The Art of French Cooking

December 12, 2006By Heidi EllisonWhat's New Potpourri

A la Carte
Cooking Classes

Muriel Foucher of Marguerite’s Elegant Home Cooking supervises a student’s technique.

Anyone who wants to take a cooking course in Paris has a wealth of choices, ranging from the famed Cordon Bleu and the Ritz Cooking School at the high-priced end to more modest à la carte classes. Here are three suggestions for food lovers who aren’t looking to become three-star chefs but enjoy watching experts at work and picking up a few tips on French cooking from them.

An appealing option for English-speakers is Marguerite’s Elegant Home Cooking, run by Muriel Foucher from her own home. Foucher learned to love cooking by watching her grandmother, Marguerite, at work when she was a child, which explains the company’s name.

Foucher meets her class (with a maximum of eight participants) at 9 a.m. at the Porte d’Auteuil outdoor market in Paris’s tony 16th arrondissement and gives them a tour of the market while buying the ingredients for the day’s lesson. Some of the information is basic (never touch the products in the French market, for example, a lesson we have all learned the hard way by being yelled at by vendors), but I learned some interesting facts that were new to me. The Extra and Category 1 and 2 classifications for fruits and vegetables, for example, concern the size and shape of the products rather than their quality – a knobby organic tomato might get a lower rating but could be far tastier than a perfectly round one classed as “Extra.”

She also explains the four families of French cheeses: 1) big mountain hard cheeses, always made with cow’s milk, such as Beaufort, Cantal and Comté, and tommes, a generic name for smaller hard cheeses made with any type of milk; 2) the soft cheeses, which may have white rinds like brie or camembert, or be lavé (washed) in local alcohol, like smelly Epoisse from Burgundy; 3) goat cheeses, with or without an ashy coating; and 4) blue cheeses, usually made from cow’s milk, with the exception of Roquefort, which is made with sheep’s milk.

Armed with our shopping bags, we then hopped into Foucher’s car and drove to her home in Surennes, where she has set up a professional kitchen for her classes, with four stoves and sets of equipment. Two students man (or woman) each stove, preparing the dishes themselves with Muriel’s assistance while chatting and getting to know each other. On the day I attended, one of the participants regaled us with amusing stories about a friend of hers, the late Julia Child, while we cooked up a lamb tajine (Moroccan stew) with caramelized pears and, for dessert, a pineapple tarte tatin (upside-down cake).

Once the fruits of our efforts were cooked, we set them out on serving dishes and carried them downstairs to the family dining room, where we were joined for lunch by Muriel’s 13-year-old son, Hugo, who quite understandably prefers to share lunch at home with his mother’s students rather than eat in the school canteen.

The advantages of Marguerite’s Elegant Home Cooking are the market visit, the hands-on cooking experience, the opportunity to spend time in a French home and the convivial ambiance. We finished up at 2 p.m.

The Leçon Gourmande Gaggenau I took a few days later was a totally different experience, yet just as wonderful in its own way. Gaggenau, the kitchen appliance maker, offers once-a-month, two-hour cooking demonstrations presided over by one of Paris’s leading chefs, Jean-Pierre Vigato, owner of the two-Michelin-starred restaurant Apicius. On the day I attended, Vigato never showed up, which was something of a disappointment, but two of his sous-chefs, Stéphane Paillard and Vincent Dautry, manned the stoves with great charm and verve.

At Gaggenau, the participants (maximum of eight) are lined up on stools at a bar watching while the chefs on the other side prepare some of the dishes from the Apicius menu. For the moment, the demonstrations are in French only.

While Marguerite’s Elegant Home Cooking concentrates on tasty dishes that can easily be prepared at home, the Gaggenau course involves rich, sophisticated dishes with pricey ingredients that most people would only attempt for special occasions. We watched the two chefs make three dishes in a whirlwind of activity while they explained what they were doing and fielded the questions we threw at them. On the menu were delicate mushroom tarts with escargots and mascarpone cream; fried escalopes of duck foie gras with a complex sauce made with several types of vinegar, crushed black pepper, orange-peel powder and cocoa; and scallops paired with boudin blanc (a sausage made with poultry and crème fraîche) and served with black truffle sauce and parsley-potato purée.

The beauty of this class is that as soon as each dish is completed, the chefs serve a generous helping to each participant – all three, made from top-quality ingredients (the chefs are happy to reveal their sources), were sheer bliss, although the chocolate-flavored sauce on the foie gras quickly hardened to an unpleasant consistency and stuck to the teeth, preventing the perfect marriage it should have had with the foie gras.

For a totally different experience, the Atelier des Chefs offers English-language cooking classes in a glass-enclosed kitchen smack the middle of the Galeries Lafayette department store’s kitchenware department. In this fishbowl atmosphere, shoppers watched curiously as a charming young chef and his assistant guided us through the making of a dessert, moelleux au chocolat (soft-centered chocolate cupcakes). I had taken my 17-year-old nephew with me, and our fellow students were a vacationing Canadian woman and her young daughter.

Atelier des Chefs has a wide variety of classes, covering everything from cooking with truffles to risotto with shellfish, some of them held in its own center and others in department stores. The advantage of these workshops is that they are short (usually one hour), hands-on and relatively inexpensive.

All three of these very different classes were highly entertaining in their own way for anyone who enjoys cooking. They all provide printouts of the recipes to take home, although I don’t think I’m up to trying the Gaggenau recipes yet.

Heidi Ellison

Marguerite’s Elegant Home Cooking: Tel.: 01 42 04 74 00. Cost: Market visit, cooking class and lunch: €110. Cooking class and lunch: €90. www.elegantcooking.com

Leçon Gourmande Gaggenau: 7 rue de Tilsit, 75017 Paris. Tel.: 01 58 05 20 20. Cost: €100 for one person; €150 for two.

Atelier des Chefs: 10 rue de Penthièvre, 75008 Paris. Tel.: 01 53 30 05 82. Cost: €15-€50, depending on type of class. www.atelierdeschefs.com

© 2006 Paris Update

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