Genuine Master Chefs, like all great artists, more often make their mark by breaking the rules and working on a new plane – think of Masters such as Bocuse, Pic, Guerard, Troisgros, This, Ducasse and others who’ve reigned over their craft these past 3-4 decades. Many went on a foray to China and came back with everything from cutting techniques to new flavours – this was felt in France for a good five years until its novelty faded.
Jazz giants like Miles, Mingus, Monk, Dizzie and Dolphy – all greats of the modern jazz epoch - again each had classical musical training, some dabbled with Asian Fusion, but all went on to stretch their metier.
Big names of 20th century painting, like Pollock, Picasso, Rothko and others could all draw, mix paint and understand a palette - this grasp of the golden rules allowed them the freedom to develop their abstracted works that brought them fame and longevity long after they’ve gone.
To break the rules you first must know the rules. As said, in cooking this is as much the essence for success any other factor – enthusiasm and having a restlessly enquiring mind help too.
For 100 years and more Le Cordon Bleu has sought to nurture just this spirit – to teach students over a period of months the classic French culinary techniques. At its root is Escoffier and that’s about as good as it gets in grasping the rudiments that are the foundation of great cooking.
Too often chefs are moved up the rankings without having served a genuine apprenticeship and so their skill base is left lacking. Top restaurants all provide places for learners – known in the kitchen French as ’stagiares’. Those with real ambition also try to work across several countries so as to widen their skill base and scope - Switzerland, Germany and Japan are as important in this quest as France, Italy, UK and Spain.
Before writing this piece I talked to a friend of twenty years or more who I remembered had studied the Cordon Bleu Diploma back in the 70s. Everyone worked in pairs in their miniature kitchen, she explained, preparing a three course meal from scratch each morning which the students had critically assessed before it was eaten as lunch.
Afternoons had tutorials where techniques were demonstrated by the chefs - these being the skills needed to prepare the following day’s meal.
No food processors back then, so meat and game were chopped by hand or minced for terrines and pates – quennelles were made by pushing the fish through a sieve, not being ‘blitzed’ as is the short-cut way which so often spoils the texture. Students learned how to clean and gut fish, pluck and draw game and poultry, make every type of pastry, stocks and sauces et al. Whilst the core was pure Escoffier, some non-French classics were taught – risotto, ravioli, Austrian and Hungarian pastries, laminated doughs – no Asian or Fusion and although Nouvelle Cuisine was discussed, it was never practised.
It might have been a little staid and old fashioned she said, but it covered a solid grounding in the essentials. My friend went on to cook for the Royal Household in London, work at Ann Willan’s La Varenne cook school in Paris and later to become established as a food writer and author. She remains a stickler for detail – something Le Cordon Bleu rooted in her that she’s never forgotten.
Le Cordon Bleu has now spread itself worldwide and has recently opened a new London HQ in Bloomsbury. To mark the move from Marylebone Lane, where they’ve lived since coming to London some 50 years ago, they announced a scheme to award one 16-19 year old with sufficient passion to inspire the school to gain a Grand Diplome scholarship - worth more than £30,000.
With youth unemployment at an all time high, this will be life changing for the lucky winner who’se world then becomes their oyster, whether they stay put in the UK , or travel elsewhere to further hone their essential skills taught them at Le Cordon Bleu.
So Mrs Worthington, as the song goes, don’t put your daughter (or son) on the stage – invest in their creative future in the culinary arts and start by learning the rules at Le Cordon Bleu (www.ukscholarship.cordonbleu.edu). Allez. Profitez.