A few years back, a friend of mine who was principal of a technical lycée with a very high-powered catering section successfully rose to the challenge of making it one of the best in the country and was accordingly decorated with the Ordre National de Mérite for her pains. She should have had the award pinned on her pinny by Jack Lang, the former culture minister, but because his ministerial remit had run out, the pinning on had to be performed by none other than Joël Robuchon, who was sponsoring the budding chefs that year. Jack Lang, who had worked closely with my friend, shook hands all round, made an extempore speech, of course, and then we all hunkered down to eating what the kids had cooked up for us.
Kids? I thought they were gods. You sort of expect teenagers to fidget and fiddle, chatter and generally not pay much attention. These young people had an unwonted gravitas reflecting their precocious professionalism. They seemed to know they were not like other mortals and were destined for great things. That was the start of my fascination and admiration for chefs. So when an invitation to attend a cookery class at the Alain Ducasse school plopped (metaphorically speaking) into my inbox, I RSVPed faster than you can hit the redial button.
We were booked for the “Un Chef, Une Region” course with Michelin-starred Xavier Isabal, the third-generation head of the Ithaurria restaurant, close to the border with Spain in the French Basque country. We were to make and eat a three course meal consisting of, for the first course, a folle salade with ceps, Bayonne ham, Ossau-Iraty cheese and a warm potato base, followed by a line-caught loin of hake with a chorizo crust, razor clams, artichokes, zucchini and tomato tartare. Dessert was to be poached pears in hot chocolate with vanilla Chantilly cream and churros. On with the apron and up with the sleeves.
There were a dozen of us, eight of them not media types, from a wide range of backgrounds. Most had been given the course as a present. Some had never held a knife, some knew how to hold a knife and at least one could actually handle a knife, so the range of abilities was wide.
We were set straight away to peeling pears for the dessert with some beautiful Porsche knives that promised much more than they delivered in the sharpness stakes (a glass of complimentary champagne helped). Then we peeled and blanched potatoes (a lot of those), artichokes
(two each), zucchini, and shallots. While we were doing this, chef was demonstrating how to make a crust for the fish course from ground almonds, breadcrumbs and ground chorizo, mixed up and rolled flat between sheets of kitchen parchment and stored in the freezer to firm up for later use.
Chef, who was expecting help in the shape of a commis (assistant) or two, improvised like a trooper when he realized that all the assistants had been detailed to a large corporate bonding group in the kitchen next door. This was when his charm and sense of humor came to the fore, a major contributing factor to the pleasure of what could have been a very long evening. Lots of tips for doing this and that were on offer as he talked and did, and we watched and followed.
The most useful lessons were in presentation. We learned how to use metal circles to great effect for making a pretty circle of chopped tomatoes and chervil to surround the fish dish, or to form a perfect circle (ours were less than perfect) of thinly sliced potato for the salad base, which was then built up with salad leaves, ham, cheese and wickedly fragrant ceps to make our little round salad topped with colorful pansy flowers with a peppery zing.
If we weren’t already aware, we soon realized just how much work goes into what comes across the restaurant pass. And how much has been learned the hard way before an aspiring chef ever gets to that point. We sat down to eat our handiwork four hours after donning our aprons, and we voted ourselves a pretty proficient crew (chef helped).
Eating is good for you. Cooking is better, especially in such a fun atmosphere. Put it on your Christmas wish list.
Ecole de Cuisine Alain Ducasse: 67, rue de Ranelagh, 75016 Paris. Tel.: 01 44 90 91 00. Métro: Ranelagh. Nearest Vélib station: 91, rue de Ranelagh. www.ecolecuisine-alainducasse.com