Whether you’re fortunate enough to live in the Greater Daglan Area already, or are planning a vacation here, you might want to consider taking a cooking (English translation: cookery) class.
Or maybe you’d simply like a professional chef to create a customized meal for you, your family, and friends, either for the sheer fun of it or for a special occasion like an anniversary or birthday or family reunion. If so, I’ve got the guy for you.
We do have some experience with this sort of thing in France. Last year, when my wife Jan and I stayed with Canadian friends at a villa in Villefranche-sur-Mer, next door to Nice on the French Riviera, I tracked down a professional chef and arranged for him to arrive at our villa on our last night and make dinner for 14 of us. It was a relaxed evening, with enjoyable food and wine.
Then last fall, when daughter Anne, son Mike and his partner Vanessa visited us in Daglan, we arranged for Chef Fabrice Lemonnier to give us a cooking class in his home. We all had a terrific time, learned a lot, and had some great food. All of this was captured on Radio Free Daglan in a two-parter called “Cooking with Chef Fabrice,” posted on September 25 and 26, 2011.
Since then, Chef Fabrice has formalized his business as “Your Own French Chef,” and he creates meals for groups large and small, and offers cooking classes as well. His wife Samantha is an expert hostess and special events coordinator, and assists him as needed. You can learn more at http://www.fabricelechef.fr
So when my sister Karen and her husband Mark stayed with us earlier this month, a cooking class with “Your Own French Chef” was right on the list of other must-do activities — like visiting the Sarlat market, lunching at Le Grand Bleu in Sarlat and Le Petit Paris in Daglan, and touring Lascaux II (the caves famous for their prehistoric paintings) near Montignac.
Today and tomorrow I’ll take you inside our cooking class to give you some idea of what we learned, and the fun we had doing it. Then you’ll know better if a class is right for you, and what you might get out of it.
The starting point is organization. Chef Fabrice had prepared a menu in advance and discussed it with Jan and me. But beyond that obvious starting point, he also prepared a highly detailed schedule for the morning, and checked it regularly to ensure that nothing was overlooked. Here’s our menu for lunch:
While many home cooks think that the most important part is following a recipe, professional chefs first learn techniques — how to butcher meat, how to trim vegetables, how to pour sauces, and so on. To teach us a variety of techniques, Chef Fabrice typically shows us how something should be done, and then guides one or more of us in following him.
One of the first things we prepared was the dessert, to give it time to set properly. This was a vanilla panna cotta that was to be served on a pool of strawberry purée and accompanied by a strawberry salad. (Panna cotta is a mixture of cream, milk and sugar, set with gelatin.) For this dish, Chef Fabrice showed us how to hold an inverted tablespoon up against the inside of the individual glass bowls, and pour the panna cotta onto the spoon. This way, the stream of panna cotta wouldn’t disturb the strawberry purée in the bottom of the bowls. Here’s the chef, showing how it’s done:
To prepare the pieces of monkfish that would form part of our entrée, the chef first showed us how to trim off skin from the monkfish tail, clean up the flesh, and then slice the flesh away from the central bone. Here goes:
And then Jan took over, and finished the fish by trimming the flesh away from the other side of the central bone:
Much more elaborate was the process we learned for preparing the veal. As our main course, we were to have tournedos of veal. But to teach us how to prepare meat properly, Chef Fabrice had selected a complete veal roast, so that we could learn how to trim it. Normally, what I would have done is use a long knife to cut away the tenderloin from the bones. Instead, our chef showed us that we should carefully pare away the membrane around each bone and then remove the rib bones one by one, in order to lose as little meat as possible. Here he is at work:
Then my brother-in-law Mark took over, and frankly did a great job of neatly removing all the bones, trimming off the unwanted fat, and generally creating a tidy package. Here is Mark, concentrating on his task:
And now we have a nicely trimmed tenderloin of veal:
At this stage, Chef Fabrice wrapped the veal in cling film (North American: Saran Wrap), and rolled it up tight::
Next, Chef Fabrice cut the veal into the tournedos, ready for cooking. Note that he kept the plastic wrap on the meat while cutting it, to help it keep its shape:
To top the veal, we would be searing slices of foie gras. This is something I do at home fairly often (we do live in duck country, after all), but we learned a new technique from Chef Fabrice — cutting the lobe of foie on the bias, to make each slice larger. Here’s my sister Karen slicing her way through the foie:
As our cheese course, Chef Fabrice had planned a chicory salad to be served with Roquefort cheese and local walnuts. Here he is finely slicing the chicory (which I would call Belgian endive):
Another step in the process was to create crispy wafers of ham to garnish the monkfish entrée. Chef Fabrice used the delicious black ham of the Périgord, showing us how to trim it into little sail-shaped pieces, and then sandwiching it between layers of aluminum foil. He then weighted the foil down on a baking sheet, and baked it in a hot oven for a few minutes. Here he is, laying out the pieces of ham:
And here’s how the pieces of ham looked, after emerging from the oven:
Another technique we learned was “turning” vegetables with a paring knife, to create neat-looking potatoes in the shape of small footballs. Once Chef Fabrice showed us how to do this properly, I took over and finished the job. Here are my creations, going into the pan to be browned:
By this point in the late morning, most of our dishes were coming together. To complete the entrée, Chef Fabrice had to finish a celeriac purée, make a beurre blanc sauce, and pan-fry the pieces of monkfish. Here’s the monkfish, going into the fry pan:
The preparation stage was just about done; and then it was time to assemble all the dishes and then enjoy lunch. Somewhere along the way, we decided it was time to open the first bottle of Chablis and enjoy a glass of wine.
Tomorrow I’ll show the final results of our efforts.