Julia Child died on my birthday. I wondered if that would be my only connection to this legendary and amazing woman. And then, I went to a cooking school in Paris and became “Monique”
My entry was a finalist in – The Legacy of Julia Child Awards. The essay is pasted below. I would LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE your feedback.
Hearty congratulations to the winner and to all the finalists!! Thank you, IACP!!
Photo credit: Kathleen Flinn
A Day In Paris –
Julia Child died on my birthday.
It was odd when I heard the news. I felt bad that my only connection to this legendary personality was death.
Of course, if I am honest, I should also admit that her persona intimidated me. Perhaps it was because I was intimated by the cuisine that she talked so passionately about. French food to me was complex, complicated, difficult to learn, impossible to master, delightful in taste and yet, like an unrequited love: something to be admired from afar.
I have, recently, become a child of new thinking: about removing limitations that I place on myself and to test my assumptions. After all, as they taught us in consulting school: ass-ump-tions make an ASS of U and ME. So when I got invited to go to a cooking school in France, I jumped at the opportunity. And then I threw up a few times. What the hell was I thinking? How could I go to the gastronomique capital of the world without a clue as to what they do in the kitchen? And, as a food writer, I would be expected to know at least something. I decided to cancel. Several times. But my husband kept reminding me of the “assumptions” I was making: I was no good, French cooking was hard, I was never going to be able to learn it, oh, and did I mention, I was no good?
I did not cancel and got myself on a plane to Paris (have we talked yet about the fact that I am terrified of flying? Well, chalk this trip up to a trip of pushing past our own limits). But let me discuss just one shortcoming at a time.
I arrived in sunny, bright Paris, wide-awake, adrenalin pumping after a seven hour long flight. I met the rest of the team who would be there with me: Tim, a young, flamboyant writer from New York, Mina, a talented travel writer, and Jasmine, a beautiful former sports star turned writer. Well, at least the rest of the group looked sweet and not formidable, was my first thought. Of course, even though they appeared half my age (I later learned that baby-faced Jasmine was touching forty), they were a well-traveled lot having recently been around the globe from Dubai to Jerusalem.
Cook’n With Class is a cooking school located in the heart of the cultural district of Montmarte. I, of course, Googled the area before getting there and the review of the place were mixed tending more towards: stay away from it, it is a tourist trap. I wondered what I would get. And I learned another lesson: don’t read reviews. Nothing could have been further from the truth. The area, while bustling with tourists and locals, is a snapshot of a city drenched in culture and, of course, a love of food. The area is dotted with darling little cafes. Other types of restaurants, Indian, falafel, kebabs, are sprinkled on every street. Vendors line the streets showcasing everything from pink-skinned chicken breasts to white salmon to rabbit to the most luscious strawberries from Spain. The old buildings in the area are a testament to not just times gone by but their walls hold secrets yet unknown. A courtyard (hidden from plain view) was where the Jews threw out their furniture before they were massacred, a guide tells me. A plain, boring white shutter on the third floor of an old building boasts a wild array of sunflowers. “That window belongs to the flat where Van Gough lived and painted when he was here,” a passerby tells me. As I walk around I am struck by the names on the walls – Picasso lived in another place, there is a bust of the singer Dilada near a children’s playground. The bust says 1 of 8. “The original was stolen, this is the first fake,” is the explanation. The weather, it is early spring, is crisp, clear with skies so blue you wonder if there will ever be clouds again. Assumption one is shattered: it always rains in Paris in springtime.
I stand outside the school, unsure if I want to enter. The entrance is inviting, a quiet door with a small sign, at least it doesn’t look intimidating. Chef Eric Fraudeau, who owns the school, was nothing like what I imagined. I had imagined a stern, tall Frenchman wearing a sparkling white chef coat ready to pounce on my every ignorance. Instead, I met Eric: a jolly, funny man who made me feel right at home. “I was hoping to learn about spices from you and see how we can incorporate that into our class,” he said. Learn from me? My assumptions were indeed making an ass of me.
Eric built the school, he told me, to share his love of cooking with everyone in his hometown. The classes the school offers range from making simple to fancy desserts, baking, spending a day at the market, learning about cheese and wine and so much more. And what is more, and unusual for Paris, the classes are offered in English. Eric spent many years in the United States heading Michelin starred kitchens and returned to his home country to build a life for himself and his bride Yetunde. His demeanor was casual, nothing like what I was expecting. My whole theory that the French were stern, did not like foreigners, and did not like to speak English was being quickly demolished. Of course, we justify our thoughts to ourselves all the time! I thought, all this is fine, he is nice and all but wait till the cooking starts, then all the attitude will show. And I will be right.
