It's time for a serious post.
I've had two weeks to reflect on my courses at Le Cordon Bleu since graduation. After responding to an eGullet forum here, I became even more motivated to share my thoughts on the whole experience. Here's the question that many readers pose to me: "Should I go to Cordon Bleu?"
To blindly recommend or not recommend a school isn't something that I'm comfortable doing. After all, it depends on your personality, your background, what you want out of it, and countless other factors that are unique to each person. The question I usually want to ask is, "What do you want out of a cooking school?" Once those factors are laid out, you can make a more informed decision.
So what I can do is lay out some observations and my own opinions, then let you decide for yourself. A warning- this post will be long, but thoroughness is what I will strive for, not brevity. And feel free to pose more questions in the comment section or email me directly- I know I can't address every possible thing you might want to know.
To understand where I'm coming from, here's a little background on me:
- Chinese American, 25, from the SF Bay Area
- No professional cooking experience, just a few months as a Sur La Table volunteer in their cooking classes and some private catering gigs
- Big-time restaurant goer, my passion is food of any kind
- I live to eat and travel, and my past jobs in the corporate world just didn't allow me to do enough of both!
- Didn't speak French- only a quick beginner's class at a community college before moving to Paris
- What I wanted out of LCB? To learn the French techniques from the ground up, to learn sauces and stocks and knife skills, to learn how to be creative with food. Eventually hoping to make a career out in the food industry, not necessarily as a chef, but in related fields such as food writing, recipe testing, and food styling.
- Why not pastry and just cuisine? Pure and simple- money. I could only afford one diploma, and baking is something I already did a lot of at home. Handling a whole fish? No experience whatsoever. Choice was easy.
- Why Paris? Why not Paris? I loved the city, wanted to learn French, and figured that if I was going to go back to school, to choose a completely foreign place where I could discover more of myself & another culture.
A few facts about the school:
- There are LCB schools and schools that offer LCB certificates and diplomas. The difference: LCB schools are actual schools, run by LCB chefs, and there aren't that many of them. In fact, the US only offers certificate and diploma programs at technical schools. What's the difference? I honestly can't tell you since I've only experienced one side of the coin, but I do know that LCB school chefs are highly experienced and trained, travel the world, and offered me a lot.
- You have to track through the program their way. No matter how experienced you are, you cannot skip Basic classes and jump right into Intermediate & Superior. In a way, it's annoying- professionals will be bored and wish there was a technical test that they can take so that they do not waste time & money learning things like basic knife skills.
- You CAN fail the classes. It happens more in pastry than cuisine, but if your mousse doesn't set during the final exam and you've missed a few classes, you fail. And that means that you have to retake the class (& repay the course fee) or just quit altogether.
- The format is a demonstration class followed by a practical class where you go into the kitchen and make what the chef just showed you. For Basic & Intermediate, demo classes are translated into English, but there is no translation in the practicals. Not a big deal if you know a few words of French- you'll pick up the terms quickly. In Superior, no more translation, but you should be comfortable enough at that point to understand the cooking terms. Not many people had trouble in Superior, even if they had poor French speaking skills (myself included).
- It's expensive. No matter how you look at it, in dollars or Euros, a Cuisine Diplôme will cost you at least $25,000. Included is a knife kit, uniforms, and all food costs. A student bar night and a student dinner is also included in each course.
- Check the schedule to see how long the breaks are between courses. I somehow ended up with a 2-month gap, which afforded me time to travel. However, the school should have told me that I could have taken Intensive classes during that time period to speed up my diploma. This would have given me the option to shorten my stay in Paris should I have wished, and would save on 2 month's living expenses. A normal gap is about 1.5 weeks between courses.
- Housing is not provided, the school has some resources and references, but you might be on your own for the search.
Here are my observations (call them gripes, compliments, or what you will):
- The Paris school is overcrowded. When I first started in August 2005, we were the largest class the school had ever seen (about 70 in Basic Cuisine + Pastry). Now each class is approximately that large, with extra tourist and intensive classes thrown in there. Factor in only 2 demonstration rooms and 4 kitchens, and there are just too many students to handle.
This means not enough lockers, bad scheduling, and not enough chefs to staff the practical classes.
- Bad scheduling. Because of overcrowding and probably because of lame French scheduling, your schedule changes EVERY DAY. You would think that a constant number of classes per week (3 demos, 3 practicals) would make it easy for them to provide a set schedule, but that does not happen. Instead, you can have one class at 8:30AM Monday morning, then not another one until 6:30PM on Wednesday evening. This makes it very difficult to hold part-time jobs or take language classes.
