Weekend cooking classes tend to fall into extremes; so precise that you spend half the time measuring ingredients and taking notes, or so vague that you can never recreate what you learned at home. It is also a commitment to spend your precious weekend in classroom learning a new trade, even if it is a well-equipped kitchen and you’re learning to bake.
Le Cordon Bleu has offered a solution to both of these problems in their Passport to Pastry program in Paris, France and Ottawa, Canada. This weekend culinary package includes hands-on classes in chocolate and pastry, along with a two night-stay at a historic castle: Chateau des Briottieres in Paris and The Fairmont Chateau Laurier in Ottawa. Both programs allow you practice your culinary skills while exploring the local area, and are perfect for everyone from the seasoned chef to the amateur cook.
The combination of extraordinary location, accommodation and education are not the only elements that make this a unique culinary package. Le Cordon Bleu specializes in French cooking techniques, and believes weekend classes should focus on practicing essential skills, not measuring or cleaning. “Measuring ingredients in a short-course is a waste of time for the student” as Chef Ludovic Chesnay, Pastry Chef of Le Cordon Bleu Ottawa explained. The school believes it is more important to watch the professionals demonstrate techniques and practice the method yourself, so you can understand the fundamental process and have a better chance of success when you try it again at home. Not only will you have a stronger foundation to build from in the future, you’ll also be less dependent on expensive equipment. As Chef Chesnay put it, “In the last 20 years I have been a pastry chef my finger has never called in sick or run out of batteries.”
I had the opportunity to attend the program in Ottawa, Canada last weekend and can support all of Le Cordon Bleu’s claims. The accommodations at Chateau Laurier were incredible, and the breakfast buffet was so good I was still full at dinner time. Executive Chef Marcel Mundel makes excellent maple crepes and chocolate chip banana bread, along with amazing muesli with fresh berries if you’re looking to start your day off on a healthier note. After breakfast Chef Mundel took us on a tour of Ottawa’s famous Byward Market, where amazing fruit, vegetables, meat and cheese from around the world are for sale.
During the first day of classes it was all about chocolate, and we made Truffes au rhum, Rocher Praliné and Pâte d’amandes. For English only speakers, I’ll translate the chocolate selection for you: ganache truffles, praliné bon bons and coffee and pistachio marzipan dipped in chocolate. What I quickly learned about Ottawa, particularly at Le Cordon Bleu, is that conversations are as likely to be in French as they are in English. You can’t help but learn a few French words on your visit, all without crossing the Atlantic. During class we tempered the chocolate (the old fashioned messy way on the counter, of course) and hand painted, rolled and dipped the candy ourselves.
Each person worked independently with their own counter space, stove and equipment. No sharing with team members or waiting for someone to finish using something before you could begin. Of course this means you take all of your creations home yourself, and I found myself boxing up over 40 truffles to carry back with me to New York City. Be afraid Jacques Torres.
The second day of classes focused on cookies, including Petits Sablés Nantais, Damier, Pain de Gènes, Sablés Guitare and Madelines. I’m afraid there aren’t perfect English translations for those cookies, so I will rely on the picture to describe it best.
Chef Chesnay did a demonstration of the techniques first and then we attempted the recipes ourselves in the kitchen. One thing to remember if you’re able to attend Passport to Pastry, or any Le Cordon Bleu class, yourself; take notes. The recipes handed out before class list ingredients only (NO directions), and you’re supposed to watch the demonstration to learn how to assemble and bake it yourself. Don’t worry if your notes are a bit off; with the small class size the eagle-eyed chefs will come over to correct you if you make a wrong turn while baking.
My trip to Le Cordon Bleu Ottawa was amazing, but exhausting. Le Cordon Bleu makes the most of your weekend, but leaves little down time for rest between classes and touring. I highly recommend staying an extra day if you can, preferably after classes end so you can walk off all the pastries consumed over the gourmet weekend.
Le Cordon Bleu
Passport to Pastry
$1,054 per person
2006 dates to be determined.
More details at www.lcbottawa.com
$476 for a single, to $975 for a double
September 15-16, 2005
October 27-28, 2005
More details at www.lcbparis.com