Life! - Life Travel
Cooking up the holiday spirit
Tan Yong Soon
For a holiday with a difference, a civil servant learns to cook at the famous Le Cordon Bleu in Paris with his family
With a mischievous twinkle in her eyes, the young Indonesian woman asked me: ‘So, are you having fun?’
It was end November, in the second week of my basic culinary course at Le Cordon Bleu Paris, the famous cooking school. During a short break between classes, I told her I was there with my wife and son for the fun of it. We were not preparing for careers as chefs or planning to open a restaurant. But my body language showed signs of fatigue and weariness, not those of someone who was having fun.
I decided to attend the culinary course in June last year. My 20-year-old son Yanqiang had discussed with my wife Cher Ling, a senior investment counsellor at a bank, what he wanted to do between early November, when he would finish National Service, and August this year, when he would begin his studies at Brown University in the United States. He wanted to spend the time meaningfully.
Cooking was always one of the activities he considered. He had been interested in patisserie, mostly in eating, but also baking occasionally.
We found out that Le Cordon Bleu Paris runs intensive courses in culinary and patisserie from mid-November to December. These are the regular three-month classes they run but compressed into five weeks, with no loss in content.
To my surprise and theirs, I told them I would sign up for the course with them. (Taking five weeks’ leave from work is not as difficult as one thinks. Most times, when you are at the top, you think you are indispensable. But if you are a good leader who has built up a good team, it is possible to go away for five weeks or even longer.)
It would be quality family time for the three of us. My daughter Yanying, 23, would join us in Paris in our last week, since she could not take such long leave because she had just started working.
My hobby is not cooking. I do not even use the oven in my kitchen. My cooking skills are limited to simple Chinese dishes, such as stir-frying vegetables and steaming fish, which I learnt as a student in England and have hardly practised since. And while I do enjoy French cuisine and wine, my favourite food is local hawker fare.
But signing up for the intensive course would get me out of my comfort zone. Little did I know how uncomfortable it would make me. This was not a lesson where you attend a demonstration, practise a little and then sample the food with some wine.
Sore body, cuts and burns
The basic culinary course comprises 30 demonstration lessons, each followed by a practical. Each lesson lasts three hours. Including theory lessons and a visit to the market, it means every day there are three lessons - two demonstration and one practical, or two practical and one demo. It means 8.30am to 6.30pm almost every day, with an hour for lunch.
At the end of my first week, my body was sore, not counting the burns and occasional cuts on my hand.
Mentally, it was also challenging. The restaurant kitchen is a very stressful place.
On the first day, a Dutch classmate told me he had read in the British papers that in July last year, a Chinese man attending Cordon Bleu London held up his class with a knife when he failed his basic culinary course.
He had used up his savings to enrol in the course and was greatly distressed that he could not graduate, and his career as a chef had been put in jeopardy.
Sceptical, I decided to Google the incident. Instead, I found a Daily Telegraph report from June last year about a trainee of French Algerian descent who had threatened to kill himself with a kitchen knife after learning he had failed the test in the intermediate course at Cordon Bleu and was denied a second chance.
So this was not going to be a piece of cake.
The French are very serious about their cuisine, to the extent of reportedly wanting it listed by Unesco as part of the world’s cultural heritage.
The chefs at Cordon Bleu, which has been teaching French cooking skills in Paris since 1895, are excellent. They teach by personally cooking the dishes and explaining the finer points as they do so. At the end of each lesson, the food is presented to the class. Students quickly photograph the dish, before it is apportioned out to them to sample.
One student asked an instructor what he could expect to do after graduating, or what return should he expect from the investment in the school fees, which are not cheap.
Brutally honest, the chef said that even graduates who had gained the diploma (that is, passed the basic, intermediate and superior courses) would have to start from the lowest rung in a restaurant kitchen and work their way up.
How far and fast they go will be up to their performance and dedication, and whether they are lucky to have a good chef to mentor them.
Hectic and strict
Who would enrol in such a course? The intensive course is not too popular as it is extremely hectic and does not allow you time to enjoy Paris.
An American architect in his 50s had signed on for the full diploma: basic, intermediate and superior, and will be in the school until June this year. He cooks in his spare time and wants to cook professionally for clients.
A 45-year-old Dutch chemist wanted a break to think about his mid-career options. A Spanish medical doctor wanted to hone her cooking skills. There were also others who aspired to become chefs.
The school was very strict about attendance and punctuality. You cannot be late for class for more than 15 minutes, whatever the reason, or you will be marked absent. If you miss the demo, you will not be allowed to do the practical. Miss more than six lessons and you are out of the course - the fees are not refundable.
And there would be no chewing of gum in the classroom and kitchen, and no smoking within the building.
Brutal stress of Michelin stars
All practical lessons are assessed. These make up 45 per cent of the final score. A written test towards the end of the course accounts for another 10 per cent and the final practical exam rounds up the remaining 45 per cent. The top five students of each course are announced at a graduation ceremony.
After the first 11 practical sessions, we were each given an assessment sheet, which listed our individual marks on various aspects, such as techniques (how we trussed the chicken, how we cut the vegetables), organisation (Were we methodical? Was our table top clean or messy?) and of course, the taste and presentation of the dish.
It also listed the grades of every student in the course. I was right at the bottom. My wife was second and the Spanish doctor was first in our section of eight students. The American architect from the other section topped the whole class.
My son was ranked in the middle of his patisserie course.