should start using it. In an effort to fight against my own nature (I am in no way a cook), I bought a book entitled Cooking with Three Ingredients. I still have not opened it. That was over four months ago, and now I find myself living in a small top-floor maid’s room without even the option to cook! That’s why the opportunity to go watch someone else cook, someone who knows what they’re doing, was especially enticing.
La Belle Ecole is a marvelous idea – an organization which provides varying courses on the art of French living. If any ‘art of living’ required classes, it would be the French, as quality and subtlety of taste is key. Perhaps Japanese art of living would also become quite refined and academic, but the point is that here the classes are fun. It was difficult to choose from the courses offered, as there were also intimidating options such as Chocolate and Cheese tasting that I’m sure would have been really challenging. But I was drawn to this course on “French Gastronomy: the Market Menu: Winter” because during these cold months there isn’t anything like a home- (or school-, as it were) cooked meal.
I walked into an exquisite place – the Atelier des Arts Culinaires – nestled underneath an arch of the viaducts that run from Bastille past Gare de Lyon. This atelier, or factory, is really just a large celebration of all things having to do with the kitchen and cooking, from silverware (someone was making brand new silver while I was visiting) to pots and pans to, of course, food upstairs. Our chef Christophe was a jubilant and very open person, someone who clearly loves his job and isn’t afraid to show his passion. He explained that he is a cook who has never really had to go down the avenue of being a chef in a busy/fancy restaurant environment, but rather someone who is hired to cook for private clients. If I knew how to cook, I thought to myself, I would love that job too! He had no shortage of amusing anecdotes from his starry background, and made the whole experience even more charming than it was already by sheer force of the food all around us.
To be more precise, before there was any actual food around us, there was a bulging mishmash of colors, smells, noises, shapes and sights that later became the well-orchestrated, whipped together and delicious meal we sat down to. At the beginning there was, among many other things, the picking o f fish bones (which was my activity 15 minutes after arriving), the smoothing of a bed of white-ish veggies frying in a pan, the piercing of a butter piecrust that had inflated to the shape and size of a helium balloon in the oven, and the bubbling of syrupy homemade caramelized sugar. There were also fish tails, a 20 euro hermetically sealed container of truffles (which I never knew to be so refined and chic), cubed apples, and the orange insides of a pumpkin. The synchronicity of all this was so completely out of reach for me, so I just stood aside, watched, and let it all happen. I was not able to remain on the sidelines for long, however, since at this school student participation is necessary.
I was surrounded by a very charming group of people, mainly French, all there to perfect their already-existent cooking talents and techniques. As we all helped, Christophe explained that in the kitchen, the cardinal rule was ordre. This of course was completely alien to me. The kitchen was only about eating for me! I confess that I am a typical American male, in that I grew up around cooking, always had it in my reach, so it was normalized and standardized as a given from a very early age. I never gave cooking much thought until I was on my own, and then it was mainly in reflecting on how I would never have the time and patience to take it up. But here at La Belle Ecole, it was gloriously spotlighted, made accessible again. That is not to say it looked easy; even after my course I would be terrified to undertake any of the tasks that were so seamlessly presented. But that’s just me.
It is curiously intimate to watch people you don’t know while they cook. Here in France, the country of cooking, I felt almost as if I was watching people engaging in their private routines. After all, the preparation of the food that you will later eat is very private when you’re not eating out. But I eat out all the time, so this struck me with a fresh clarity.
And now for what we were cooking. We started off with a very autumnal, thick pumpkin soup, prepared with garlic and cream and peppered with flakes of grilled bacon and truffle. This did actually seem quite easy to make, since all the timing involved seem to remain around 20 minutes. You see, it’s the timing of it all that flusters me in the kitchen. I try to follow the recipe, keeping to the minute, but usually the guidelines are more of a suggestion than a requirement; you are supposed to leave room for intuition. Somehow Christophe managed to make this soup, a standard favorite of mine, taste rich and light at the same time. While the soup was on the stove, we started to take care of our fish. The plat was to be bass, cooked with its skin, served on a bed of leeks and endives with a dill sauce. This was more difficult. The steps involved, from preparing the fish to getting the vegetables ready for the sauce, were many. I have one amazing fish story from a few years ago, when I was wandering on a beach in northern Greece and came upon some fishermen cleaning their fresh catch in the surf. My Greek friend spoke to them, and we left with a plastic bag of about four or five little silver fish. That evening we threw them on the barbecue with lemon and butter (I mainly watched, slightly skeptical about what we would in fact be eating) and the result was miraculous. From that meal onwards I have been a huge fan of fish, especially since it seems so easy to cook. This meal was no exception – we grilled the fish for 3-4 minutes on each side and the taste was perfection. The sauce sure helped – one of the highlights of the course, this sauce was actually a reduction involving the tail, various vegetables, and white wine. It was wonderful to look at while it cooked and even more delicious to smell. I’m just thrilled I finally know what a reduction is!
We finished off with a scrumptious apple feuillantine, which translates into a poofy pancake sandwich of sorts, with warm apples flambéed in apple liquor stuffed in between. This was a fun one, as desserts tend to be. The flambé process was great to watch, and who knew that a little bit of granulated sugar with water put on the stove can make such a delicious sauce caramel? I sure didn’t.
Almost all of my ‘classmates’ were there because their nearest and dearest had given them the course as gifts. Smart bunch of people; this is one original, thoughtful and unforgettable present, and they might eventually get a delicious meal out of it themselves! Visit La Belle Ecole’s extremely navigable site and see what other delicious things are on offer.
La Belle Ecole:
Tel: +33 147 045 020