Heaven's Kitchen: Pursuing culinary passions at Le Cordon Bleu Ottawa.

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What does Ottawa have that neither Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Chicago nor New York can lay claim to?

A bona-fide Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Arts Institute, where aspiring chefs can learn the finest traditions of classical French cuisine. Founded just over two decades ago, Ottawa’s Le Cordon Bleu is a world-renowned facility with principles that are true to a school first established in Paris more than a century ago.

Forget what you might see on reality television shows – you won’t find angry instructors yelling at cowering students at Le Cordon Bleu. What you will find are classes led by master chefs who are committed to passing on their years of experience and their passion for food to the next generation of culinary artists. Housed in an historic Sandy Hill mansion, Le Cordon Bleu is home to an international student body revelling in the school’s positive, supportive atmosphere.

Pop into one of the modern, well-appointed teaching kitchens and you might detect the tantalizing aromas of fresh baking, as a class observes a fast-paced demonstration of puff pastry’s versatility. Soon, they will put down their notebooks and try their own hands at palmiers, pithiviers, turnovers and more. The atmosphere in the demonstration classroom is attentive, yet relaxed, and the Chef Instructor smiles patiently as he exchanges information with students and answers their many questions.

The mood is a little more serious just down the hall, as Cuisine students nervously await having their plates critiqued by their instructor. Whole cooked fish lie glassy-eyed on trays, decorated with carefully cut garnishes and pools of sauce. As Chef Gilles expertly dissects and tastes each student’s offering, he asks about the creative process to better understand what the student was hoping to achieve. He then offers up firm, but fair, comments.

Why does such a rigorous program hold such appeal? “People have a renewed appreciation for quality today,” says Pamela Bakalian, Le Cordon Bleu Ottawa’s Marketing and PR Manager. “They really respect the use of great ingredients and chefs’ efforts to present top-notch food. Through Le Cordon Bleu one can learn all the fundamentals, including knife skills, butchery, sauces and more. Most chefs will tell you that it’s essential to know the basics before you can start adapting and experimenting.”

Chef Instructor Marc Berger, a thirty-year veteran of the culinary world, says that because the experience is so intense, he and his fellow instructors often need to strike a balance between babysitting students and letting them make mistakes. “The Cordon Bleu program is structured as a gradual process so there can be enjoyment as well as hard work, but sometimes there is tension in the classroom,” he admits. “So, a part of my role is to calm the students down, try to teach them patience and offer some counselling. I was sixteen years old when I started in this industry so I know how hard it can be.”

Chef Instructor Benoit Gelinotte, who is also from France, says, “When students enter Basic Cuisine, I give them about four lessons to acclimatize – then things get tough. They get tortured a bit but then they evolve and learn not to worry about today’s lesson and stay focused on the big picture.” Chef Benoit finds it exciting to witness what students can accomplish by the end of the program. “If they are able to replicate what I have demonstrated, then I know I’ve done a good job.”

Student Andrew Kun is a young Kemptville native who will soon complete the six-course program leading to the Grand Diplome. “I did some high school co-op placements in the food industry so I thought I knew what I was getting into, but Basic Cuisine was actually quite a shock,” he recalls. “I found I had to let go of everything I thought I knew and go right back to square one.” As he talks, several classmates nod in agreement, with some sheepishly eyeing the cuts and burns that decorate their hands after their first months at Le Cordon Bleu.

Andrew praises the program for having taught him proper cooking techniques and helping him expand his palate, though he confesses he hasn’t yet learned to like sushi. He found the long days, often twelve hours or more, to be one of the hardest parts of the experience. A high point? “Passing the Intermediate exams – that was a tough semester,” he says.

Classmate Adam Hough is equally enthusiastic about Le Cordon Bleu. He’s worked part time in many Ottawa kitchens over the years, and even armed with a Bachelor of Education degree, his thoughts always returned to cooking. “I decided that attending Le Cordon Bleu would be the best way to break into the fine dining world,” says Adam who adds that it’s been more fun than he expected. His biggest challenge at the Superior and Advanced level of the program has been coping with the time pressures. “I’ve had a few disasters where I’ve been late getting my dishes ready. I know I need to speed up, so I am trying to learn to keep my eye on the clock and not be so extravagant. But I love all this. I feel like I’m in my zone here.”

