Some people have an uncanny memory for names or faces. I remember great meals. I still recall the taste of the succulent grilled pork that a New Orleans chef drizzled with a silky, rich plum sauce — 25 years ago.
Maybe because I’m lousy in the kitchen, gourmet cooking has always been a mystery to me. How can a chef turn ordinary ingredients into an “Oh, my God” taste sensation that I remember through five presidential administrations? As a belated 50th-birthday gift to myself, I decided to find out. I went to the beating heart of culinary art — Paris — and enrolled in a week’s worth of classes.
I chose La Cuisine Paris, an unassuming little cooking school on the banks of the River Seine, within shouting distance of the storied Notre-Dame Cathedral. It fit all my criteria: reasonably priced, small classes (up to 12 students) and English-speaking chefs. Like a memorable meal, La Cuisine turned out to be more than the sum of its ingredients.
For starters, class didn’t even begin in a kitchen. We were greeted at the school on the first day by Eric Monteleone, a wisecracking chef with floppy dark hair and a scruffy beard. As he led us back in time while we walked across the 156-year-old Pont Louis-Philippe to the winding streets of the Île Saint-Louis, Chef Eric kept up a steady banter that was one part food, one part history. We were going grocery shopping in Old Paris.
We crammed, shoulder to shoulder, into a tiny fromagerie, where we got a primer on cheese-making from Chef Eric — and a belly’s worth of free samples from a cheesemonger who sliced his delectable offerings with care and precision. Farther up the street, we were ushered into a sweet shop whose colorful towers of painted tins contained a dizzying array of chocolates, biscuits and cookies — and more free samples. Finally, in an open-air stall down the block, we filled our shopping bags with farm-fresh romaine lettuce, fingerling potatoes and onions.