All Things Remain Constant

All Things Remain Constant

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Exclusive for Bonjour Paris! Suzy Gershman, author of the Born To Shop Series, and the must-have book for any Francophile, C’est La Vie, offers up a fab review of cooking with celeb chef, Christian Constant.

The panic set in as I stood before my closet, coffee in hand. What to wear for a cooking class with one of France’s most famous chefs? A little black dress?

I pawed my way through the closet in near hysteria. Cashmere sweater? If you can’t take the heat in the kitchen….nah, that would never do. Nice clothes? And get flour on them? Are you crazy, Suze?

In the end, I decided on everyday attire—jeans and a striped t-shirt with sturdy shoes. Kitten heels just wouldn’t do, I was certain of that, and while I’ve read that chefs wear something called sabots, a type of foot gear specifically for the kitchen, I don’t even know what they are – let alone own any.

I laced up my tennis shoes and took the bus cross-town to Le Violon d’Ingres, the cozy restaurant on the oh-so-adorable rue Saint Dominique where for many years now Christian Constant has ruled constant. I knew him, of course, from years ago, when he was the many starred chef of Les Ambassadeurs, the fabled restaurant in the Hotel de Crillon.

He created quite a breeze when he waltzed out of the Crillon and started up his own restaurant, small and perfect, just him in the kitchen, wife Catherine up front and 40 happy diners for lunch and dinner.

Now several more can join him in the kitchen for his first series of cooking classes. He speaks and teaches (and cooks) in French but Catherine, who is Scottish, translates into English. Constant is the first of the starred chefs to offer cooking lessons in his own kitchen in his own restaurant. He stresses that while he has taught at Cordon Bleu and knows what a real class is (duh), what he offers is really a cross between a class and a demonstration. You are invited to join in and do the cooking yourself.

“After all” he says with a Gallic shrug, “I already know how to make these dishes.”

* * * *

I had dashed into the restaurant at exactly 9:30 in the morning, not late but not early either. If my class mates /admin/story/story/18150/were to be French, I would have been the first one there. Alas, they were Americans and more punctual than I. They had already eaten most of the fresh croissants on the table and all but a few pain chocolat. Two tables of six students sat at white linen, sipping their coffees and introducing themselves in English. They were a mix of Americans in Paris and visiting fireman; four of them were members of the same family, traveling together on an annual Paris food fest.

Chef explained that we would cook three dishes, chosen because they were on the restaurant carte and because they were in season. His choices vary with the seasons but always remain attainable—not so hard that you can’t follow the class or can’t imagine making the meal at home on your own.

Oui, Chef! I nod as I take the soft white professional apron handed to me. As I survey my other classmates I realize that the donning and proper tying of a professional apron is a learned experience. I don’t know when or where I learned it; I thought I always knew until I saw others struggling with the technique.

“Hrrrmmmppphh!” sputtered one woman, “I need that bosom lift I have been talking about.”

The recipes, already translated into English but with metric measurements, are handed out. One student questions cooking fish on Monday. Constant’s classes are always on Mondays, a day his restaurant is closed.

“Very good question!” says chef, “you do not cook fish on Monday at home. But here, the fish is fresh and was just delivered!”

Phew. Take that Anthony Boudain.

I ask if we can use the recipes with frozen fish.

Silence bites the room.

“I am the enemy of frozen food,” chef says with a steely grin.

Oui, chef!

* * * *

The people who did not know how to tie a professional apron were also the ones who had never been inside a professional kitchen, who were given a short tour to inspect the different areas—to note the blue cutting board was for fish, the yellow, for bread. We begin with a soft boiled egg with truffle butter. One of the class members asks about truffle season.

“Oy” I think to myself.

Chef does not seem to mind stupid questions and shows neither impatience nor agitation. I know this question is enough to send many a starred chef into a hysterical, screaming, ranting, raving tirade. Christian Constant is obviously not a screamer. Those of us who have been in professional kitchens before, who have witnessed temperamental chefs in action, sigh inwardly and relax enormously.

This is going to be fun, we agree silently.

Chef moves easily from instructions to how-to. He says today we will use chicken eggs but the same recipe can be done with other eggs, goose perhaps. Right.

So, says chef, let’s attack the eggs! Attack seems to be chef’s favorite verb.

He teaches us that the eggs should be at room temperature, then they should be individually warmed in the hands and then shaken (not stirred) so the yolk moves to the center. A dozen eggs go into a basket and are plunged into boiling water that has been seasoned with white vinegar.

The people who didn’t know to tie an apron also didn’t know about cooking eggs in vinegar.

Soon the eggs are boiled (exactly five minutes) and we are all tapping, rolling and lightly chipping at the shells.

“Patience” says chef, with much patience. Each student has his or her own egg except the man who is a law professor. Ha! I think to myself, the lawyer only knows how to break the eggs, not peel them gently.

Then we learn to make truffle butter, which is spread on pain de mie. Our perfectly peeled eggs are washed gently in water and then bathed in fresh breadcrumbs and butter over the heat, then settled into nests of mache and dusted with fresh truffles. Forks are passed around. I run my finger across the goop on the plate and lick it.

* * * *

With egg dribbling from our chins, we move downward to the pastry kitchen. The dessert must be started now. The sous chef demonstrates how to make a sable crust. I ask if we can buy the ready made sable crust from the grocery store. Chef doesn’t wince or throw a whisk. He notes that I was the same person who asked the question about frozen fish. The crowd smirks.

“Yes, yes, yes. That’s okay,” he says, then he sends a student into a heap of flour and sugar, “Tu Attaque!” he orders. Soon we are all making pastry sand. I can hear my grandmother’s voice, the grandmother who taught me how to cook.

“How much flour, Grandma Jessie?”

“Accchhhh child, you shit a little flour.”

‘Shit’ in Yiddish means to put.

The students work on their crusts.

“Tak, tak, voila!” says chef.

* * * *

While the crust is baking, we return to the central kitchen to make our main dish—a filet of sea bass which will be enrobed in croutons, cooked in butter and finished off with toasted almonds. The fish has already been filleted; the comis de cuisine has used a tweezers to remove all the tiny bones. Plunk, plunk, pat, pat and the fish is dredged in eggs, dressed in home made croutons and sent to the sauté pan to dance in a small river of butter.

“Don’t burn the butter!” pleads the chef, who reminds us to cook with regular butter not salted butter. I think he is perhaps thinking of my arteries. No, he says, it’s less expensive. No need to waste money on something you can’t taste.

I name the fish dish Darth Vader because it is breaded on the dark side.

* * * *

While some students stay to cook the fish, others return to the pastry kitchen to test taste the sabayon, then see it mixed with chocolate and made into a tart. Plates and forks are passed around again.

I would kill for a Coke, a thought I know not to share with anyone. Water is passed around. Chocolate tarte is passed around. Then fish filets served on fresh spinach, dressed with lemon and capers.

We take pictures of each other with our finished dishes, with our forks raised, with our dirty fingers. Chef awards the paper toque to the most enthusiastic student who asks chef to autograph it and then hugs the chef, as if he had just been awarded the French Medal of the Legion of Honor. The rest of us retreat to the restaurant salon and sip white wine before heading over to Constant’s small fish restaurant a few doors away, Les Fables de la Fontaine. It’s open on Mondays, the fish is fresh and you don’t have to cook it yourself. The students have congealed into a hearty mix of new best friends who toast each other and their triumphs in the kitchen. Chef beams like a proud bream.