On the Red Mile at the Cordon Bleu

I really enjoyed watching the movie Julie and Julia as Julia Child went through her trials and tribulations and ultimately graduating from the Cordon Bleu Culinary Arts School in Paris.

Dressed in her crisp whites with the Cordon Bleu’s medal crest and the tall pristine toque blanche (white chef’s hat)

Dressed in her crisp whites with the Cordon Bleu’s medal crest and the tall pristine toque blanche (white chef’s hat)

I really enjoyed watching the movie Julie and Julia as Julia Child went through her trials and tribulations and ultimately graduating from the Cordon Bleu Culinary Arts School in Paris.

For me, watching a professional chef slice, chop, flip and toss together ingredients to turn them into an artistic masterpiece is truly an inspiring experience.

I have always wondered what it would be like to be a chef, so I was surprised when I was extended an opportunity to cook with a professional chef and doubly pleased when the school turned out to be none other than… the Cordon Bleu in Las Vegas.

Le Cordon Bleu, which means “Blue Ribbon” encompasses 22 international schools in 12 countries. The origin of the expression “Cordon Bleu” comes from the 1578 foundation of the Order of Knights of the Holy Spirit. The members of the order wore a medal suspended on a blue ribbon and their spectacular feasts became legendary.

The expression “Cordon Bleu” has since been applied to mean an outstanding chef.

Dressed in her crisp whites with the Cordon Bleu’s medal crest and the tall pristine toque blanche (white chef’s hat), Chef Caroline Kelliher, welcomed us to her school. The 400-year blue ribbon tradition was still strong. There was no doubt that we were in the presence of a skilled practitioner of an ancient craft — the culinary art.

After the introductions, Chef Caroline revealed what our day at the Cordon Bleu would entail; a tour of the College, followed by making of an Italian dessert called Panna Cotta, and then finishing off with by an elegant lunch served at their on campus restaurant, the Cafe Bleu.

Our tour began down the corridor branded the “ Red Mile.” It looked just like any other corridor, connecting lecture rooms and professional kitchen classes. But we learned that there were a lot of rituals associated with this corridor. Before classes begin, the students dressed in their cooking attire, all line up along the corridor outside the classroom. Then the whole school comes to life as everyone cheers, signalling that they are ready to start the day.

“It sometimes becomes very competitive,” says Chef Caroline, “because each class tries to out cheer the other.”

As the students symbolically walk down this mile, they work alongside experienced chef instructors to master technical, culinary, organizational, and managerial skill, with each skill building upon the other.

The most basic technical skill is taught during the earlier part of the Red Mile. “These skills are the basis of every chef’s talent”, describes Chef Caroline. Proficiency with knives, cooking methods, timing, mise en place (French for putting in place), sanitation, and culinary math, all fall within this category. Chef Caroline emphasized the importance of culinary math, “a chef needs to be able work out recipe costs, being able to change recipe yields and being able to convert ounces of flour to weight.”

The other skill taught is culinary. “Most chefs have a discriminating palate to begin, but training for the nuances of flavour and seasoning, new flavour combinations, creative plates and presentations are developed throughout the student’s teaching,” says Chef Caroline.

Finally, organizational and managerial skills are what distinguishes a cook from a chef. A chef is concerned with more than his own piece of the kitchen — they have the whole kitchen as a responsibility. They will have the knowledge to run the kitchen smoothly and efficiently while having the ability to work with people and get them to work for him.

Practical experience is attained at the end of Red Mile — at the Café Bleu. This is where my family was treated to an elegant lunch put on by the students. The Café Bleu is on-campus, open-to-the-public restaurant.

“Here, the students apply their culinary training and gain relevant experience in an active restaurant environment. It is an opportunity for the students to spend time at each of the various kitchen stations: hot, cold, pastry, prep, etc., and acquire experience in both front- and back-of-the-house functions.” Chef Caroline explained.

It takes a year to complete the academic culinary journey down the Red Mile. Once completed, part of the graduation ceremony involves the students walking through the corridor while fellow students and chefs give a congratulatory cheer. One students described this moment as “very emotional, because you feel a sense of accomplishment. It was hard work, but you made it!”

As we were touring the school, it wasn’t difficult to distinguish the students from the instructors. The students donned the short skull cap while the professional chef wore the prestigious white toque. “The toque is earned and signifies years of experience and commands respect,” explains chef Caroline. When a chef is giving instructions, “ there is silence. Once the Chef has completed giving instructions the student must respond back as ‘yes chef’” says Chef Caroline. “This communicates to the chef that student understood the instructions.”

Once the students finish their training, they still will not have the designation as a chef. Most will first be line cooks, then promoted as a Sous Chef (means working under an executive chef ) before attaining the title Executive Chef.

To give us a feeling as to what it would feel like to be student at the Cordon Bleu, Chef Caroline arranged for us to make an Italian dessert — the Panna Cotta. After first washing our hands we were each given a long apron and side towel. Working in our own station, Chef Caroline had already prepared the mise en place ahead of time. We were spoiled because the recipe was already reviewed, the utensils were already at our station and all the ingredients were premeasured.

As we heated, mixed, and dissolved, Chef Caroline watched and provided us with her expert advice.

After the panna cotta was poured into moulds, they were chilled to set. Then we gathered our dirty utensils and did the dishes. A student at the Cordon Bleu is required to clean up and we were not given any preferential treatment when it came to this task.

After the panna cotta had set, it was time to plate our dessert.

“Plating food” refers to placing food on a plate in as appealing a manner as possible. Presentation is a very important part of the dining experience because we eat with our eyes first,” explained Chef Caroline.

After demonstrating how to garnish with raspberries and whipped cream, chef Caroline then encouraged us to give plating a try. And we tried . . . what we lacked in the skills we made up in enthusiasm!

This marked the end of our experience at the Cordon Bleu. As I am writing this article, my daughter says, “going to the Cordon Bleu was the most exciting thing we did in Las Vegas!”

As a foodie, I totally agree! I can almost fantasize my daughter as the Julie and me being the Julia!

If you’d like to see more about the Cordon Bleu School in Las Vegas, please visit their website http://www.chefs.edu/Las-Vegas

Panna Cotta

10 oz milk

10 oz heavy cream

4 oz sugar

1.5 tsp gelatin ( or use 2.5 sheets)

1 tsp Vanilla extract

Heat the milk, cream and sugar until the sugar is dissolved. Soften the gelatin sheet in cold water. Add the softened gelatin to the hot milk mixture and stir until dissolved. Stir in the vanilla. Pour into 90 or 125 ml moulds. Chill until set. Unmould garnish with whipped cream and fresh fruit.

Madhu Badoni is a Red Deer-based freelance food writer. She can be reached at madhubadoni@gmail.com. Watch for Madhu’s Masala-Mix blog on bprda.wpengine.com.

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