Is Le Cordon Bleu Shanghai, China’s only branch of French food school, feeling the pressure?

Former students report how high demand for fine Western cuisine education has seen resources spread thinner in classes, while wealthy parents are enrolling children with few serious culinary ambitions

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 August, 2017, 7:16am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 August, 2017, 5:38pm

To get to China’s first Cordon Bleu campus, in the Pudong district of Shanghai, ask your taxi driver to stop at the address on Pudong South Road, where you’ll see a large blue sign posted near the entrance of a vacant hotel lobby. Though the sign on the wall says Le Cordon Bleu, the dusty glass doors next to it will be chained shut, nary a piece of furniture in sight. If you’re lucky, the security guard loitering inside will point you to the small side street to your left.

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After walking down the street past a convenience store, a middle school campus and an athletics track, , you’ll see what’s left of another Le Cordon Bleu sign, in shreds, on a large iron gate. You may attempt to enter, but your path will be blocked by sand bags, torn planks of wood, and mounds of debris. Go past the gate and keep walking all the way to the end.

The school, when it finally emerges, is an innocuous building, the walls of its side entrance covered in immaculately pruned ivy. Inside, the lobby is suffused in a warm glow, light reflecting off yellow-painted walls, thick golden curtains, and perfectly buffed white floors.

Welcome, at last, to Le Cordon Bleu Shanghai.

This branch of the famed culinary school, established in Paris in 1895, is the first of its kind in China, and one of 21 around the world. It opened in a five-storey building just over two years ago, having enrolled its first class of students for pastry and cuisine courses in April 2015.

I spoke with several students from the first classes of graduates about what really goes on. It appears that like most new institutions, Le Cordon Bleu Shanghai is still gathering its bearings, both outside its walls and inside the kitchen.

Tang Rong, a 20-year-old student from Dehong in Yunnan province, first learned about Le Cordon Bleu Shanghai when she was 17. Growing up in her family’s restaurant business and wanting to improve her skills, she applied when she heard Le Cordon Bleu was opening a branch in China. She was accepted into the first class for the Grand Diplome, the full series of cuisine and pastry courses that is completed over 18 months. When Tang enrolled in April 2015, her class had 37 students.

Luo An, a 22-year-old from Shijiazhuang in Hebei, had his heart set on studying at Cordon Bleu since he was 13. He joined in July 2015 for the second class of the Grand Diplome, part of a cohort of 43. Today, average enrolment per class hovers around 70.

When it had just opened, students were super passionate and worked hard … [now] there are many rich kids who just come to have a try, take a look
Luo An

Tang and Luo acknowledge that many issues have arisen at the school due to excessive demand. Without much competition for rigorous, internationally recognised Western culinary training in China, the school has been overwhelmed with applications. Each year, the administration accepts an increasingly larger number of students, which has had an impact on the learning experience, quality of students and limited shared resources.

Several students I talked to complained that the amount of ingredients allotted to students has become smaller and smaller, especially with expensive items such as foie gras or truffle. The share of ingredients is sometimes so small, they said, that students can barely taste them in their concoctions.

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Tang remembers when she was a student and part of a small first class. She always had enough ingredients, in fact, she and her friends would sometimes not need to go out for lunch because they had eaten so much of their own dishes. However, Luo, who now works at the school as a teaching assistant, admits that the amount of ingredients has shrunk.

Students share not only ingredients, but also kitchen space and equipment. On one scorching July day during Tang’s tenure, when the class had more than 20 ovens running at the same time, the electrical system in the building overloaded and shut down. In Shanghai, summer temperatures regularly reach almost 40 degrees Celsius, and the kitchens can be hotter than outside. In an improvised administrative move, Cordon Bleu Shanghai now takes a two-week break from mid- to late-July.

The first Chinese student to enrol in a Cordon Bleu school was in 1995. Today, Chinese students have enrolled in campuses all around the world, becoming one of the best represented nations. With the Shanghai branch, access for Chinese students has become even easier, with Chinese translations offered for all French instruction.

But some believe the popularity of the school has diluted quality. “Having the school in China, it’s convenient to study and it’s good to have Chinese translation,” Luo says. “When it opened, students were super passionate and worked hard. But later, many more parents started sending their children there, even those that are not motivated. There are many rich kids who just come to have a try, take a look.”

Tuition for a nine-month course in either “Cuisine” or “Pastry & Confectionary” costs about 160,000 yuan (HK$186,000). Students are either passionate and dedicated career trainees, or wealthy hobbyists who have the time and money to learn some knife skills. While Tang and Luo’s families were able to support them through school, many other students enrol after several years of working and saving for the course. Others have to borrow money to attend.

For Chinese people looking to start a career in fine cuisine or pastry, Cordon Bleu can be a great introduction. “Shanghai is the best place for international food in China,” Luo says. “More and more want to study and there is growing demand for Western food. There are not many other options [for training] in China.” Studying at Cordon Bleu can also be an alternative to traditional university for those sure of their career goals and looking for more practical education.

The school’s full-time teaching methodology can only be described as rigorous. Tang says her 18 months at Cordon Bleu were stricter and more comprehensive than she expected. Not only did the school teach cooking, they also taught her how to clean and be organised.

“Before students break from class, they must clean everything,” Tang explains. “This should always be done by students, since they use the equipment. But once, after class, the instructor rewashed everyone’s pots, since he thought some students did not wash them cleanly enough. He wasn’t angry; he just wanted to set an example. He wanted us to cherish, love and respect our place – to take ownership of our kitchen.”

Le Cordon Bleu Shanghai is slowly adapting to its new home and has begun to integrate more Chinese ideas into its curriculum. Currently, there are no Chinese instructors on its full-time staff. Tang and Luo hope that in the future, talented Chinese chefs can be invited to teach alongside the French masters. With the school beginning to incorporate Chinese ingredients such as Sichuan peppercorns and Yunnan wild mushrooms into their menus, they feel hopeful for more integration in staff and culinary traditions.

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As well as working as a teaching assistant for Le Cordon Bleu, Luo also runs private catering projects. Tang, meanwhile, has an online store that sells high-end custom cakes and catered items. She says that the business is prompting her to think beyond what she learnt at Le Cordon Bleu.

“Not only do things need to taste good, but I need to think about shipping, reducing costs, and making sure things last and stay fresh,” she says. “At Cordon Bleu, we mostly learned techniques, but there’s a lot more to learn to actually do a job in the real world.”

I ask both Tang and Luo if they would go back to Le Cordon Bleu if they could do it all over again. They both unequivocally say yes. They loved their time there and value the skills learned.

But when I ask them about their goals for the next five to 10 years, both Luo and Tang laugh and say that ultimately they want do something a bit easier. “Maybe something like a Japanese beer bar, some simple food,” Luo says. “Sashimi, katsu. Late-night dining. Comfort food.”