For me, some of the best travel take-aways are the ones that let you re-live your favourite travel memories when you’re back home. Feeling nostalgic about my first trip to Paris, I recently decided to try my hand at a French gourmet cooking class in hopes of conjuring up some of the amazing dining experiences my husband and I enjoyed during our short visit to the city renowned for its haute cuisine.
The class was being taught in the instructor’s midtown condo. At first I was a bit uneasy about being in someone’s private living space for a cooking class but when she asked us to go around the room and introduce ourselves – there were 6 of us in total – I started to appreciate the intimate setting. Instead of being in a large industrial environment where you watch the instructor through a large mirror hovering above their cooking space, we were all huddled around our instructors make-shift food prep area (her kitchen island), chopping and chatting together. I wouldn’t learn how intimate our setting was until a little later in the afternoon.
Oddly, the teacher’s first words to me were “Are you tired? You seem tired“. I tried not to take this as an insult to my appearance that day and just smiled and answered that I’d had an early morning (not true). I could see that my good friend who had come with me was really enjoying getting to know our fellow wanna-be-chefs so I told myself to just ignore the remark and go with the flow.
I’m no chef. To be honest the only thing I really enjoy about any culinary experience is the part where we get to eat. Thankfully this class started with the basics so I didn’t feel like a fish-out-of-water in front of the others. Before doing anything, we were sent to the washroom to sanitize our hands, surgeon style. Our teacher, also a certified food safety instructor, asked us to return from washing our hands with our arms raised from the elbow up and to not touch anything except the food items and utensils laid out on her sanitized countertops. The pleasantries were over, it was time to get down to the serious business of cooking.
Our goal for the afternoon was to collectively prepare an entire French gourmet meal which we would then all sit down to enjoy with a glass of wine at the end. On the menu was: Champions Farcis (Stuffed mushrooms), Provencal Vegetable Soup with Pistou (Soupe au Pistou), Trout Grenoble Style, Trois Rice with French Green Lentils and Fruit Clafoutis.
To start, we prepared all of the ingredients that would be required to make the entire meal. Our instructor demonstrated numerous knife skills to ensure we prepared the vegetables and herbs properly. I followed her instructions and diced, julienned and batonnetted my way through the vegetables and garnishes. Noticing that I had completed task 1 efficiently the instructor asked me if I was gifted; “Have you ever been tested?” she asked. Unsure whether she was just teasing me, mocking me, or was actually serious (she didn’t smile or bat an eyelash) I just smiled. Clearly I wasn’t going to be the teacher’s pet today. Maybe I wasn’t going to be able to go with the flow after all.
Once all the ingredients were prepped our kitchen leader divided us up into small groups to tackle 1 or 2 of the dishes. My friend and I were assigned the Champignons Farcis and the Trois Rice with French Green Lentils. Relieved to have not been chosen for the fish course, we set about preparing the stuffed mushrooms, probably the easiest dish, and popped them in the oven.
While the mushrooms were cooking we started in on the rice dish. Our host had pre-cooked the rice and lentils while we were preparing the vegetables so all we really needed to do was sauté the veggies, season the dish and then keep it warm. Comment facile!
Having finished our assigned dishes before the other groups, we were then given the added task of preparing the dessert. This is where my afternoon went sideways.
In theory, the fruit clafoutis should have been rather easy to prepare. Our host had placed all of the necessary ingredients out in small bowls and had already prepared the fruit. With no labels on the bowls and no measuring utensils in sight we made a few assumptions. We assumed that the ingredients had been pre-measured and therefore used the entire contents of each bowl when preparing the batter. We also assumed that the finely ground brown mixture sitting in one of the bowls was the almond meal we needed. We assumed wrong. The ingredients had NOT been pre-measured and the brown mixture was actually powdered brown sugar. Huh.
Our instructor wasn’t impressed….with me. Apparently the vanilla seeds we had already added to the now botched dessert batter were rather precious. She wanted us to try to salvage them, throw out the batter and start over. Shamed, I removed the vanilla seeds and passed on the task of finishing the dessert to another group. The gifted one had fallen from grace and the instructor seemed pleased to lecture me on the importance of following recipes, measuring properly and checking your ingredients before adding them. Of course I knew this was all sound advice (and common sense) but why then were there no measuring utensils made available? Was I supposed to go rummaging around in her kitchen cupboards for them? Besides, hadn’t she just finished telling us not to labour over recipes and to simply add ingredients ‘to taste’ when we were preparing the rice dish?? I no longer felt like going with the flow. Nothing was flowing for me.
But then, during one of my final hand-washing sessions, I gained a little perspective on my afternoon. I spotted our instructors underwear curled up in a ball on her bathroom floor. And with that, I let go of the negative feelings and the embarrassment I was feeling over my own mishaps that afternoon. We were all there to learn and sometimes the process of learning means that mistakes happen, and that’s ok.
The class ended with a lesson on plating and a toast to our hard work. We sat around her coffee table and enjoyed the fruits of our labour. In the end we’d done well. Everything looked and tasted wonderful.
I didn’t get to taste the dessert that ousted me from my (very) temporary culinary pedestal. The class had run almost 2 hours over and the dessert was still firming up in the oven when I had to make a prompt departure from my make-shift trip to Paris and return to my parental duties back home.
I learned quite a bit from the afternoon actually – knife skills, yolk-separating techniques, plating ‘how-to’s’ and even an important life lesson: Don’t take things too seriously. The class helped to renew my love of Paris and reminded me that whether at home or out exploring the world, you have to maintain your sense of humour and learn to go with the flow, even when nothing seems to be going your way.
The good friend who accompanied me that day went home with a new business contact, a determination to tackle the clafoutis again and a life lesson of her own. If you’d like to hear about her take on the afternoon, you can do so here.