PARIS — A crisp white apron and hat stamped with Le Cordon Bleu's emblem are standard issue for every student who takes a class at the famed cooking school.
The "whites" set the tone. Even the one-day classes for amateurs are all business.
But it's hard to imagine taking home a better souvenir of Paris than the ability to make duck breast a l'orange or monkfish medallions with garlic cream and star anise.
After spending a week in a more casual weeklong cooking course in Provence, I decided to top off the experience with a one-day workshop on sauces at Le Cordon Bleu. I brought a professional chef along with me — my mom, Lou Jane Temple, who owned a restaurant in Kansas City, Mo., for years.
For those who like to cook but don't want to spend an entire vacation in the kitchen, the half-day to four-day sessions at Le Cordon Bleu are ideal. But unlike more casual cooking vacation programs, it's best to arrive with some cooking skills under your toque. There'll be no tutorials on how to hold a knife here.
The sauces workshop began with demonstrations by chefs Didier Chantefort and Marc Thivet, each with his own English interpreter, in a classroom with a large mirror over the cooktop and television monitors throughout to ensure that every student could see.
As he prepared a basic brown veal stock, Thivet explained, "Chefs have been improving on the mother sauces that are the basis of cuisine for years, but just as in tennis or dancing, you need to master the basics."
The basics begin with clear, pure stocks; thus the demonstration began with the preparation of a brown veal stock, a fish fumet and a white chicken stock. Then thickeners were discussed, such as a roux, starch and beurre manier (or an uncooked butter/flour paste). Then the chefs shared some variations that emerge from different combinations of stocks, thickeners and seasonings.
Overall, the message was one of care. Make completely sure the chicken carcass is free of meat and skin; always roast the veal bones first; constantly skim the stock.
After lunch, the real work began. We divided into two groups and moved into separate classrooms fully equipped with sleek, sturdy stainless steel appliances. I was assigned to Chantefort's class, with Sharon Bergey, a full-time student at the school, as interpreter. Several other full-time students assisted.
The goal was to prepare chicken breast with a sauce supreme, monkfish with garlic cream and star anise, duck breast a l'orange and beef filet with bordelaise sauce in three hours — a task that seemed impossible.
But not after Chantefort began to fire out orders. Suddenly I felt like I was in the kitchen of a Michelin three-star restaurant, with Napoleon himself waiting for his chicken supreme.
There was no time to waste, much less taste or take notes as we moved quickly from searing duck breasts to slicing oranges; from trimming chicken breasts to whisking a roux; from mincing shallots to sauteing garlic.
The pace added pressure, which may have made for an authentic professional experience but not for an altogether pleasant afternoon. Adding to the excitement was the presence of CNN cameras. (Their segments on Paris, including Le Cordon Bleu, will air on "CNN Travel Now" at 6:30 and 11 a.m. March 3 and March 10.)
In a mere two hours and 10 minutes, we were shaking hands with the chef and receiving our diplomas. I gave my food samples to a classmate who lived in Paris and waited downstairs for my mother, who had been assigned to the other class. I used the time to shop, picking up Le Cordon Bleu towels and an apron to take home.
Some 50 minutes later, Mom emerged beaming from her class. It seems chef Thivet took things at a more leisurely pace. Classmates who'd attended other workshops at Le Cordon Bleu said our experience was not unusual. Pacing and attitude vary widely among the teachers.
But the first time I savored my own bordelaise sauce over steak at home, I knew it had been worth it. And that I will go back.
Le Cordon Bleu offers courses for nonprofessionals year-round. A half-day demonstration costs about $34; market tour and lunch, $97; one-day workshop, $112; four-day workshop, $737. 1-800-457-2433, www.cordonbleu.net.