- The proliferation of "fake" chefs. In Basic Cuisine, we always had a real LCB Paris chef in our practical classes. In Superior Cuisine, we constantly had temporary chefs, "fake" chefs, who came from outside restaurants or were freelance chefs, whatever that means. These chefs had no idea how things were done in the school, yet were expected to evaluate and teach us. It was extremely frustrating, especially when your chef for practical is a 23-year old girl who has never run her own kitchen but just happens to work in a famous restaurant in Paris. (For example, it turns out she had learned to turn mushrooms a few hours before class from another LCB chef and was now teaching us!) I paid a lot of tuition money, and I don't think it is unreasonable to expect to have a real chef in my class. If this had happened once or twice, I would chalk it up to a temporary staffing shortage. However, the fact that it happened frequently was just plain unacceptable.
- Bad ingredients. Towards the end of Superior, we got rotten potatoes. Rotten potatoes. I say again, rotten potatoes. More than once. How a school who sources directly from produce buyers, who go through loads of it every day, can get rotten potatoes is beyond me. Many times we moaned and complained over baskets of ingredients that were moldy, bruised, or just plain subpar. While the meat and fish were usually of a good quality, it was frustrating to get such unpredictability in our ingredients.
- Chefs. The real chefs at LCB are extremely talented. Yes, we sometimes thought their plating ideas were a little strange or their methods a little outdated, but I learned a lot from them. They really love food, most really care that the students are learning, and they encourage questions. They were also typically French and quite chauvinistic, but overall, I enjoyed my interactions with them. They were just as frustrated as we were with the overcrowding of the school and the quality of the ingredients.
- Techniques. Knife skills, butchering skills, filleting skills, sauce skills. All taught masterfully, and you leave confident enough to do so much more than what you knew to begin with.
- Facilities. The school desperately needs new facilities. In the last few weeks of my time there, the ventilation system was barely working, refrigerators in the kitchens were out, and sometimes even the stoves would short. I cannot imagine those poor students slaving away in the heat wave we are going through right now. Get a new building!
- Recipes. Basic Cuisine taught us a lot about classical French food. A great building block, but Intermediate Cuisine was a lot of forcemeat and cabbage. Superior Cuisine didn't offer an outlet for creativity that I had hoped for- in fact, some of the recipes were so simple we finished in less than 1.5 hours. We were allowed to be creative in the final, yet had never really practiced experimenting on our own and were never given any ideas on how to put together composed plates. Plus, they never showed us how to plate 4 identical plates at the same time (like we have to do in the final). It was a figure-it-out mentality, which I feel is completely against the purpose of having the school there.
- Communication. It's great before you arrive at the school. Once you're there, random signs, emails, or announcements during class are made for changes in the schedule or upcoming events. My advice: make friends who will tell you if you've missed something, otherwise don't count on the school to have a consistent method of telling you what's going on.
- Grades. The grades really don't mean anything. Trust me. From a purely analytical standpoint, there is no way that 50 students can all be judged on the same plane if they all have different chefs staffing their practical groups at different times, all with different grading methods. Some chefs never gave 5's (the highest grade) out of principle, some gave them out consistently. Yes, you get ranked at the end, but the rankings always held an element of surprise. I've heard stories of people who didn't know how to take the breasts off a pigeon in Superior Cuisine (which ended up on our Final Exam) placing in the top 5 of the class. Forget being competitive- just go there to learn.
- Stage placement. Getting an internship through the school was easy for some, frustrating for others. The school has great connections with top French chefs, and know of classmates staging at Guy Savoy, Jöel Robuchon, and Pierre Hermé. A great stepping stone for those who want to work in Michelin-starred restaurants in Paris.
I don't consider myself a negative person. In fact, if you read what I've been writing about the school in past entries, I'm quite positive about many things. I held off writing this diatribe because I wanted to finish my LCB schooling, do some reflection, and really compose my thoughts before penning it. Hindsight always helps, and to be honest, many of my classmates share a lot of the opinions and observations I've made above.
I look at my time here in Paris to include the fact that I'm living in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. I fell in love with Paris the first time I stepped foot in it, and the chance to live here and cook was something I couldn't resist. The school has problems, many just technical ones that a good consultant or manager can come in and fix, but it captures a love for the French lifestyle and cuisine that you can't find anywhere else. I know nothing about the other cooking schools here in Paris, so don't ask me to compare it against Lenôtre or the Ritz (Cindy of Food Migration has thoughts here)- you're better off talking to others who have gone there and draw your own conclusions as to the best school for you. Better yet, visit the schools yourself if you have a chance.
I might still do a few entries on things regarding school, but I thought this a fitting conclusion to end my journey here. I have absolutely no regrets about choosing LCB Paris. But then again, I'm not a regrets kind of girl. Good or bad, you learn from whatever situation you're in. A wiser person you will become.
As to the future, it's anybody's guess. I plan to keep up this blog from wherever I'm roaming off to. There's no better appetite than one for travel and food, at least in my book!