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A Brief Education in French Cooking: The Cook’s Atelier

The Cook's Atelier Madelaine

The decision to travel to France after our wedding was sound. We love wine, wonderful food, enchanted architecture, and those few people who understand the importance of a life well-lived. We found all of those things in Beaune, France. Beaune lies about 3 hours beyond Paris. The town is centred at the heart of the Burgundy wine region and, while modern in the key ways one hopes for, it remains connected to a series of towns nested along the vineyards which are divided by terroir. Wine plays a significant role in the life of all those who live and work in the area. Food plays an equal role. Hence, when it came to visiting Beaune for five nights, we knew that we needed to access as much traditional French food and techniques as we could within a short time period. With a few hours of searching through possibilities online, I found one destination that satisfied my desires: The Cook’s Atelier.

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I should mention that my desires were three-fold: a hands-on cooking class that involved local ingredients, a sampling of wines from the area, and instruction in English so that both of us would benefit from being able to ask specific questions. Workshops, classes and educational sessions always need to offer me value and an opportunity to learn approaches to making ideas into reality. The Cook’s Atelier appealed to me mostly for the way that they presented their experience online. In the vein of Kinfolk or Donna Hay, Marjorie Taylor and her daughter, Kendall Smith, developed a look and style that draws clients into their kitchen. As a professional food/product photographer, I am always looking for new ideas for presenting food and, more importantly, I look for ways to build more synergy between the areas of my life which offer me the most pleasure and intellectual stimulation.

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I should note at the outset that the Market Tour and Cooking Class we enrolled for was not cheap at 250 euros each. I might also note that I was not looking for a cheap experience that would be easily forgotten. The Cook’s Atelier promised a walk through the Beaune market with our two guides, guided work in their beautiful kitchen space, and a fabulous French lunch built around items we helped make over the course of a few hours. 500 euros is a decent chunk of change, but it was well worth the chunks of information, cheese and cakes we consumed voraciously while at the Atelier.

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Cooking classes come in two varieties: hands-on and watch the talented chef. I have taken great classes in both styles all over the world. In Saigon, I learned how to make spring rolls at the Imperial Hotel; the process involved a wide variety of grunts and mimicry. In Morocco, a shirtless cook screamed at me for not following an orthodox order of ingredient additions for my tagine; I learned nothing the kitchen from him. In Paris, I prepared a beautiful strawberry dacquoise cake in the kitchens of Ritz-Escoffier. We only spoke French. It was perfect. I have also taken classes in New Orleans and Barcelona, but my time at The Cook’s Atelier taught me a few new tricks that I will use on a weekly basis and I had a truly enjoyable afternoon hanging out with Marjorie and Kendall’s family.

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Cheese and wine are at the heart of any French meal. While we may not have been able to make our own cheese and wine during the course of an afternoon, we were able to sample a variety of six local cheeses and four exemplar wines from the area.  From chalky goat cheese to funky orange rinded heaven, we nibbled our way through the cheese board that ended our meal. Nibbles were all we could offer the cheeses, however, because the preceding meal was too sumptuous to not fall victim to the sin of gluttony. From quail to pear cake to salad and the classic gougères, dinner was superb. Indeed, it was one of the best we enjoyed in France. Maybe it was the bright, welcoming atmosphere or perhaps it was the food itself, but we felt right at home in the working space of the atelier.

20150314-DSC00414The gougères recipe and process was a revelation for me. If I had only taken away one learning piece, then I would want it to be the gougère. A light puff-like pastry that finds its airy nature through a complex cooking of the dough and then adding eggs while stirring to a specific consistency, the gougère is a staple of the Beaune kitchen. It is ideal for sipping wine with or to end a long day. The Comte cheese we used at The Cook’s Atelier gave a salty, buttery flavour to the pastry. However, it is quite possible to use a Gruyere or Parmesan or even gouda and still create a brilliant result.

This recipe impressed me for the simplicity of ingredients (4 eggs, 1 Cup of Flour, 1/2 Cup of Butter and 1/2 Cup of Cheese 1 Cup of Water). I cannot imagine how many times I have needed to prepare a quick food while travelling beyond my kitchen only to find it impossible to remember exact measurements. I can remember these ratios. The real trick to the recipe is the process and not the ingredients, so when we returned home to Canada the first thing we did was pull out a pot, a bowl and the pastry bag. It took us four attempts until we came to understand the dough and the combination process, but now we can pull together this recipe with a minimal effort. It is truly brilliant.

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Between espresso and Burgundy wines, we talked with Marjorie and Kendall about life in France. Marjorie spoke about her restaurant in Phoenix; Kendall spoke about raising a family in Beaune and her previous work as an art historian. Laughter permeated the workshop, and we came to appreciate their approach to life and the kitchen. There may have been idle talk of working together on their forthcoming cookbook, but ideas are sometimes simply beautiful ideas. In the end, I also came away with a learning piece about their photography. While their photography is compelling, I have to admit that it was the light in their space that truly creates a stunning feel and emotional response to the photographs on their website. Certainly they both created the light through wall colour choices and their surrounding props are designed to make one feel like they are in the quintessential French kitchen. The photographs I snapped with M.’s new compact camera can attest to the romantic aura created by the light in the space.

The curation of their space is also what compels you to purchase kitchen items from the myriad of offerings in the front shop. Could I have procured a Mauviel sauté pan at a slightly cheaper rate than I paid at their shop? Yes, but it would not have their name imprinted on it, and I wanted a memento to remind me of our time in Beaune at The Cook’s Atelier. Could I have found better linen kitchen towels, linen napkins, kitchen scissors, copper pot scrub pads or a vegetable peeler? No. The quality of the products was superb. I have never held a nicer peeler or pair of utility scissors. Like the workshop, I felt that the quality in the items I cheerfully bought while exiting into the street was exactly what I needed to inspire the kitchen renovation occurring in our own home on the other side of the ocean.

In the end, our experience was perfect. I learned about French cooking, I ate fine food and drank fine wine, I took home props to support and inspire my latest Paderno shoot, and I had an experience worth remembering for the remains of my life. If you have an opportunity to visit the shop or to take a workshop, like we did, then I urge you to consider the value of meeting people  who have things to teach and stories to tell. Few other moments have given me so much for so little, and those are they moments we all want to fill our lives with while we can.

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