My fear of French cooking had started, strangely enough, when I became a food writer. In some ways, my fear of all cooking started when I became a food writer. All of a sudden, I went from being a simple home cook to being viewed as an expert cook. Two very different things. I loved to cook, I loved to share my world but by no stretch of the imagination was I a chef capable of creating dream-like gourmet delights. I began to stick with cuisines that incorporated spices: I understood how sizzled cumin could affect a potato or how a paste of garlic and ginger could provide a base for a curry but I found myself distancing my mind from cuisines that were not rich in, or that I thought were not rich, in spices. French stood out. I did not know the sauces, I did not understand how to marry cream with butter, my fear of baking stood in the way of understanding breads and pastries.
As the day dawned for the first class, I stood in the shower of my small, rented Parisian flat, shaking.. a little terrified, a little worried and very ashamed. Today was going to be the moment of truth: they would know that this food writer did not understand their food or the techniques they used. I was disheartened, angry with myself for not reading more, for not leafing through all of Julia Childs’s books, for not being like Julie Powell who cooked her way through difficult French dishes (and easy ones).
But, the show had to go on and I showed up at the farmers market where the class was going to start. Our teacher, a gorgeous woman with bright eyes and a pixie haircut, was Chef Constance. I smiled. She reminded me of the chef Collette in the children’s animated movie Ratatouille: she was spunky, full of energy and had a no nonsense energy around her. The group began to introduce themselves and when she came to me, she asked, “And what is your name?”
A simple question. I know my name. It is Monica. But as I stood there in the glittering Paris sun, soaking in the noise of the crowds, the strong smell of the coffee, the energy of the city, I thought, well, at this time, what if I wasn’t Monica, the Monica filled with fears and intimidated to be here, what if I was, what if I was Monique?
“I am Monique…I like that name better than Monica, “ I said to her. The group began to laugh, “Oh, you do look like Monique, and that is what we are going to call you.” Chef Constance looked lost, and of course did not get my poor joke and took to calling me Monique, along with the rest of the group. Funny how a little, stupid, silly joke can change your whole point of view.
From that point on, I became Monique. The group, all youngsters, got something to giggle about and I got something to else to set my mind on instead of my ignorance.
Our first stop was a inviting Parisian cheese shop. All I knew about cheeses was that I liked creamy and hated stinky. Our guide, luckily, knew a lot more. Constance is from the heart of France but her father, she tells me, grew up in the north where he “they eat smelly cheese and drink lots of beer.” She walked around explaining the different types of cheeses: the art of making the cheese, the importance of the region the cheese came from, the rinds, the colors, the smells. The strange array of white and yellow slabs shelved around the store, that moments ago had seemed alien and difficult to comprehend, now became objects of wonder and respect. It isn’t that I had never read or written stories on cheese but when someone explains something to you with such passion and vigor, the ingredient takes on a whole new meaning. “See, look at this cheese! Do you know why it is hard and not soft like the other cheeses? It comes from the mountains and so it has to travel well. And see this butter, it is made from fresh, raw milk, one taste of it and it will change your life.” And, I instantly knew that she was probably right. What struck me most was that her talk focused on tradition and the importance of preserving culture. What I had heard to be the arrogance of the French, was actually totally wrong. It wasn’t arrogance at all: it was pride in a rich and deeply rooted culture.
It reminded me of the spice markets I had visited in Delhi a year earlier, as I had walked around Khari Baoli, Asia’s largest wholesale spice market, with a culinary historian. Every stall had a history: the pepper came from the villages of the south, the salt came from the mountains, the mustard came from the fields of the east, each person selling the spices had a story, their family had been there for years, the store had traditions of how they sold what they sold… My mind wandered into the similarities and differences. While the French had upheld their ingredients, we Indians had not shown the same respect, I felt, towards our spices. But things were getting better back home.
“Monique, Monique, are we ready to leave?” chef Constance taps me on the shoulder. I am not used to my new name yet. I smile sheepishly and follow her out. As we leave, I notice the owner of the store is scrubbing the ground outside the store with a small brush. She is vigorously and diligent. Pride, what an amazing sentiment.
Our next stop was a butcher and as we reached, I realized we had lost half our group. One writer was afraid of birds so going into the butcher shop was a no no for him and another writer was a vegetarian so there so no chance she was going in either. I smiled as the their absence made me a feel like it was okay to be different and not know/like everything.
Ah, the Parisian butcher shop: not a place for the faint of heart. As chef Constance explained the ratings on the butchered chicken, rabbit (with the heads), and other meats on display, my friend poked me in the shoulder. “Do you know why rabbits are sold with their heads on?” asked Kathleen Flinn, writer extraordinaire, “So that you know that they are not selling you cats.” I guess you never know!
