Bon Appetit!

by Victoria James

Le Cordon Bleu. The name conjures up images of starched linen laid three-ply across a table, heavy silverware and plain white plates bearing artfully arranged food. “Cordon Bleu” was once synonymous with all that is best in cooking. And if, in these days of fusion cuisine, its image seems a little stuffy or staid, we still haven’t lost the habit of apologizing to dinner guests for our insufficiency in the kitchen with the words, “It’s not exactly cordon bleu, I’m afraid. . .”

I love food, ergo I cook. As a graduate student I threw lavish dinner parties and perfected my pastry and cake baking techniques. Then I moved to Japan and got a job. I had little time and — worse — no kitchen to speak of, just a sink with a two-ring gas cooker on the draining board. Soon, preparing food turned into a chore to be done as quickly and as simply as possible.

Hoping to revive my cooling love affair with the kitchen, I made inquiries about local cookery classes. Then I heard there is a Le Cordon Bleu academy in Tokyo.

My interest was immediately caught. The Japanese and French arts culinaires may rival each other in the exquisite preparation and presentation of food, and the arduous apprenticeships served by would-be chefs, but the similarities stop there. Ingredients, flavors — even the number and combinations of dishes — place Japanese and classic French fare poles apart. So what on earth is the sumptuous Cordon Bleu doing in the land of elegantly simple wabi-sabi cuisine?

Doing rather well, was the surprising reply, provided by the Tokyo school’s spokesperson, Midori Shinohara. Le Cordon Bleu first opened in Japan in 1991, toward the end of the bubble era, when demand for fine food was at a premium, no matter what the cost. Despite the subsequent economic downturn, in 2000 another Le Cordon Bleu school opened in Yokohama. Today the Tokyo school boasts 10 full-time chefs. Some 250 students enroll each quarter into its three-stage (basic/intermediate/advanced) Classic Cycle, with 90 students attending the Yokohama school, which teaches only patisserie and boulangerie.

“When Le Cordon Bleu opened here in 1991, it had a very prestigious reputation, but at first we were a little like a finishing school for girls from wealthy families,” said Shinohara.

Though an education from Le Cordon Bleu still doesn’t come cheap — the basic course is 581,000 yen, which buys two full-day classes a week for three months — these days it is taken up by an increasingly wide range of students. “Things have changed,” said Shinohara. “With the recession, people all over Japan, especially the young, can’t always find a job easily, so they figure some skills will be useful. Still others have always been set on a professional cooking career.”

Would Le Cordon Bleu get me cooking at home again?

“I don’t think our students are going home and making fond roux, no,” said Shinohara, smiling. “They’re interested in learning professional-style cooking.”

I was invited to observe a group just three lessons into the Classic Cycle basic course. But given the school’s legendary insistence on the mastery of back-to-basics kitchen techniques, surely these students would be peeling apples, chopping vegetables and patiently stirring the perfect sauce blanche? Not so interesting for an onlooker, I feared.

Shinohara pulled out the course schedule and flicked over a few pages. “Troisieme demonstration: Fond de Veau Brun; Blanquette de Veau a l’Ancienne; Beignets de Pommes,” she announced. I assured her I’d be along that very week.

Olivier Oddos, is everything a Cordon Bleu chef should be. He wears a white toque with distinction, wields a knife faster then the eye can follow and tosses handfuls of salt into pans, speaking rapidly all the while in forceful, low-toned French. (It is humbling to find the Japanese simultaneous translation easier to understand than this langue de cuisine in which the precise French terms — degorger, ecumer, deglacer, pincer — are taught on the spot.)

A mirror is suspended above the kitchen area, for the benefit of those students at the back of the day’s 30-strong class, just three of whom are male. About an hour into the three-hour morning demonstration I begin to feel giddy, though it’s hard to say whether this is due to watching the chef’s every move in an upside-down reflection, or simply hunger pangs brought on by the aromas filling the kitchen.

Chef Oddos’ concentration doesn’t waver. He expertly slices and dices vegetables, employing a different technique for each: whole bulbs of garlic are divided horizontally so they resemble an opened flower, carrots are first halved lengthwise, then each half is split almost to the tip, before being swiftly cubed by neat horizontal cuts. Shallots require a pied, a “foot” at the root end to keep the layers of skin together during cooking.

