I considered studying at a cooking school for an entire year before finally making the leap. It was too much of a cliché, I thought, to study cooking while living as an expat in France. Who did I think I was, Julia Child?
But after a year of eating in Paris; after sampling every millefeuille in the city before settling on Fauchon’s barely sweet, crisp and creamy vanilla bean specked version as the best, after eating the caramel colored roasted farm chicken in morel sauce at De Chez- Eauxs, after being served miniscule live shrimp flash sautéed in their shells as an appetizer at Spring, after sampling homemade chocolate gelato in a sorrel emulsion at Yamt’cha- I was in awe of the culinary finesse of this city and I surrendered. I signed up for a series of courses at the school of Alain Ducasse, in the 16eme arrondissement.
I speak French, so I mistakenly thought I would fit in. I did not fit in. It was readily apparent on my first day that I was American; my questions were stupider, more basic. My knife technique was laughable and my general abilities were infantile. I was the only idiot who didn’t know how to gut a fish. In the beginning, if I asked the chef a question, he’d answer but he would refuse to look in my direction as he spoke.
I studied at the school long enough to not only be acknowledged, but to become familiar with all of the chefs who taught at the school and to even feel an abiding affection for them.
This same chef, a year later, teaching a class to my son Luca. I think he is almost smiling. (The chef; not my son).
The chefs were poets in the kitchen. I could watch them chop an onion ten times in a row and never find it a bore. I was a good student, an attentive and hungry student. I learned how to make a jus de viande perhaps twenty times in those courses and it never felt dull to do it again. Each time was a meditation in perfection, a meditation on meat. Alain Ducasse is known for preserving the essence of French cooking while modernizing some of the techniques for the modern palate. A jus de viande as taught in Ducasse’s classes is light, powerfully packed with flavor and totally free of grease. It’s pure, like a broth your Mother might give you if you were sick. It’s perhaps one of the most important things you can learn in a French cooking school. That and a good bouillon de poulet. (chicken broth). It takes time to make a good jus. It’s easier to buy a package of beef broth. I’ll show you how to make a good one in a future post!
Gutting a fish.
I loved watching the chefs chop so much I actually recorded one of them on film:
When we returned home, back to the States, after three years in France, I was looking forward to a plentiful supply of kale. I thought I’d be incredibly grateful to return to foods that are familiar to me and feel like home. But those first weeks I was back, I was bitterly disappointed with what I found. We arrived at the height of summer and the strawberries tasted like plastic. I could not find raw milk anywhere, even though it’s sold in every supermarket in France. My two year old spit out his first bite of cheese in the States because it didn’t taste like anything he could recognize. I am not saying anything new here when I say that the battle around the food supply in the USA is an important one. What is good food? How much should food cost? How much should we eat? How should our food be produced? Food in the US is significantly cheaper but also often inferior. I took this picture shortly after arriving. In what way is this food? Why would anyone feed this to a growing child?
Luckily for our family, there are many small farms around Louisville, Kentucky that are producing real food. There is a tremendously strong local food movement. I began to discover all kinds of farmers who were giving their life force to the common good.
Their food is still colorful. But it is actually food. Not fake food in cartoon boxes.