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Monday, February 8, 2010

L'École du Cordon Bleu

Although Julia liked French cooking quite a bit and was cooking at Roo de Loo quite often, she was looking for something more. "I wanted to roll up my sleeves and dive into French cuisine," she wrote in her memoirs. The perfect opportunity came when she wandered into le Cordon Bleu (French for Blue Ribbon), the well-known French cooking school for serious students. She went to a demonstration, then signed up for the next available class, a six week long "intensive course". 

On Tuesday, October 4th, Julia arrived at the renowned school for her first cooking class, with a cold, and found out just what she'd gotten herself into. Instead of the 1 1/2 month course she thought she was getting, Julia had enrolled herself in an Année Scolaire, or school year, class. In other words, a yearlong commitment that cost $450 (in 1949). After talking it through with Paul, she went for it. 

The Année took place in a bright, cheerful kitchen on the Cordon Bleu's top floor. Julia was one of three women attending; one of the others was English, the other French. Both were about Julia's age, but neither had any experience in the kitchen. She asked the owner of the school, Madame Brassart, for a transfer. Madame Brassart didn't like Americans because they "couldn't cook", a fact she made quite evident to Julia. However, the two talked it through, and soon Julia was enrolled in a different yearlong class for "restaurateurs". This time, she was one of twelve. Her classmates had all served in WWII, and were all male, but Julia refused to be intimidated. After the first few classes, she determined that there "wasn't an artist in the bunch", but they became a cheerful lot. 

The new kitchen was the opposite of Julia's first experience. Far from working on the top floor, the restaurateurs cooked in the basement. It wouldn't have been small if it was empty, but it contained three four-burner stoves, six electric ovens, an icebox, and two long cutting tables, as well as twelve students and the teacher, Chef Bugnard. 


Julia loved Chef Bugnard instantly. He was slightly shorter than the average height, rotund, and had round wire glasses. He'd been cooking nearly all his life; from the time he was a boy in the family restaurant to working in huge ocean liners to owning a restaurant in Brussels. He loved teaching at the Cordon Bleu, firing off instructions to food-impassioned students. Bugnard taught methodically, beginning with foundational recipes and techniques. Every so often, he would cook a complete meal to teach more in one class. "Bugnard insisted that one pay attention, learn the correct technique, and that one enjoy one's cooking-- 'Yes, Madame Scheeld, fun!' he'd say. 'Joy!'" Inspired by her teacher's gusto, "Madame Scheeld" put on a mask of mild "sweet good humor" for her all-male class, but listened raptly to Bugnard's swift instructions.

Julia's daily schedule around this time looked something like this.

6:30: Wake up. Wash face, dress, etc. Drink tomato juice.
6:50: Walk to parking garage, drive to Cordon Bleu, park nearby. Buy two newspapers (one French, one American), people-watch, eat a croissant, and drink café-au-lait. 
7:20: Walk to Cordon Bleu. Change into cooking "uniform" (white dress and blue apron), begin peeling onions and making conversation with classmates.
7:30: Class begins.
9:30-45: Class ends. Clean up.
9:45: Shop for a bit, drive home. Cook for a while.
12:30: Paul arrives home. Eat lunch. Paul sometimes takes nap.
2:30-5: Return to Cordon Bleu for demonstration. 

Julia was enraptured with cooking, but she was going deeper. She was diving headlong into the world of la Cuisine Française. "I had never taken anything so seriously in my life--husband and cat excepted-- and I could hardly bear to be away from the kitchen." Her early life had been somewhat bland, like a beautiful world way overused. Her time at the OSS had placed a crack in the wall surrounding Julia's mind. Paul Child had placed a wedge in the crack, Paris had placed a hammer on the wedge, and the Cordon Bleu had swung the hammer. The wall came crashing down, and she was flooded with the recipes, the flavors, the history, the pure happiness inspired by the simple act of putting a fresh sprig of parsley on a perfect dish of scrambled eggs: Julia was coming alive with it all.


And Julia’s skill and finesse in the kitchen was getting better the more time passed. “By now I was learning the French tradition of extracting the full, essential flavors from food—to make, say, a roast chicken taste really chickeny.” Sometimes the dishes shown in the afternoon demonstrations looked so mouth-watering that Julia would go home and make what she had just seen—such as the boeuf bourguignon that America would come to associate with her name.

The weeks sped by until November of 1949, when Julia realized with a jolt how fast time was passing. She’d learned much since her arrival in Paris a year earlier, but she was still not as adept as she aspired to be, in the kitchen or speaking French. One day at a dinner with friends, she began discussing French politics. “I got my foot in my backside and ended up feeling confused and defensive.” Julia thought for a while, and came up with three problems. “I was confused (evidenced by a lack of facts, an inability to coordinate my thoughts, and an inability to verbalize my ideas); I had lack of confidence, which caused me to back down from forcefully stated positions; and I was overly emotional at the expense of careful, “scientific” thought.” Her conclusion: She had gotten started late—with marriage, a career, and a passion—and was still learning about herself.


Among other things, one valuable technique Julia absorbed from the French was the power of simplicity. She describes how Chef Bugnard taught roast veal in her memoir, My Life in France. Salt and pepper the veal, wrap a “salt pork blanket” around it, pour in sliced onions and carrots, add a tablespoon of butter, and baste it. After degreasing the leftover juice in the pan, add some stock, more butter, and water. Heat for a few minutes to reduce, strain, and pour over the veal. Simply perfection.


