Thursday, January 22, 2009

French cooking class

From the Moon to la Cuisine Française

“Mom, this isn’t the right red sauce. It has weird things in it.”     “The market was out of the other spaghetti sauce. This one has little mushrooms,” my mom replies to my brother Andrew.                                 “I hate mushrooms!”                    “Son, have you ever tried them?” asks my dad.                             “No, but I wouldn’t like them. I’ll just have spaghetti with butter and parmesan cheese.”      My mom sighs and gets up to bring him some butter from the counter, where she sees my sister Allison opening a box of plain Cheerios. For some reason, she doesn’t like spaghetti but loves every other type of pasta.     “Did anybody eat the dinner?” my mom asks in a rare tone of frustration.         “I did!” exclaims my youngest brother Alexander, who is pouring a huge mound of Hershey’s chocolate syrup into his bowl of coffee ice cream.           “Alexander, that looks like way too much! There won’t be any for me!” Allison exclaims.    “Don’t worry, we still have two more bottles.”         Meanwhile, Stephanie’s plate gets knocked to the floor when she leans over to help Kimberly with her homework.     “Luckily its plastic!” Stephanie exclaims, as our dog runs over and starts licking the sauce off of the plate.

            This scene describing a typical dinner with my real family in the U.S. helps illustrate the significant contrast between the setting to which I have become accustomed at home and my culinary experiences thus far in Paris. Simplicity, familiarity, and quantity are critical elements of meals at my house, whereas the Parisians value flavor, creativity, and presentation. Not only have I discovered this by eating with my host family, I also gained a deeper understanding of French cooking this weekend in during a class that I took with my roommate and several family friends who live in Paris.

            We took the class at a restaurant called La Carte Blanche that our family friends have been to several times and enjoyed. The chef of La Carte Blanche, Jean-François Renard, met us inside the restaurant. As we put on aprons and waited for everyone to arrive, I began to notice the artistic qualities in the main room of the restaurant. There were both vertical and diagonal panels of dark brown wood on one of the side walls and a stone pattern on the other, giving the room a natural and tranquil atmosphere. The green, red, and orange tightly woven placemats on the tables matched the pillows that rested on long, cushioned booths along the walls.  

The chef led us into the kitchen and told us to each go to one of the cutting boards that he had laid out, where we started to prepare vegetables for the menu that Jean-François had planned. For our class, we were going to make Thai themed dishes. First, he showed us how to cut vegetables into very thin pieces, moving his hands and knife so quickly that I was almost too scared to watch. Ali and I were in charge of cutting the peppers using a special technique. We were instructed to move the knife away from ourselves with the base of the knife in the air before moving it back in and chopping down onto the cutting board. When I tried to emulate this method on y own I was reminded of how an artist can make a very difficult skill look easy. I was cutting so slowly and gently that the chef came over to give me advice. “You have to feel the knife moving back and forth and hear it hit the board cleanly in order to cut all the way through,” he explained in French. From then on, I focused on making a smother motion and listened for the satisfying sound of the blade making contact with the cutting board.

            Jean-François showed us a different technique for preparing the peppers- how to remove the skin with a peeler. He peeled each of them in about five swift movements. I, on the other hand, was only able to peel a small portion of the skin at a time despite using his trick of putting my thumb underneath the pepper.

            Eventually the peppers were ready, so I swept them into a container and brought them to the vegetables that the others had prepared. I instantly noticed the vibrant palate of all our ingredients. Ruby red jalepeños, pumpkin colored paste, bright green bok choy, light orange, silvery-grey shrimp, blinding white rice, light orange mangoes, maroon beef and pork, lemongrass with purple rings, and lime green Asian lemons, along with others. It was such a pure and aesthetic image that I rushed to capture it on my camera. I had never even seen some of the ingredients before, and I had definitely never cooked with them.

            I learned that there are secrets for cooking the ingredients in the pot as well. We graded the lemon, orange peels, and ginger into the pot of crabs, coriander, peanut oil, and shrimp while stirring. We also kept the ingredients in the pot for 15 minutes before adding water to keep more of the flavors.

            Just as an artist cares about how his work is displayed, Jean-François presented our meal exquisitely. There were brown soup bowls painted deep red on the inside that we used with spoons in the shape of teaspoons. We ate the entrées on partly transparent brown glass plates and used pastel colored, purposely dented cups for our tea. We used the outside of the pineapple as a serving bowl. The chef removed the pineapple’s flesh and put the rind in the oven to make it dry, enabling us to fill it with the rice dish without making the rice wet. To preserve the form of the rice even further, he had cooked it the night before and left it in the refrigerator for 24 hours.

            As we sat down to taste our lunch, we asked Jean-François in what way he thought cooking relates to art. His first response was that it depends of the chef. He said that it takes research, creativity, and risks. Based on these criteria, the cooking at my house would hardly ever qualify as art. However, I discovered throughout or lesson that Jean-François cooking is certainly a sensational art. He researches by traveling to Shanghai, Tokyo and other places in Asia in search of new flavors. As a result, most of the items on the menu of La Carte Blanche have an exotic twist. Every dish had so many novel flavors that I was constantly looking forward to discovering them. The lemongrass, coriander and Asian lemons are just a few examples of ingredients that revealed his originality as an artist. He could tell from our delighted faces and exclamations as we ate that he had indeed helped us make one of his masterpieces. When we asked him how he creates the various meals, he replied that he usually tries different combinations without writing down the steps to see what works the best. He compared it to painting without thinking, because he often doesn’t know exactly how his works of art come together.

            At the end of our class, the chef told us that he taught a group of ten Americans two years ago. He said they were continually so surprised and exuberant during the lesson that it was like they were from the moon. He told me that I reminded him of those Americans since it seemed like I was doing everything for the first time, and I smiled, knowing he was right.


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