I so enjoyed Michael Ruhlman’s book The Making of a Chef (which I apologize for not having reviewed yet but when I do it will get about an A+++++), which describes Ruhlman’s time at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. I was so completely taken in by Ruhman’s descriptions of the challenges of cooking school that I decided I wanted to find out for myself what it would be like. I did some research and discovered that the famous cooking school Le Cordon Bleu offers classes for nonprofessional chefs, which are taught in their kitchens by their very own chefs. I am so fortunate that the Minnesota campus of Le Cordon Bleu is a mere twenty miles away! So I took the big step and signed up for their Taste of Italy class, which I attended this past Saturday.
About sixteen of us were herded into a professional cooking kitchen, which was awesome. We watched demonstrations by the chefs of searing veal cutlets, making our own pasta, and then making capelletti pasta, which are like little tortellini. We were then put into groups of four and during the course of the four hour class were given the daunting task of making some famous Italian foods I had always heard of but never tried myself, such as polenta, risotto, pesto, a tomato sauce and bechamel sauce, and some fried foods. I was tasked with making the bechamel sauce (which is a bland, creamy white sauce) and a fried risotto and bolognese meatball with a mozzarella center. We all made our own pasta dough, rolled out our own pasta with the pasta maker, and then attempted to fill our pasta and fold it in the specific way needed for cappelletti. Getting the specific shape for the cappelletti was more challenging than I thought it would be! Chefs make everything look so easy!
Needless to say, I am no professional cook, and don’t even pretend to be one in my spare time. Luckily none of my tablemates were either, so we had a blast. Chef Jeremy helped me thin out my bechamel when it got too thick too fast, and the risotto meatballs were fabulous. Using the deep fryer brought me back to my high school days. 🙂 I was shocked at how easy it is to make your own pasta dough, and how quickly fresh pasta cooks (I think we boiled it for two or three minutes only!). I managed not to embarrass myself too much, and Chef Jeremy was awesome.
Surprisingly, there were other challenges I hadn’t counted on. I’m so used to my own kitchen and knowing where everything is that I was completely thrown for a loop in such a large space. The school had every single ingredient there for us, and a walk in cooler, gas ranges, and even a Kitchen Aid mixer for each group. Plus every type of kitchen gadget known to man. I felt like I did a lot of running around trying to find stuff at first. It was also challenging since the recipes we were given utilized metric measurements (grams and milliliters) instead of ounces and cups. Happily the chef did all the conversions for us, but it was a great reminder of Le Cordon Bleu’s French ancestry and the fact that everyone else in the world totally knows what a pint is. It was also difficult working in a group. The women I was with were very friendly, but I was so used to having my own stove and my own space that it was very challenging working around others when two of us were trying to do sauces on the stove at once. It gave me a good feeling for the craziness that so many of the food books I’m reading have described a professional kitchen to be like.
So the best part came at the end, when we all got to relax and eat everything we made (which was PHENOMENAL!) and they gave us aprons and certificates to take home. We also didn’t have to do our own dishes, and THANK GOD. I never realized what a sloppy cook I would be. It gave me new respect for the cooking profession and those who go through the schools to learn how to do it.
Happily the school has classes that run during the whole year, so I will gladly be heading on back there very soon! I promise reviews of The Making of a Chef and Gabrielle Hamilton’s wonderful Blood, Bones and Butter (I’m 3/4 of the way through it) will be up soon!