La Cuisine au Courant Cordon Bleu chef champions classic French cooking

November 03, 1991|By Lynn Williams

Forget all you've been hearing about the way we're eating in the '90s.

Forget about stretching your dollars. Forget about meatloaf and bread pudding and other neo-Mom cuisine. Forget about spa dining and nutritionist-approved low-fat regimens. Simplicity and austerity are simply not au courant anymore.

Mind you, Patrick Martin didn't actually say all this. But there he was, a French master chef, behind the burners at Kitchen Bazaar, squeezing big globs of butter between his fingers as he whisked up a luxurious salmon dish flavored with a whole bottle of champagne.

Mr. Martin (pronounced the French way) is an instructor for Le Cordon Bleu, the Parisian cooking school whose name is synonymous with France's grande cuisine. And not only is Le Cordon Bleu not suffering through these supposedly abstemious, health-conscious times, it's flourishing: Two new Cordon Bleu schools were opened this year, in London and Tokyo, and the school's team of chefs has recently released a new cookbook and set of how-to videos for the American market. Can classic French cuisine -- fattening, expensive, elitist, time-consuming, glorious French cuisine -- be making a big comeback?

Patrick Martin is sure of it.

"In France it's coming back in a rush," he explains. "People are tired of eating three carrots and two beans and 50 grams of meat for a lot of money."

At Le Cordon Bleu, he says, "We always keep the profile of classical cooking -- we are the school of classical French cuisine. "Of course, we change our building, we change our equipment . . . and we do not have the same sauces as 100 years ago. They had very heavy sauces. We have lighter sauces. But it's the same technique. Nouvelle cuisine, for me, doesn't exist."

Le Cordon Bleu, which means "blue ribbon," is steeped in the mystique of cuisine as fine art. The name comes from a 16th century knightly order, Ordre du Saint Esprit, whose members wore blue ribbons and indulged in legendary banquets. The school began in 1895 as a weekly newsletter of cooking articles and recipes published by a Parisienne named Marthe Distel. Classes by professional chefs, first offered as an extra attraction for subscribers, began the next year in the Palais Royal, whose kitchen featured the highest of high tech -- electricity! The classes soon became Le Cordon Bleu's raison d'etre.

Today's school offers a spectrum of classes, from daily demonstrations for tourists to weekly pastry-making classes for children to the nine-month "Classic Cycle" intended for cooking professionals. Some of the world's highest-caliber chefs are holders of a Cordon Bleu Grand Diplome, including Julia Child.

Because of the school's prestige, many Americans are sure that French cuisine of the Cordon Bleu ilk is something that requires intensive schooling, and a lot of native talent, to master.

Although Mr. Martin acknowledges the mystique, part of his mission on his current national tour is to prove that classic French cooking is far from inaccessible.

Like many top French chefs he is surprisingly young. But at 33, he has been cooking for almost 20 years.

"I learned when I was six months old. No, no, I'm just kidding you," he says with a laugh. "I was 14, and I made my apprenticeship in a restaurant in the Loire Valley." The talented young chef moved on to restaurants in Paris and New York before joining Le Cordon Bleu as a "professeur de cuisine" in 1987. Since April he has been supervising the teaching team at Le Cordon Bleu Japon in Tokyo, although he speaks no Japanese.

Mr. Martin has also garnered a number of French culinary awards, including the National Trophy for Cuisine and Pastry and the Silver Medal of the City of Paris, and has been called upon to prepare banquets for visiting dignitaries, including Margaret Thatcher and the king of Morocco.

He is not only young, but is engaging and fun-loving, and enjoys making jokes in two languages. (Although the chef speaks English, his recent demonstration at Towson Town Center was translated by Robyn Cahill, the school's Australian-born public relations manager. Mr. Martin finds it easier to speak, think and cook in his native French.)

In addition to flouting the snooty French chef stereotype, Mr. Martin is intent on showing that Cordon Bleu cooking is not as difficult as everybody thinks it is. The recipe he prepares for his Kitchen Bazaar demonstration, salmon in champagne sauce, involves the finest, most expensive ingredients, but the techniques -- including cutting a seven-sided anglais potato and making a traditional fish stock -- are hardly arcane. Mr. Martin cooks the same basic recipe two ways, with slightly different sauces, in less than an hour.

With the October release of its eight-cassette set of cooking videos and the book "Le Cordon Bleu at Home," published by Hearst Books, Le Cordon Bleu aims to make mousselines, souffles and homemade bearnaise part of the repertoire of every home cook in the United States.

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