I often get asked “What’s the most fun thing you’ve ever done in Paris?” And in the past, my reply has been varied, depending on my mood and recollection. But from now on, I will always know exactly what to say! Last Saturday night was absolutely, without a doubt, the most fun we have EVER had in Paris.
We took a French market cooking class, complete with four-course gourmet dinner. It was so much fun! “Cook’n With Class” is the name of the company, and they’ve been really popular for years. They take a maximum of six people in any one class. That way, you get individual attention and have the ability to bond with all your other classmates, making the entire experience feel very personal, like dining in someone’s lovely home. But, I’m getting ahead of myself here.
First things first. We met each other on a street corner near the French market, and our “professor/chef” for the evening showed up with his shopping caddy. His name was Patrick (pronounced Pah-TREEK) and he was friendly, charming and full of great information! (By the way, each of the chefs for this school is very accomplished, and they are all fluent in English. They have to be.) All of the classes at this school are conducted entirely in English, which makes this a wonderful way for tourists to have a very French experience without the stress of actually having to speak French!
We went straight to the French market as a group, and hit the fishmonger, the butcher, the fromagerie, the produce market and even the boulangerie. Patrick showed us how to pick the freshest fish, the best quality meats, and even freshly baked bread. Wow, I learned things I never even expected.
I knew that a high-quality fish market should smell like the ocean, never like fish. But, there was a lot I wasn’t aware of. Who knew, for example, that when you’re looking for the best flat fish, you want it to be slimy? Weird, right? Patrick also showed us that when checking out the round fish, you have to look under the gills to make sure they’re still red and not brown. In addition, the fish should always look wet. Patrick was very insistent that you should always buy fish from the rear of the store, not the stall in front that’s on the street. (That’s where they try to sell the stuff that is oldest and about to go bad.) After learning all we could at the fish market, we moved on to the butcher.
At a French butcher, you’ll see a lot of things with their heads and feet still attached. I always thought this was just a creepy local custom, but man, was I ever wrong. Parisians know how to “read” these parts of the animals so that they know exactly the level of quality they’re buying.
We learned that chickens with yellow feet are the most common and usually lowest in price. Then come the chickens with black feet — higher quality, better taste, higher price. And finally, the rare blue-footed chicken with its gorgeous plumage is called the Poulet de Bresse. It is supposed to be the best chicken you can possibly eat. The quality of this bird is right up there along with Kobe beef from Japan. These beautiful birds are much more special than just a red label. Instead they sport a huge, blue, white and red label. The butcher even leaves the head on this guy with a ring of his beautiful plumage at the neck as double insurance that you’re getting a Bresse bird. When you buy one of these guys, you know you’re in for an insanely great dinner.
The heads of the rabbits are left on as well. Why, you may ask? So that the customers know they are indeed buying rabbits and not cats. Yes. You heard me correctly. (I’ll wait here for a moment for your gag-reflex to settle down.) Evidently, during World War II, butchers in Europe were low on meat, and it was difficult to get wild game brought into the city, so some butchers decided to try to fool customers into thinking the neighborhood cats were rabbits — as they both looked the same without their clothes on. Yikes! Fortunately, the government intervened, forcing butchers to leave the heads attached, so that customers could look at the teeth in order to make sure that they were buying actual rabbit. THAT is why butchers leave the heads on their rabbits still today. After that rather macabre lesson, we went on to the boulanger, the fromagerie, and the produce market to learn about each of them in turn.
Armed with all our new information, we began discussing options for dinner. Patrick gave us a few choices based on what he thought was best at the market that day. After each person chimed in with their likes and dislikes, he then quickly settled on a menu. He purchased the ingredients for the gorgeous dinner to come, and we all headed to the “Cook’n With Class” kitchens. It was a lovely space: a cozy kitchen with a large center island, complete with a separate work space for each guest. Each work station came with an apron, a cutting board and an individual sets of knives. It looked like it was set up for a cooking party — and that’s EXACTLY what it turned out to be!
Before we got there, I had been a bit worried that the evening would be kind of like being the slave labor for some scary chef, barking orders at us the entire evening: “You! Chop these onions! YOU! Wash those vegetables!” I couldn’t have been more wrong, thank goodness.
From the moment we settled in, we felt at home. Our chef, Patrick was funny, charming, entertaining and made each person feel special and capable, no matter how much of a beginner they were. When we arrived, he showed us into the lounge where we could help ourselves to fresh coffee while he unpacked the groceries. Then we all took a seat around the large kitchen island, ready to work.
The entire evening went something like this. A one to two-minute lesson from Patrick on how to do each step, followed by each of us being given a small amount of the same ingredient, so we could get the chance to mimic his example. By the time we’d each had our chance, that step of the preparation was complete, and we would move on to the next one. In our group there were people who lived in Paris, Russia and the United States. Within a very few minutes, we were all laughing and telling jokes, feeling like family in no time at all. After we had prepped the dinner, Patrick again ushered us into the lounge to taste the wines for the evening while the island was cleared and reset for our beautiful four-course gourmet dinner.
We learned a lot in this wonderful cooking lesson, but what I remember most of all was the laughter and the fun, the free-flowing wine and the family-feel of the entire evening. At first, when Patrick taught us how to sharpen a knife properly, we were all intimidated…afraid we’d cut off a finger. But slowly, we grew more confident. And we laughed as we sped up the process, giggling at our own bravery. We learned how to prepare a chocolate soufflé and then all the girls ate the leftovers right out of the bowl until it was all gone. We learned how to cut and sauté scallops while we told each other stories from our favorite vacations. And when Patrick taught us how make a delicious candied orange peel, we snuck bites out of the pot all evening — because they were just too good to resist.
We all watched Patrick like little kids at a magic show, while he whipped a bunch of eggs into a perfect creamy hollandaise sauce. Then, as each of us tasted it, we freaked over how amazing it was. We learned a few great tricks for seasoning & roasting cherry tomatoes while the heady aroma of sautéed duck filled the little kitchen.
The best part of the evening for me — was watching my adorable husband as he got to flambé the pears. When the flames shot over three feet into the air, the expression on his face was priceless. I’ll never forget it.
We tasted everything as we went along which made every step of the process more fun. Of course, dinner was served with all the wine we could drink — It is France, after all! We ate beuatiful food, we laughed, we told stories, and we watched in fascination as we learned French cooking techniques. Most importantly though, we made new friends and great memories. It wasn’t just dinner. It was theater, and it was great theater at that.
Our menu for the evening follows:
I. Pan-seared scallops atop a zucchini flan, served with orange-hollandaise and warmed orange segments, topped with candied orange peel. I’ll tell you, we all had a heavenly moment when we tasted that hollandaise.
II. Sautéed duck magret au jus, served with haricot vert, roasted cherry tomatoes and duck fat-sautéed potatoes.
III. A cheese course as French as it gets — seven beautiful cheeses from which to choose: washed rind, goat cheese, cow’s milk, roquefort. They had them all.
IV. Finally, in honor of my husband’s birthday, individual chocolate soufflés, his topped with a single candle to mark the day.
The evening course that we took lasts about 6-7 hours from start to finish. And by the time you leave, you feel deliciously full, wonderfully pampered and completely entertained.
If I could suggest one thing for any visitor to Paris, this would be it. This class is a wonderful, completely French experience without the stress of actually having to speak French. It is a memory to last a lifetime. Bon appetit!