One of the quirks of Paris that Julia found out about were the weekly power outages (usually on Wednesdays) that blanked many neighborhoods in the city. Since the Child’s apartment was near the Chambres de Députés, one of France’s houses of parliament, their power remained on “by some kind of special political dispensation.” The Cordon Bleu, however, was not so lucky. Every Wednesday, instead of learning how to make a stunning soup or tart, Chef Bugnard would take the class to Les Halles, the market, and teach them how to shop for food.

Julia learned how the French value personal relationships with their customers. If you come into a shop friendly, and with a true interest in the merchant’s wears, they will talk with you about what you’re buying, and make sure you go home with the freshest or best-made products. However, if you walk in feeling nervous and suspicious, the proprietors will sense this and “obligingly”, as Julia put it, sell them an old apple or moldy parsley.

Another treasure Bugnard showed to his pupils was E. Dehillerin, an enormous restaurant supply store. Loaded with everything you could ever need in the kitchen, it was as if Julia had died and this was heaven. Her teacher presented her to the owner, Monsieur Dehillerin, and the two became friends almost instantly. Julia would become a devoted customer, buying knives, frying pans, and everything copper from Dehillerin.

Although Julia’s cooking was becoming excellent, she was still far from being a whiz at it. When she invited a friend over, she “managed to serve [the friend] the most vile eggs Florentine one could imagine outside of England.” This had come about because, becoming a bit too self-assured, she hadn’t followed the recipe exactly. This brings us to one of Julia Child’s greatest rules: Never apologize for anything you cook. Even if you’ve dropped the turkey on the floor, stepped on it, and accidentally knocked a quarter-cup of baking soda into it, do not admit it or make excuses. As Julia says, “eh bien, tant pis!” (Roughly, “too bad!” or “that’s life!”)


By mid-December, the Child’s small kitchen was overflowing with just about every kind of knife, copper pot, timer, and thermometer you could find in France. “My kitchen positively gleamed with gadgets. But I never seemed to have quite enough.” One thing missing was a mortar and pestle—essential to making quenelles de brocet, in which one filleted fish, ground it up in the mortar, forced it through a sieve, and, putting the mixture over a bowl of ice, beat in cream. So, Julia and Paul set out for the famous flea market Marché aux Puces, where you could purchase anything, provided you looked long enough. After spending several hours one Sunday searching through boxes and crates, street after street, Julia saw it. Not deterred by its immense size and weight, she knew instantly that it was hers. Paul “looked at me as if I was crazy”, but shrugged, handed over the money, and lugged it back to the Blue Flash. A few weeks later, he was rewarded with perfect quenelles de brocet.


The more time passed, the deeper Julia went into cooking, and the more mature her approach became. For a while, all she did was test mayonnaise recipes. Starting from the beginning of the process and testing each step, she finally came up with a “foolproof” recipe. She spent two days preparing a lobster recipe, and then, having completed it, made it again. And she learned about mistakes. At first, she was devastated by errors in the detailed techniques Chef Bugnard placed such high importance on. But as time passed, she came around to the idea that repairing the damage was part of cooking the dish. “I was beginning to feel la cuisine bourgeoise in my hands, my stomach, my soul.”


After a visit from her father and stepmother that ended on May third, Julia went back to the Cordon Bleu feeling less and less fulfilled with the lessons. Her classmates still didn’t know the correct procedure for cleaning a chicken, and, due to the neglect Madame Brassart showed to “details of management”, as Julia put it, teachers often did not have foundational ingredients needed to teach the class. She was growing out of the school, and Chef Bugnard sensed that. He showed her around Les Halles, and introduced her to the merchants he considered to be the best. Occasionally, he would even stop by Roo de Loo for a private lesson. Julia dropped out of classes at the Cordon Bleu, although she still went to demonstrations when she had time.


Julia decided she was ready to take the final examination at the Cordon Bleu in late 1950. If she passed, she would graduate and receive a certificate from the school. However, Madame Brassart had other ideas. She refused to set a date for Julia’s exam, and Julia thought that “the little question of money” was one of the reasons—she had chosen the restaurateur class in the basement over the slightly more-expensive regular class upstairs. By March of 1951, Julia was getting fed up. She wrote a letter to the Madame, saying that her American friends and “even the ambassador himself” knew how hard she’d been working at the Cordon Bleu. She wrote that Madame Brassart should schedule the examination right away, as Julia was going on a trip to the US in April and refused to take the exam after she got back, but to no avail. At last, Julia talked to Chef Bugnard, and he agreed to talk to Madame Brassart.

In the first week of April, Julia walked into the Cordon Bleu for her examination. For the first part, she was handed a card. On the card was written, “Write out the ingredients for the following dishes, to serve three people: oeufs mottlets avec sauce béarnaise; côtelettes de veau en surprise; crème renversée au caramel.” Julia hadn’t the faintest idea what an oeuf mollet could be, and she didn’t know how to make de veau en surprise either. The solution: make everything up. She did perfectly on the second part of the exam, but was still bitter. She knew how to flambée, pluck, cut up, and empty a chicken, but hadn’t bothered to remember easy recipes like crème renversée from the booklet for beginners Cordon Bleu had published.

Still furious, Julia returned to the empty kitchen of the Cordon Bleu that afternoon. She found the booklet that contained the recipes for the little oeufs mottlets, the veau en surprise, and the other recipes from the exam, and made them quickly and easily. “Then I ate them.”


Julia received her certificate from the Cordon Bleu a little while later. It was dated March 15, 1951, even though she’d taken the exam in April. Madame Brassart, it seemed, had indeed read Julia’s letter, and had put an early date on the certificate on the off chance her student did indeed know the ambassador. Julia’s tiny list of people she hated—beginning with Sen. McCarthy, who her father strongly supported—contained Madame Brassart for many years.

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