The secrets of French culinary panache are revealed in Paris, writes Kristie Kellahan.
It comes as a surprise that I am not being shouted at.
I'm on the Left Bank of Paris, in the hallowed classroom kitchens of Le Cordon Bleu, arguably the most famous culinary school in the world.
Le Cordon Bleu is known for its exemplary standards of French cuisine preparation; I am not. I consider it a great achievement when I make an edible croque monsieur.
Every year, aspiring students from around the world come to the Parisian institute to study in pursuit of knowledge and coveted patisserie and cuisine diplomas. At last count, 58 nationalities (including several Australians) were represented in the student body. It is known as the Babylon of baking. After nine months they go back to California and Beijing, Sydney and Seoul to open their own pastry shops or to develop careers in hotel kitchens. Possession of a diploma from Le Cordon Bleu is said to be a powerful bargaining chip in salary negotiations.
For unskilled food enthusiasts with short attention spans like me, the good news is the revered school offers short courses, some just two hours. Could there be a better excuse to visit Paris than to take a market tour with chefs from Le Cordon Bleu? How about dedicating a couple of hours to making the perfect croissant, then eating the results?
The short courses cater to people who want to learn specific techniques – filleting a chook, for example, or sauce-making – through themed workshops. Celebs and members of various royal families have scheduled tailormade lessons. Hollywood actress and It girl Blake Lively swanned in for a tutorial on making oozy, soft-centred chocolate fondant and rhapsodised about "learning from the gods of food".
The even better news is the formidable chef-instructors, far from living up to their fearsome reputations as unforgiving taskmasters are, well, nice. Funny. Warm. Avuncular.
The myth of the tyrannical, perfectionist (usually male) French chef/instructor, obsessing over his oeufs and demanding faultless degustations, has been created and fuelled by popular culture. Think Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina, homesick and hapless at the Parisian culinary school often assumed to have been Le Cordon Bleu. Or Julia Child, writing of her time at L'Ecole du Cordon Bleu in My Life in France. In the school's "short, thin, rather disagreeable owner" the ebullient Child had met her nemesis. (After 18 months of tuition in the early 1950s, Child failed her final examination. She went on to retake the exam, graduate, and introduce the pleasures of the French kitchen to the United States.)
In 2007, Kathleen Flinn wrote a popular memoir of attending the school. The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry, an entertaining insider's reveal, could scare off all but the bravest and most dedicated students with its accounts of fierce attacks in rapid-fire French.
Don't be deterred. The chefs' passion for and dedication to classic French cuisine is infectious. They demystify tricky processes into manageable steps and almost make it look easy. Tasting what you bake – warm plum and almond tart, for example – is a delicious reward. An English interpreter attends each class, so students won't need to grasp at the forgotten straws of high school French vocabulary when they should be focusing on separating eggs. And for the junior MasterChef in your life, there's Petits Cordons Bleus – cooking classes for kids 8-12 years old.
The short courses and workshops can be a fun afternoon alternative to sightseeing, an opportunity to pick up some new kitchen skills, or a taste-test of a new career. Some attendees have been so impressed by their initial visit to the school, they have returned to Paris to enrol in the diploma course. There might still be hope for my croque madame.
Closer to home, Le Cordon Bleu Australia offers comprehensive culinary tuition at its Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide campuses. See lecordonbleu.com.au.
Railbookers offer tailormade rail holidays throughout Europe. London to Paris by Eurostar with three nights' Paris accommodation including breakfast, from $385 a person. Phone 1300 550 973; see railbookers.com.au.
A great location on Boulevard Haussmann and a recent lush refurbishment makes the Paris Marriott Opera Ambassador Hotel a top choice. Superior Rooms from $380 a night. See parismarriottopera.com.
Culinary conferences and demonstrations at Le Cordon Bleu Paris are priced from $65. Short courses (two hours) cover topics including "Wines and Desserts", "Introduction to Culinary Photography" and "Molecular Gastronomy". One-day course options include a Paris market tour, "Taste of Provence", and "Easter Chocolates". Classes are offered several times a week. Early booking is highly recommended; classes are regularly sell out.
The writer was a guest of Le Cordon Bleu Paris and Railbookers.