As the dishes approach completion, the class is summoned to inspect them. Many students come camera in hand, snapping pictures of simmering stockpots, bowls heaped with roasted hunks of meat, and trays of string-tied bundles of green vegetables. In the final half hour, they frantically sift through loose sheets of paper, adding a line to this set of instructions, a footnote to that, as Chef Oddos calmly multi-tasks between entree, main dish and dessert. It is an elegant, effective demonstration that the art of Cordon Bleu lies in not merely cooking, but choreographing a meal.

Then at last, almost three hours later, it is all over. The Fond de Veau is dished up with a creamy risotto; the Beignets de Pommes, neat apple fritters, are sprinkled with sugar and stacked onto one of those tall silver cake-stands used by grandmothers and posh hotels everywhere. But far from being a time to relax, explained Chef Oddos, the tasting is a vital part of the demonstration. “Students can watch and take notes on the techniques, but the most important thing is that they know and appreciate how a dish should taste.”

And the students had better have been paying attention in the morning, for in the afternoon the heat is on them. In basement training kitchens, wearing the classic chef’s blue-and-white checkered trousers and white button-down jacket, they prop their notes in front of them and attempt to reduplicate the morning’s demonstration dish.

I follow Chef Oddos as he walks among them, watchful of every detail. He picks up a small shallot from one tray. “This has been cut too much,” he says sternly. “It has no pied.” His assistant softens the observation in translation, ending with a sympathetic “shoganai (it can’t be helped).” The chef, however, clearly understands shoganai, and it’s not what he meant. “Non. Dame!” he barks. “Dame!” The student looks mortified, but Oddos merely smiles genially and moves on, seasoning his observations to other students with words of both correction and encouragement.

For all Le Cordon Bleu’s reputation for elaborate dishes and finicky detail, it is attention to culinary common sense that is emphasized most strongly in these practical classes. “Even if a student presents a great-tasting dish,” Oddos explains after he has finished sampling every one of the students’ completed dishes, “even if their technique was good, if the plate is cold I’ll fail them.”

Rumiko Aoki, 21, is finding the learning curve steep. “It’s hard,” she says. “Warming plates. Getting the flavor just-so.” Why does she persist? “I want to be able to cook well in the future to feed my husband and children,” says the unmarried student.

It seems that for many of the students, like Aoki, the decision to study at Le Cordon Bleu is part practical, part aspirational, a step toward the next stage in their life. One of Aoki’s classmates, Yuzuru Hori, 52, is a businessman and keen amateur chef who plans to spend his retirement cooking for pleasure.

For some, Le Cordon Bleu even changes lives. A 29-year-old male student pauses to talk as he leaves an adjacent kitchen. He began with the basic course, purely out of interest, he explains. He was soon hooked and gave up his job to follow Le Cordon Bleu. Now he studies four days a week, pursuing both the intermediate-level Classic Cycle and the specialist Patisserie Course. After graduating next March, he hopes to follow a culinary career.

It’s simple to see how the initial attraction of proficiency in the kitchen could turn into a consuming passion for cooking. How easy it would be, I felt after my day-trip to le monde du Cordon Bleu, to give it all up for haute cuisine.

I wouldn’t be the first to be so tempted. The origins of Le Cordon Bleu date from when a group of pious 16th-century knights fell from grace to gourmandizing. Henri III (1574-89), King of France, created the elite Order of the Holy Spirit. Its members, easily identified by the broad blue ribbons (cordon bleu) they wore, were known more for their attendence at banquets than at church.

The academy proper began in 1895 with the launch of the magazine “La Cuisiniere Cordon Bleu” by Marthe Distel. The first culinary demonstration was given the following year.

The Cordon Bleu style has been faithfully handed down from chef to initiate ever since, a succession as unbroken as that of the popes in Rome — and as infallible. “Cordon Bleu cuisine will never go out of style,” said Chef Oddos. “There will always, always be people who love and appreciate it.”

Call me a believer. Now I just need an apartment with a kitchen where I can perform my devotions.