[Editor’s note: If you would like to expand your own experience of Paris, contributor Roni Beth Tower invites you to explore “Paris from Your Personal Perspective” at Adrian Leeds’ Après-Midi on March 10, 2020.]
Three days after our return to Paris, we were back in a favorite location, engaged in a favorite activity.
For years, we had indulged in English-language cooking demonstrations at Le Cordon Bleu. The pageantry enchanted us, recipes inspired, techniques and tips educated, assemblage of finished dishes were photogenic, and the tastes rewarded our palates. A French friend who learned of this not-so-secret passion suggested we try a hands-on variation: cook-it-yourself and enjoy the meal. She recommended l’Atelier des Chefs.
Our friend discounted the challenge that French instruction might create for me, knowing that my husband was fluent in the language and could translate. She sent us off to discover a whole new world popular with locals.
This ingenuous enterprise now operates four locations inside the Paris Périphérique and others in Aix-en-Provence, Lille, Lyon, Ruel Malmaison ad Toulouse. The general formula is to offer classes of 30, 60 and 90 minutes, from one dish to entrée, plat and dessert. Each one assembles students around one to four large tables – more for larger parties, groups or special events – assigning each participant a separate station at the table, with an individual assortment of utensils. Together, the class prepares a meal following instruction and guidance from a chef.
Our initial venture into this world had been the 30 minute main-course assemblage that is popular with people on their mid-day work break. Lunch for them becomes a social-learning experience. We had brought a 12-year old granddaughter who loves to cook and eat along for the adventure. We quickly realized that this very popular format appeals to people in a hurry at mid-day, eager to enjoy some special moments during their lunch break.
Next we tried the 90-minute three-course extravaganza. Loaded with tips, complex processes and calories, it was a bit too much for us, with our relatively small sizes and my limited language skills.
The one-hour class of a main course (with a side) and dessert has been “just right”. When we returned to Paris recently, we had not been to l’Atelier des Chefs for a while, other activities and our growing French relationships claiming our precious time in Paris. But a few weeks before we arrived, we spotted an irresistible menu in our email in-boxes. How I love duck! The magret that was being offered was filet de canette laqué au miel de soja, purée de patates douce. Dessert was ananas rôti à la vanille Bourbon, nougatine de noix. Available at our favorite Atelier location Paris Penthièvre, we signed up immediately. The class was scheduled to begin at 10:30 AM, with participants asked to arrive 15 minutes before.
We numbered 11: six young people were delegates from their enterprise, sent to check out the activity for future company events. A single woman with obvious culinary skills joined my husband and me at a second table, along with a father and his 13-year old son. Each table was equipped with stainless steel bowls holding ingredients that we would prepare and others that were empty for “poubelle” – skins that had been peeled, pits removed, paper towels used to wipe down fingers – or for the prepped raw ingredients. Our cutting boards with their removable plastic mats and an assortment of utensils sat on each mat. One mortar and pestle sat in the center of each table. .
Chef Simon le Garo began his descriptions and explanations. We prepped the sweet potatoes and pineapple, learning knife skills for each as we went. Nuts chopped fine in the mortar and pestle; we then moved to the cooking area.
After the sliced sweet potatoes were steaming in their pots, we sautéed the pineapple slices in butter, setting them aside as they became golden. When all were cooked, the chef poured in rum and we watched them flambés. The chef demonstrated and directed as we learned to caramelize sugar and create a nougatine that could add color, texture and flavor to our pineapple desserts.
After scoring our individual duck breasts, we seared them three at a time, fat side down first, in stainless steel pans (not Teflon) that were just the right size and then set them on baking sheets. After creating and brushing on the glaze made from honey and soy sauce, we placed them in the ovens to be “cuit à la perfection”.
With the meat in the ovens, we mashed the now-cooked sweet potatoes with butter, milk and salt, creating the side dish which we would later spoon into metal rings so that they held an attractive shape on the plates alongside the cannettes. Next we completed our desserts, adding whipped cream and crumbled pieces of the nougat to the pineapple slices in patterns that appealed to our individual eyes and palates.
Slightly more than an hour after we had begun, we carried our filled dinner and dessert dishes into the adjoining room where we sat at a long table, congratulating each other on the communal feast we had prepared. Water and crusty bread were on the table; glasses of wine were available for purchase at reasonable prices, as was coffee when we had finished our meal.
By the time we sat down together, we had come to trust each other to share and want to contribute to the common good. Our spirits were soaring, interest in each other mysteriously escalating, and appetites ready for the exquisite tastes that treated them.
An hour of instruction, materials supplied, an unobtrusive helper to wash all the dishes, and an extraordinary lunch – all in the heart of the 8th arrondissement for 38 euros? This must be one of the best values a person who loves to cook or eat or both can find in Paris!
Their website carries information about menus along with the teaching calendar at the various sites and opportunities to reserve your seat at the table. Do know that demonstrations are easy to follow without understanding the language but also that their chefs do speak English and are happy to translate or re-demonstrate when a student needs a bit of extra help. The personnel are cheerful and coordinated. Wendy, a helper during our session, even offered to take photos on each person’s camera.
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