THE FRENCH CULINARY odyssey has long entailed a few key activities for tourists: dine at a Michelin three-star restaurant in Paris; sample unpasteurised cheese; or feast on macarons at Laduree. Now, there's another essential experience: the French cooking class.
Thanks to a profusion of culinary schools mushrooming across the capital, food lovers can now add another 'must-do' to their gastronomic itineraries. Whether in the modest kitchens of fellow foodies or in the professionally equipped premises of the grands ecoles, there are cooking classes for just about anybody - from absolute beginners to seasoned chefs.
The best bet for amateurs are the schools that offer professional instruction in easy-to-digest segments - from 30-minute classes to weekend workshops. Here are three top picks for the time-pressed:
L'Atelier des Chefs is a trendy new cooking studio that allows students to choose and reserve classes online. It's one of the most accessible and flexible options. The 2,960sqft space - which includes a shop selling cookbooks and kitchen gadgets, a wine cellar and a gourmet grocer - centres on a loft-like, sky-lit industrial kitchen with stainless steel worktables that can accommodate up to two dozen people.
Motivated by curiosity rather than time constraints, I signed up for the '60 minutes chrono' session, at which you learn to prepare a two-course meal in one hour flat. On the menu: roasted red mullet with smoked eggplant caviar, followed by cold melon soup with lime leaf.
Our instructor, a young man in trainers who shouted directions while bouncing between stove and students, urged us to work as a team. Some of us roasted the eggplant, others chopped the melons or dressed the fish. The atmosphere was rushed, with little time for hesitation or conversation, but the recipes were straightforward. By the end of the hour, both main course and dessert were ready and plated. How did it taste? Good enough to seem as if we'd spent much more time preparing it.
More experienced cooks with more time and money might be better off at Lenotre, one of Paris' oldest and finest caterers. The professional school also offers classes for amateurs. Located in an airy pavilion on the Champs Elysees, the school boasts four modern classrooms, a restaurant and cafe, as well as a boutique selling cookbooks, kitchen accessories and gourmet food.
I joined seven other students - each class accommodates a maximum of eight - inside the sun-flooded kitchen to learn how to make a cheese souffle, beef Stroganoff with rice pilaf, and crepes Suzette. Our white-toqued instructor, Patrick Jeandeau, greeted everyone with an espresso before launching into the lesson, a 31/2-hour marathon of measuring, chopping, whisking, cooking and flipping.
Jeandeau peppered his directions with useful tips dished out with humour - the most flavourful cuts of beef, the need to 'rest' a crepe batter before cooking it, how to slice an onion without crying, ('You must caress it with the knife') - while distributing duties among different teams. So it was that I missed the opportunity to cook the crepes, bogged down as I was in blanching the tomatoes.
At the end of the class, we were spent and famished. But the hard work paid off. The souffle, flavoured with Comte and Roquefort, was a celestial starter; the crepes, saturated in Grand Marnier, provided a sinful ending. But there's no rest for the wicked. As we polished off our meal, Jeandeau launched into a long, detailed soliloquy on olive oil.
For those who are kitchen-confident enough to tackle haute cuisine, L'Ecole d'Alain Ducasse would be a good place to start. The world-renowned chef opened his school on the outskirts of the city in 2002. Although it trains mainly professional chefs, the success of the programme led Ducasse to open a more accessible branch in central Paris last year.
I was greeted with orange juice, coffee and croissants at the school, located in the basement of a Miele kitchen-appliances shop. The ultra-sleek dream kitchen was, appropriately, fitted with the most sophisticated appliances. During the next four hours, our intimate group of four learnt to prepare an iced asparagus cappuccino with marbled watercress froth, and seared Ibiza-inspired tuna with homemade lemon confit served with a fluffy parsley omelette.
Our instructor, Xavier Bouriot, guided us through the intricate recipes rapidly, dispensing a wealth of information with every step. I knew this guy was serious when he decided to make two lemon confits just to demonstrate the subtle difference between julienned lemon zest poached in water and zest sliced into brunoise cooked in lemon juice.
The attention to detail extended to the asparagus bouillon, for which we were instructed to cook the stalks and tips separately, because the delicate tips take less time, as well as the presentation - the omelette had to be the same size as the tuna for the sake of symmetry.
This was the foundation of haute cuisine. And the chorus of oohs and aahs provoked by the finished dishes testified to its appeal. True to the spirit of the school's eponymous founder, we had created a meal worthy of a Michelin star.
L'Atelier des Chefs, 10 Rue Penthievre, 75008 Paris, (33 1) 53 30 05 82, www. atelierdeschefs.com, Euro15 ($141) to Euro68 per course. In French only
L'Ecole Lenotre, Pavilion Elysees, 10 Avenue des Champs Elysees, 75008 Paris, (33 1) 42 65 85 10, www.lenotre.fr, Euro115 for half-day session, Euro275 for full-day course; Euro50 for demonstrations. English instruction available
L'Ecole de Cuisine d'Alain Ducasse, 55 Boulevard Malesherbes, 75008 Paris, (33 1) 44 90 91 00, www.atelier-gastronomique.com, Euro145 for half-day course; Euro290 for full day. English translator available for Euro150 (fee waived if there are more than four English speakers)