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Paris Cooking Schools

December 7, 2003 - The Santa Fe New Mexican

PARIS—A cooking course in Paris is a culinary enthusiast’s dream, but the thought usually ends there. Perceptions of what a class is like can range from fancy and expensive to formal and, well, French, and tend to leave it a dream never realized.

However, three boutique courses in Paris offer distinctly separate approaches, all catering to different culinary interests. One tells you to have fun, another to study your culinary classics and the third to stay Zen. Each bends preconceptions by adding descriptors like “relaxed,” “healthy” and even “inexpensive” to the mix. A good course can also rekindle a passion for cooking that is often lost in the frozen-food aisle of the supermarket.

The intimate courses center around the creation of three-course meals that are consumed with gleeful abandon at their end. And with class sizes that max out at eight people, instructors can cater to students’ interests and offer an interaction you can’t get at a formal school such as Le Cordon Bleu. Students can come just once or as many times as they like and many locals often become regulars.

Have fun

At L’Atelier de Fred, Frederic Chesneau serves up not- necessarily-French dishes such as Tahitian-style smoked salmon tartare, plays a lounge-music compilation called Music to Watch Girls By and keeps your wine glass full. Fred’s course is also cheap, and his chocolate tart alone is worth the trip.

Fred’s slogan is “a cooking course not like the others,” which sounds a bit hokey, especially in Paris. If it weren’t true, he’d be in trouble.

Quite simply, Fred gave it all up to do what he loves, and this may be why his plan works. A 10-year veteran of event planning in the often-incestuous French film industry, in a country where people change jobs but never careers, Fred’s is not the traditional road from rags to riches.

This doing-what-he-loves idea shines through in his classes. Learning seems to come as a natural result of hanging out and having fun with Fred. This cooking instructor doesn’t give you the impression you’ve been in school for three hours.

Part of this is due to the kitchen’s size, where anything over the five-student maximum would be a crowd. L’Atelier de Fred (literally, “Fred’s studio”) is a space smaller than most bedrooms shoehorned between an elementary school and an apartment building; Fred refers to it as “convivial.”

The night I’m at the studio, there aren’t any girls to watch; it’s me, Fred and two brothers from Colombia: Alejandro and Eduardo Martinez.

The brothers are here for a few months to learn French, and this is their third visit to L’Atelier. They have several more courses planned with Fred between now and when they leave, which will be soon.

“We’re doing it to learn—we don’t know how to cook anything,” says Alejandro.

Fred jokes with the brothers, and class happens in a mix of French, English (Fred does just fine) and the brothers’ occasional rapid-fire Spanish that leaves everyone else in the dust.

Fred keeps things moving, but also keeps things fun, and fun is the key to L’Atelier. Fun outranks cooking or teaching in the class.

“I want to have a good time and show others a good time too,” says Fred. “I don’t want to be working with people (clients) who aren’t fun to work with—I quit a job where I made good money, but that’s not what motivates me.”

While Fred is fun, Fred is also frugal, and this is part of his niche. His prices are cheap in the good sense of the word—50 euros (about $60) for a three-hour course. Plus, the food you create won’t break the bank later when you cook the meal for friends.

“Most of my dinners for any given night cost about 10 to 12 euros ($12 to $14) to reproduce,” says Fred. There are few specialty items. All ingredients in his outstanding chocolate tart are supermarket house-brand products.

Fred also knows when to splurge and get the good stuff. For a mushroom risotto, he gets (expensive) girolle and cepe (porcino) mushrooms at the market, and the parmesan comes from an Italian co- op.

Sitting down to the meal, all is well. A smoked-salmon-tartare appetizer balances the fish with cucumbers and lumpfish caviar, all swimming happily in lime juice and olive oil.

Fred serves the risotto in covered Asian rice bowls. It rocks. Some of the mushrooms have disintegrated into tasty goodness, while the girolles stick around to make the eater especially happy.

By dessert, the tart has had just enough time to cool off, following Fred’s “Don’t put it in the fridge to cool—it’s forbidden!” doctrine. A shot of milk added at the end of the mixing the liquid chocolate has given it a beautiful sheen.

“My mother can’t wait for us to come home,” says Eduardo while licking his lips, “She can’t cook!”

Study your classics

Princess (yes, princess) Marie-Blanche de Broglie covers traditional French cuisine through and through at her school, La Cuisine de Marie-Blanche.

To understand the difference between L’Atelier de Fred and La Cuisine de Marie-Blanche, Parisians might suggest comparing their addresses: Fred works at the top of Paris’ hip Marais district in a maze of tiny streets adjacent to a small, slightly scruffy Chinatown. The princess lives and works in the austere seventh arrondissement, where like the military headquarters just down the street, everything is cut on a straight line.

Clad in a work dress, an apron and New Balance sneakers, she greets her clients below the portrait of one of her many ancestors of high military rank.

It’s a funny juxtaposition, but she pulls it off well. Her family even has a coat of arms and a motto: “For the future.”