“We don’t change butchers here, a butcher is like your family doctor. You go to the same one each time,” while the voice mouthing those lines was of chef, my mind was hearing them coming from my father. He says the exact same thing! I begin to feel my body relax, as I realize that, perhaps, I am not as ignorant about the food here as I think I am. But, it is early in the day, and so far we are only picking out familiar ingredients.
We keep moving and now the group is all together again. We buy peppers and cauliflower and onions. As we pick and smell and touch the vegetables for freshness, I realize that I sniff just like chef Constance only she looks way cuter and sophisticated when she does it and I look like a dork!
Our last stop before we head into the kitchen is the seafood stall. A tiny shop with big fish! Chef shows me how to select the fish: the eyes, the scales, the firmness of the flesh. We pick squid, she tells me she will show me how to clean it and we pick a gorgeous rose pink salmon.
Armed and ready to cook we arrive at the cooking school. Everyone is laighing and giggling and I begin to feel my nerves starting to act up again. What if I make a fool of myself? I stop myself: Monique is not scared. She is ready to learn. She is a learner and she is smart and talented. She can do this.
And we begin: sleeves get rolled up, knives come out, the chopping begins. Constance is focused, giving directions, passing ingredients, moving the group towards the goal of making a meal. I watch her carefully: the way her eyes focus on the bell pepper as she begins to chop it, the way her neck arches when she reaches to look down at the caramel boiling, the strength in her hands as she teaches me the right way to hold a pan and “sauté” apples so that they jump and then land in the pan just so. We begin to discuss our passion around cooking. “ I learned to bake when I was 8,” she tells me, “Others were taking ballet classes and I was making pastries.” But you know, I could tell, that passion comes from within.
“I bought these shears yesterday that have multiple blades…. They are said to be great for cutting herbs,” I tell her proudly.
“Those are for moms! Let me show you how a professional does it!” she says. And I see it again: pride in perfect technique and no easy way out.
And then, I see something that catches me by surprise: Chef Constance eyeballs a lot of ingredients. I did not think that was allowed in French cooking! I grew up in the bosom of “andaza” cooking – estimation cooking, where a little of this and a litte of that were the way to go. I see her doing the same – she eyeballs the salt, the pepper, the olive oil. She focuses on the pan to listen to the sizzle of the salmon, and presses it down with the spatula.. Experience, I can see, has taught her the right time to flip the fish so that it is perfectly cooked. ( The precision that I had heard the French were so famous for came the next day when we learned to prepare macaroons. But then, I had to remind myself, precision in baking is true in any culture, not just French. And, no matter how hard I tried, I would never be baking macaroons at home. It was just never going to be my thing.)
As we prepare the dishes, I find myself confident and that catches me by surprise. The group goads me on with many shouts of Go Monique as I attempt to poach an egg enclosed in plastic wrap, sauté apples in a pan or pipe cake batter into a mould. Constance kept reminding us that the key to making good food is to use the fresh seasonal ingredients and try not to monkey with them too much. Like the apples: we found aromatic, ripe apples, and just a light saute in butter and they were ready to go. The salmon: picture perfect pink, just seasoned with olive oil, salt and pepper, kissed by the fire, and ready to serve.
I keep chopping, keep watching her, keep learning: the cauliflower all needs to be cut to the same size (she sounds like my mom), carefully pick the thorns from the salmon (she sounds like me), pay attention, this is important, this is a really good technique for…. (she sounds like every passionate chef I have ever learned from).
Our menu included: a foamy soup made from purple carrots seasoned with cumin, a creamy cauliflower velouté garnished with parsley; seasoned poached eggs atop a red peppers, softly cooked onions garnished with fried walnut bread; pan-seared salmon and chili spiced calamari with a side of roasted cauliflower; a selection of cheeses; and cake topped with sautéed apples drizzled with caramel cream sauce for dessert.
So what was that deep fear that had been nagging at my spirit?
It was, in retrospect, a fear based on ignorance and limits I set on my own views. Total ignorance. What I learned was how similar my world and theirs’ really was: a passionate focus on great ingredients. Yes, there were dishes that were very complicated but the same is true in any cuisine. There are so many techniques and dishes in Indian cuisine that I have not yet mastered, but I am not afraid of it due to, I guess, familiarity. After spending two days at the cooking school, I realized that I would never be a master of French food either. And you know what? That was okay. The bigger win was that I was no longer afraid.
“I love to travel. I like going to Thailand when I have time and to learn about the spices there. I want to make a cuisine by using my family roots, my French culture and a mix of the things I see,” Constance tells me when she learns of my love of spices.
I smile at her. And I love to learn about other cuisines and take them back with me and apply a little of what I know to them to create something that is uniquely my own: life on a plate.
When I returned home, I posted on Facebook: Dear Julia Child: I now totally understand your love and affection for the culture and food of Paris.
After all these years, I finally have a meaningful connection to Julia Child.
 Names have been changed for privacy reasons.