It’s nearly a year since I completed the basic intensive course at Le Cordon Bleu. I thought I’d reflect on its usefulness.
Mixed feelings for sure. I spent around $10,000 on the course not including accommodation and flights. I’m not convinced that every penny in there was useful.
I went into the course a little more experienced in the kitchen than my classmates. I had already worked weekends staging (interning) at restaurants and cook at home fairly regularly. I’m used to generally putting myself outside my comfort zone to make dishes that I’ve never attempted before, so diving into new recipes and understanding procedures came easier to me. My knife skills were also fairly advanced as it’s a particular passion of mine to chop as fast and as evenly as possible. (Still a long way to go there.)
A few of my classmates had never cooked more than instant ramen before or cut anything more than an apple with their chefs knives. However there were also other home cooks and even a couple professional chefs!
Honestly, I can’t say that I’m in love with the style of French cuisine that Le Cordon Bleu teaches you. Almost all the dishes (at least in basic cuisine) are super traditional and fairly straightforward. Most of them involved searing or braising some sort of protein with a jus. This is probably not new to too many people. Of course it was done with much more care and precision than usual but these were incremental learnings for me. I definitely appreciate French cuisine but if you show me a bowl of fresh steaming noodles next to any French dish, I’m reaching for those noodles. But that’s the very reason that I took the course. I wanted to learn techniques I had not learnt from YouTube yet as most of the stuff I make is Asian or Italian. I wanted to try to incorporate these new French techniques into my Asian style of cooking.
Anyway, let me try to organize my thoughts a bit more here. Would a pros and cons list help?
Pros: Learnt to make French sauces really well Taught me techniques that
Yeah I don’t think listing everything they taught us is useful. The important thing to keep in mind here is that of course the course is useful objectively if you have unlimited time and money. I’m just going to talk about individual aspects of the course. and you can decide if that it would be worth it for you considering the following factors that I believe were the most important to me:
- Cost: It’s a staggering £8,000 (\$11,000) at least for the course + accommodation + flights + food
- Opportunity cost of not making a salary (if you need to take a break from your day job to do this)
- Time: It’s just under 2 months which isn’t too long but again that’s 2 month’s salary.
I’m going to highlight topics in green, orange, or red, depending on how much I liked that aspect of the course. I’ll try to stick to the order in which we went through them.
A couple classes were to literally cut vegetables in such precision that we had to use rulers to measure them out. They chefs eventually said that consistency was important than exact measurements but we spent 5 hours messing about with a ruler and measuring potatoes. Given that my knife skills were already pretty good, I had no problem in getting consistency. So I personally felt that this was already a waste of almost 10 hours of classes (both theory and practical). Classmates with much lower levels of knife skills were struggling hard to get consistency, and while it was still possible to do in the first couple classes where the entirety of the class was devoted to chopping, they struggled in the following classes where chopping was merely the prep work to much longer recipes. Sure it opened their eyes to how much faster and consistent they can become but I’m not sure they improved greatly during just the course. And I don’t think you need to pay 10K to learn to chop. It’s amazing how much YouTube can teach you.
Vinaigrettes & Salad Dressings
This was pretty much useless. Absolutely nothing that google cannot tell you. There are millions of charts out there on how to compose your own dressing by mixing an acid and a fat etc. All we did was painstakingly make mayonnaise by hand multiple times and some other simple vinaigrettes. And we used it on a very straightforward salad with some tomatoes and eggs and stuff. I didn’t really enjoy it, nor did I think you gained anything you couldn’t find elsewhere for free. We wasted a couple classes on these.
I was a bit let down here as well. We didn’t learn anything that wasn’t easily available knowledge about making stocks. It was simply browning veg and protein for a brown stock, not browning them for a white one. Pretty straightforward. We thankfully didn’t waste too much time on this. Just a class if I remember correctly. We did use pre-made stocks for a lot of other classes so you got to see how to make a jus and stuff but again nothing new.
I was pretty terrible at sauces. I used to struggle to make hollandaise consistently. I think I attempted béchamel once and it didn’t turn out very well at all.
The personal attention that the chefs give you goes a long way in perfecting the sauces. They come around with tips and tricks to know exactly when you need to pull the pot off the stove or if you need to continue your arm workout of beating your hollandaise vigorously to incorporate more air into it. I messed up my Mornay sauce more than once in the class but had chances to keep retrying it. The chefs helped me identify the exact consistency that they were looking for and how to know when it was just about to boil so you could take it off immediately and whisk an egg in. The chefs could tell the temperature of a hollandaise by just touching it with their knuckle. This would be hard to teach without their one on one attention. The feeling you get when you nail a béchamel is unparalleled!
I don't wanna talk about it.
Literally one of the hardest things I've ever done in my entire life. Holy shit.
Keep the pastry cold! Don't waste time! Roll it out! No! Keep it cold! Roll the butter out! It's melting! Layer the dough! It's melting through it in the blast refrigerator! Don't waste time! Layer! Layer! Layer! Don't go over the edges! It's melting!
You've ruined it!
You needed to be so perfect and so quick so that the butter and everything didn't melt. It didn't help that the class before us had literally heated up the work surfaces. Our class's butter was melting while we were working and breaking through the dough. This means that when we finally make the pastries, the butter will leak out and the dough won't rise.
