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Stirring Up Magical French Cooking in Paris

People shop at Marche d’Aligre in Paris

Lembi Buchanan/Getty Images

Marche d’Aligre is one of the largest and busiest open-air markets in Paris, selling fresh produce from France and other European countries.

En español | Some people have an uncanny memory for names or faces. I remember great meals. I still recall the taste of the succulent grilled pork that a New Orleans chef drizzled with a silky, rich plum sauce — 25 years ago.

Maybe because I’m lousy in the kitchen, gourmet cooking has always been a mystery to me. How can a chef turn ordinary ingredients into an “Oh, my God” taste sensation that I remember through five presidential administrations? As a belated 50th-birthday gift to myself, I decided to find out. I went to the beating heart of culinary art — Paris — and enrolled in a week’s worth of classes.

I chose La Cuisine Paris, an unassuming little cooking school on the banks of the River Seine, within shouting distance of the storied Notre-Dame Cathedral. It fit all my criteria: reasonably priced, small classes (up to 12 students) and English-speaking chefs. Like a memorable meal, La Cuisine turned out to be more than the sum of its ingredients.

For starters, class didn’t even begin in a kitchen. We were greeted at the school on the first day by Eric Monteleone, a wisecracking chef with floppy dark hair and a scruffy beard. As he led us back in time while we walked across the 156-year-old Pont Louis-Philippe to the winding streets of the Île Saint-Louis, Chef Eric kept up a steady banter that was one part food, one part history. We were going grocery shopping in Old Paris.

We crammed, shoulder to shoulder, into a tiny fromagerie, where we got a primer on cheese-making from Chef Eric — and a belly’s worth of free samples from a cheesemonger who sliced his delectable offerings with care and precision. Farther up the street, we were ushered into a sweet shop whose colorful towers of painted tins contained a dizzying array of chocolates, biscuits and cookies — and more free samples. Finally, in an open-air stall down the block, we filled our shopping bags with farm-fresh romaine lettuce, fingerling potatoes and onions.

Bill Walsh at a cooking class

Courtesy of Bill Walsh

Bill Walsh and others learn French cuisine and bake fresh pastries at La Cuisine cooking school.

Back at La Cuisine, we donned our aprons and got to work making traditional sauces, said to be the lifeblood of French cooking. Chef Eric told us, “It used to be that the top chef would be called the master of the sauce.”

That afternoon my classmates and I made béchamel, béarnaise, vinaigrette, mayonnaise, sweet caramel and chocolate sauces, and, my favorite, a red wine and shallot sauce that would seep into my food memory forever.

Because we were in France, where butter is a cooking staple, we started by melting a heaping tablespoon in a small saucepan. We added four chopped shallots and gently cooked them on medium-low heat until they were tender. I used to think that the more I stirred a sauce, the more chef-like I would be. But Chef Eric waved me away from the pan. “The more you stir, the more you need to cook.”

We added veal stock, red wine and thyme. It soon became a syrup of deep crimson. We removed it from the heat and added — of course — more butter, being careful to maintain the consistency of the liquid.     

With our collection of sauces aligned in front of us, Chef Eric passed us a bowl of lettuce and boiled potatoes. I was prepared to be underwhelmed. There hadn’t been a single act of magic, no secret ingredient, no mystery revealed all day.

I dipped a thumb-size potato into my red wine and shallot sauce and popped it into my mouth. Suddenly I was reeling at the taste sensation. It was rich and smooth, with just enough zest to turn my simple warm potato into a memorable treat. “Oh, my God!” I blurted out.

Chef Eric looked over and smiled. “Et voilà!” he said.

Try a cooking class

Cook’n With Class: You can take half-day small group classes — intro to croissant-making, for instance — at this school that keeps the focus on fun. 

Le Cordon Bleu: Julia Child took classes here, why not you? Try a four-day bread-baking workshop, a two-day sauces class or a one-day class on the cuisine of Burgundy. 

La Cuisine Paris: Offerings include a two- to four-hour class on tasty subjects such as the art of the soufflé. 

Le Foodist: Practice the basics, prepare a three-course meal,or spend a half-day on pastry-making.

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