For people who take the princess’ course, the future includes learning to cook, particularly for those who are tired of frozen food.

“Some people are fed up with the food they’re getting at home,” says Laurent Potonniee, the princess’ business director. “Their parent’s generation was one of simplification, but they still have good taste. Now, some of the clients we have are 30- to 40-year- olds who want to learn a plate that they’ve seen in a restaurant.”

The princess’ course feels a bit frozen in time and nearly oblivious to French cooking trends, but then again, hers is the stuff that gave French cooking its good name. The menu on a damp, chilly autumn day includes French-style scrambled eggs in round zucchini, stuffed sea bass en croute and coffee pots de creme. The ability to recreate the latter alone would be worth the princess’ higher price of admission, 145 euros ($170).

As comfortable in English and Spanish as in her mother tongue, the princess conveys a sense of ease as she directs the goings-on in her kitchen. She is a friendly and gifted teacher who puts everybody to work and makes things happen with effortless ease.

Her classic approach is the most pedagogic of the three, including a break in the class where she dictates the recipe while her students copy furiously. She punctuates the end of every sentence with the word, “point,” (meaning period).

“I make them copy the recipes down on purpose and (that) fixes it in their heads,” she says.

From a purely bohemian point of view, this isn’t as much fun or easy as Fred’s giving you a photocopy of the recipes, but Marie- Blanche is convinced it’s better in the long run. “It forces you to understand it better,” concedes 19-year-old student Daniela Fernandez Vigil.

“We’re excited to go home and show what we’ve learned,” adds Mariana Landa, also 19. Landa, Vigil and two friends, all from Mexico City, are in the middle of 20 courses with the princess.

Stay Zen

Frederique Lauwerier’s Diet Cafe concentrates on healthiness—a daunting task in the Land of Cheese. Like Fred’s, Diet Cafe is rather chic and relatively inexpensive at 80 euros per course ($95), but there won’t be a chocolate tart at the end.

You could imagine Frederique eating the princess’ relatively heavy cooking about as easily as you could imagine Martha Stewart doing a television show on her favorite dive bars.

Frederique’s approach is about staying Zen. She explains most of what you need to know about her theory while sauteeing some onions, “To cook, you only need olive oil or peanut oil.” Butter, it seems, doesn’t get any shelf space in her fridge.

A dietitian and pharmacist by training, Frederique has the aura of a person whose real age would surprise you. She’s far from too fat, and just as importantly, far from too thin. She also has a healthy glow not seen on most Parisian faces.

Whatever her age, she comes across as comfortable with herself and good with people.

The food made at Diet Cafe tastes healthy without leaving you with the feeling that you’re missing out or that you’ll be hungry at the end of the meal.

Frederique guides her students through a vanilla-scented sea bass tartare surrounded by finely diced beets in hazelnut oil.

Whether it’s this bass or a pumpkin soup with sauteed scallops, the beauty of the preparation, the freshness of the ingredients and the flavors they create make you think of a haute cuisine restaurant much sooner than a health-oriented cooking course.

Occasionally, a “diet” tinge does come through, as in a fructose- sweetened tarragon-scented ice cream served with sauteed, honeyed pineapple, yet in a similar jasmine tea-scented version with pears, it tastes just fine.

“I come to Frederique’s courses because I feel less guilty about what I eat, but it also gives me more confidence when I go to the market,” explains Parisian Florence Cotar. “I’m less afraid when I shop at the market and more inspired to try new things.”

She could have been speaking about any of the three courses.

After a tour of some of the best of what Paris has to offer, it’s the inspiration you walk away with that is the most striking.

Every student leaves wanting to try what they’ve learned in their own kitchen.

The courses leave students more confident in their own abilities, curious to learn more, and they help a visitor understand why the French are so crazy about their food.

If you go

L’Atelier de Fred
6 rue des Vertus
75003 Paris
Telephone: 011 33 1 40 29 46 04
E-mail: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Web site: (in French only)

La Cuisine de Marie-Blanche

18 avenue de la Motte Picquet
75007 Paris
Telephone: 011 33 1 45 51 36 34
E-mail: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Web site:

Diet Cafe

9 rue Charles V
75004 Paris
Telephone: 011 33 1 42 74 07 85
E-mail: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Web site: (in French only)

Suggestions for corresponding nearby hotels:

L’Atelier de Fred

Hotel Axial Beaubourg
11 rue du Temple
75004 Paris
Telephone: 011 33 1 42 72 72 22
E-mail: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Web site:

Diet Cafe

Hotel Victoires Opera
56 rue Montorgeuil
75002 Paris
Telephone: 011 33 1 42 36 41 08
E-mail: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
(or direct on Web site)
Web site:

La Cuisine de Marie-Blanche

Hotel Lutetia
45 boulevard Raspail
75006 Paris
Telephone: 011 33 1 49 54 46 46
E-mail: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Web site:

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