I definitely learnt a ton about pastry dough that I never knew before. But I had never really looked for answers around it before. At the end of the class the chef said that this would probably be the last time we do this in our lives because any sane chef uses factory made pastry dough. I really hope he's right.
Hor Mok is an absolutely incredible Thai dish. It’s puréed fish along with a red Thai chili paste, kaffir lime leaves, and coconut milk. The mix is then steamed in a banana leaf. The result is this smooth, creamy and flavorful fish mousse that melts away in your mouth. I absolutely love this dish. I had made it a couple times at home to varying degrees of success.
We learnt a similar French style dish in class and I loved it! The class was super eye opening and showed us various equipment at techniques used to obtain a perfect fish mousse. We first needed to grind the fish after we made it really cold so that there was no chance of it cooking or heating up in the grinder. We then cooled it down back on ice after which we pushed the fish through a drum sieve so it gets even smoother while leaving the sinew behind. At this point you can add any flavor you want to it. Like any classic French dish, we added a ton of heavy cream to it and a bit of salt. The resulting creamy mousse is to die for!
Monter au beurre
"MONTER! MONTER! MONTER! MONTER!"
That was our chant in every single demo! Monter au beurre means to stir in cold butter to finish a hot sauce. What this does apart from giving the customer high cholestrol, is to provide amazing silky texture and a beautiful shine to the sauce. It's absolutely incredible what a couple sticks of butter can do! This might be the single most unhealthy technique I have ever witnessed but it tastes so damn good when you melt in chunks of butter to your sauce that you've worked so hard on. This is the norm apparently in high end French cuisine. Pretty cool thing to learn, but I am yet to have ever done this at home as I don't want to die.
I had no idea that it was possible to impart so much flavor into a root vegetable. I was blown away the glazed veg. It was simply shaping a root vegetable to look nice (turning them), and then simmering them in a butter - sugar - salt - water mix until they’re soft. You then let the water evaporate and glaze them with the remaining butter and sugar in the pan, making them super shiny without a drop of color on them. The vegetables burst with juicy butter and flavor when you bite into them. It’s an absolute treat! I made a bunch of them and topped my biryani with them!
This was pretty cool. Again it’s probably nothing YouTube cannot teach you, but the chefs giving you one on one attention came in handy. They could point out exactly which knife strokes were slowing me down and how to angle my knife perfectly. It helped to see their demonstrations up close as well as they showed us every single angle while they were filleting fish.
Fish prep was thorough in that we were given a fresh fish and had to go through the motions of gutting it, removing innards, removing fins and eyes, scaling, removing the skin, filleting, and making a fish stock from the bones and skin. We practiced both flat as well as round fish.
The thing was however, I don’t think we had enough practice in class itself. We were told that two of the exam dishes would be fish. So groups of us headed to the market and had fish prep parties to practice becoming faster at it. So it’s really up to you here to keep your skills up to scratch. But if you’re a home chef, chances are you’re going to buy your fish scaled and innards removed because you’re not about to get scales all over the ceiling of your kitchen.
Sure I learnt a lot. But I also forgot everything immediately. They crammed such a vast amount of knowledge of how to carve, clean, and trim so many different meat cuts into a some demos and even fewer practicals that it's basically impossible to remember and retain all of it. Even if you somehow miraculously remembered the theory of how to figure out how to carve around the bones of a massive hunk of meat from some random animal, I'd like to see you actually succeed without wanting to carve a part of yourself out from sheer frustration. I understand that there may be too much to teach within such a short span, but I would rather get really good at a couple things rather than remain pretty shit at everything meat carving related. Especially since practicing this stuff on a large scale outside a school or restaurant kitchen is not feasible most of the time.
A chef I once worked with, described the kitchen of a 3-Michelin Star restaurant he once worked at as art.
Discipline is literally the only thing that sets apart the good and the great. I can’t stress enough how important this is in a kitchen. It is also the most difficult to attain. You need discipline for consistency, and consistency is what makes you go back again, and again, and again, and again.
The chefs stressed on having an impeccably clean work station in the kitchen. Not a single bowl should be out of place. The surface should be wiped and cleaned between every single task. Discard anything you’re done using to the dish pit. Never clutter your station; it definitely means you’re using more than you need or trying to do too much at a time. Discipline makes you efficient. Organize your thoughts and make sure that you don’t have a single wasted action. Making a trip to the pantry? Bring back everything you need for the task at hand to save yourself another trip. It seems obvious, but in the heat of the kitchen when you’re trying to push your dish out without a minute to spare, discipline makes the difference between a happy and an angry customer. For most of the course, the chefs did not give a shit about how my dish tasted. They only cared about how clean and efficient I was. Taste was secondary.
I definitely think that the lack of discipline in the kitchen is one of the major failure reasons. The course helps to drive this home.
There were some other dishes and techniques that I didn't bother covering. Braising, searing, rolling, pasta making, etc. Interesting stuff but most dishes required a ton of butter and not too many spices. It's very impressive how good the dishes were seeing that apart from salt and pepper and some occasional paprika we hardly touched the spices. But still not my style of cooking. If you like French food you make like the course more!
You tell me!
I'm not too sure how useful this was for anyone out there. I really wished I had an article like this before I joined to help make a decision. It's still a very hard choice and I'm still not sure if I would have done it in hindsight. But I hope it gives you little more insight into one of the top culinary schools in the world! Let me know if you have questions!