The emphasis on hands-on training is a big part of what makes Le Cordon Bleu so special. Unlike other culinary schools, students here are in the kitchen every day. “We like to think of our program as being more like an apprenticeship, working with true culinary masters,” notes Pamela. “Eighteen months is the normal duration to earn the Grand Diplome but stronger, typically more experienced, students are able to complete the program in nine intensive months, with focus and dedication.”

Fortunately, you don’t have to put your life on hold to attend Le Cordon Bleu, as the school has expanded its cooking sessions to the general public. “Our short courses are extremely popular,” confirms Pamela. “We offer one- to four-day, hands-on workshops in everything from knife skills to chocolate, sauces, sushi, and sugar. Groups often enjoy interactive teambuilding sessions as well as cooking demonstrations.”

The popularity of Le Cordon Bleu speaks volumes to its value. “People now recognize that a Grand Diplome from Le Cordon Bleu is a kind of passport – with this training you can go anywhere in the culinary world,” says Pamela. “Individual success depends upon drive and passion, but everyone who graduates will go up the ladder faster than those from other schools. Not only because of the practical experience they have, but also because of the skills and confidence our program instills.”

Who's at Le Cordon Bleu?

The diverse student body, typically ranging in age from 17 to 70, includes recent high school graduates, as well as college and university graduates who studied in many other fields prior to attending Le Cordon Bleu and pursuing their passion. The program is also popular with men and women in their fifties and sixties whose children are grown; they’ve always wanted to go to culinary school and now finally have the means and the time to do it.

Fine Tarte aux 
Tomates Confites

This delicious dish would be ideal paired with a salad for a light lunch, or as a first course at dinnertime. It serves 4.

bread dough:

1 tsp (5 ml) fresh yeast ¾ tsp (3.75 ml) white sugar 1 tbsp (15 ml) warm water 1 cup (250 ml) flour 1 egg, lightly beaten ½ tsp (2.5 ml) salt ¼ tsp (1.25 ml) pepper 2 tsp (10 ml) olive oil

garniture:

1 tbsp (15 ml) olive oil 2/3 cup (150 ml) diced onion 2 cloves garlic, crushed 4-5 (about 2cups/500 ml) plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded, diced 1 tsp (5 ml) salt ¼ tsp (1.25 ml) pepper 1 tbsp (15 ml) finely chopped fresh thyme leaves ¼ cup (50 ml) pitted, chopped black olives ½ cup (125 ml) fresh basil leaves, finely chopped

bread dough:

Add the yeast and sugar to warm (but not hot) water; let dissolve for 10 minutes, or until frothy. In large mixing bowl, sift flour; make a hole (“une fontaine”) in the centre. Add egg, salt, pepper, olive oil and yeast mixture into well. Mix everything together (it will feel dry); knead for about 10 minutes until dough has developed elasticity. Shape dough into ball; put into a greased bowl; cover with plastic wrap or damp towel. Let dough rise (“pousser”) in warm place (oven preheated to 100 F then turned off) for 45 minutes.

garniture:

Put oil in 12-inch (30 cm) non-stick skillet; heat on medium; sauté onion and garlic until softened for about 5 minutes. Add tomatoes, salt, pepper and thyme leaves; cook until mixture is softened, flavours have blended and most of the liquid has evaporated (about 10-15 minutes).

montage and finish:

Preheat oven to 380 F. Divide dough into four equal pieces. On a floured surface, roll each piece into very thin 6-inch (15 cm) rounds. Place rounds on baking tray; spread equal amount of tomato mixture on top of each round. Sprinkle with olives; bake 15 minutes or until dough is golden. Remove from oven; let stand 5 minutes; sprinkle basil on top to garnish. This recipe has been tested and adapted for homekitchens by Ottawa at Home’s Korey Kealey. Written by Paula Roy

Organizations: Le Cordon Bleu

Geographic location: Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal Vancouver Chicago New York Sandy Hill France Kemptville

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