‘My First week at Le Cordon Bleu’ is probably the most written topic amongst LCB students. And like most people, mine was similar. However, I want to actually talk about my last week and the sudden change that took place out of nowhere.
Let me start with some flashback: During my time at The French Culinary Institute, New York, we had the same chefs – 1 head chef and 1 assistant chef teaching us throughout the course. All our styles of baking bread, way of working with the dough, we emulated the chef’s styles and developed them to be our own. Le Cordon Bleu, Paris was different. We had 4-5 different chefs teaching us the demo class and then conducting the practicals. For some products, it wasn’t necessary that the demo chef and the practical chef would be same. This would at times result in lots of confusion. The demo chef would teach us a particular technique and the practical chef would insist on another. Initially we weren’t entirely comfortable with this methodology. I would always think FCI was easier and more systematic. But gradually, we got a hang of it. There was one particular chef who always stood out…Chef Pascal. He was very detailed and quick in our demo classes. He always taught how to do better time management and his sense of humour would make the 9 hour work days fun. Nothing could go wrong in a class with Chef Pascal, even if he did not speak English! But then the dreaded day of the Gateau Basque came. Our products were in one word – a disaster! As a class, we were shouted upon and humiliated. We were a disappointed bunch, a fact that we never quite understood at that time. We thought we were just fine.
As time passed by, we would dread having him in our practical classes. My hands would quiver while piping if he were next to me. When I had to whip up cream or whisk an egg white, I would get some super human strength just out of fear. Towards the last few weeks when we stated preparing, I was quizzing myself and I realised that I understood techniques much more than I thought. My wanting to perfect my piping or patience to take my time to make my genoise had improved. And that’s when my Eureka moment happened….It was a big thank you to the Gateau Basque and Chef Pascal. I realised that if not for his desire and need for us to be perfect, we would never have known how to improve. He taught us this not by speaking our language but by his sheer push for the perfect product and love for the art of patisserie. Truly, the culinary art has no boundaries…
When I was choosing my location to study Patisserie, I was very keen on going to London. I could speak the language and had lots of friends in the area. Having lived there for 7 years, I was very comfortable with the city. However, when I spoke to people who had experienced Le Cordon Bleu Paris, I changed my mind. Even though I have lived abroad before, it was the first time I was scared of visiting a foreign land. And as luck had it, the attacks in Paris happened while I was in mid air few hours away from landing in Paris. In the immigration queue, there were hushed whispers and news articles on phones talking about what had happened – not the most auspicious beginning!
In my first week, I visited several patisseries and bakeries and I realised that the majority of them were small businesses owned by 2-3 family members. The husband would be in the kitchen baking and the wife would sell in front of the house. The number of boulangeries / patisseries on one street was unbelievable. After every 5-6 shops, there would be a small bakery with very friendly owners serving classic French breads like baguettes and Pain Aux Cereales and French desserts like choux, tarts and macaroons.
On my first day in the market, I bought some tomatoes and carrots to cook at home. I have this habit of tasting ingredients while cooking. As I cut into the locally grown tomatoes, I experienced the aaha moment! The tomatoes were juicy and flavoursome. The carrots were so sweet that we could make gajar ka halwa without adding any sugar.
As I ate the food, I realised that the quality of the dish, right from the farmer’s hand to the plates of Michelin star restaurants, was outstandingly perfect! Each and every individual cared about the food they produced, cooked, ate. Techniques and processes had to be respected. Each tomato, each foie gras, each Paris brest was curated keeping the consumer in mind. Paris is a city of love and art, not because of the Louvre Museum, but because love and art walk hand in hand whether it’s in the architecture of an apartment in the 6th arrondissement or the desserts at Pierre Herme!
This care for beauty, push for perfection is what makes Paris the cultural and culinary hub of the world. Am I not glad I chose Paris over London?!!
Paris is truly a place for artists. It’s not because it has the Louvre or other monuments. It is because everyone here works as an artist. Chefs think that their product is art. It’s creativity, it’s perfection is really all that matters. When they whisk butter and sugar by hand and see it turn white, that art, how can a machine replace this? How can one think of compromising on this and letting a machine do it! How will you love it then! Stores here are so beautifully done up. Whether it’s a designer boutique or a husband – wife run bakery, there is style and there is character. And now i know why Parisians are considered more stylish than the British and the rest of the world. It’s not because they wear make-up and high heels but because they curate everything to such a level of beauty and precision. The building on an ordinary street is worth staring at.
Another lesson that I am learning is that by screaming and demanding perfection, nothing happens. No one gets motivated, they get scared and mess up more and the weak ones run away. But you keep giving demos, training them again and again and forever, make a joke and point out their mistake, forgive them when it happens, but let them know it was wrong and motivation does come. Demand excellence always, don’t compromise but demand not by screaming but by constant teaching. I want to be a student like that, I want to be a teacher like that.