I arrive at Michel Rostang's restaurant in Paris with the nervous anticipation of a noviciate into a secret order. I'm about to experience a "unique and one-on-one" internship in the kitchens of an esteemed Michelin-starred chef. Not only does L'Ecole des Chefs cost an arm and a leg (around £1,000 for two days) but it will also vet your suitability before it lets you in. In short, it's possibly the most elite cookery school in the world.
Jacques-Olivier Chauvin, CEO of Relais & Chateaux, the hotel and restaurant association which runs the programme, calls it a "pilgrimage" for the participants, many of whom have to save up to afford the experience. Only around 30 people a year are allowed to take part, and these chosen few get the pick of 100 Relais & Chateaux chefs located in 17 different countries, including Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Michel Troisgros or Alain Passard.
Matching clients with chefs is "a real psychological exercise" according to Chauvin: "We have to be very careful in sending the right person to the right place." Not just for the client's satisfaction, but also to protect the chefs, for "it is a gesture of openness, to allow someone to observe them. And probably it requires a certain level of maturity in the career of the chef; he should have really achieved something before allowing someone in his kitchen."
I'm worried Michel Rostang will regret allowing me into his inner sanctum at his eponymous restaurant. He represents the fifth generation of a family of chefs from the Dauphiné region of France and is famous for his way with truffles (he gets through 100kg a year). Combine his respect for French traditions with a wine cellar containing rare bottles of Château Latour (highlights include 1875 and 1945 vintages) and you have an experience that's a celebration of French culinary heritage.
As soon as I arrive, Rostang introduces me to the highlight of the day's deliveries: a "chapon de Bresse". "It's the Chanel of chickens," he beams, cradling it fondly. It looks like it came here via the beauty salon; a crimson comb crowns its head, which is surrounded by a glossy ruff of white feathers. Plucked and de-fluffed to perfection, it's covered in fancy tags, ribbons and rings. It's the only bird in the world that can boast an appellation d'origine controllée and it's fed on corn, bread and milk.
After a quick shot of coffee I'm given a set of chef's overalls and a white apron which wraps around the waist. I'm shown how to tuck a tea towel into the waistband of my apron and - my favourite detail - given a tasting spoon to tuck into my breast pocket.
Naturally, most people who take part in L'Ecole des Chefs want to come away having learnt a few recipes, but the real point is to make the most of a rare opportunity to observe the kitchen staff as they go about their work. Sensing that how much I learn depends partly on how much effort I make, I blast Rostang with questions. He is teaching me his great-great grandfather's recipe for gratin dauphinois which involves slicing the potatoes with a mandoline. "Don't soak your potatoes in water prior to slicing them," he says. "This will make them lose their starch which is needed for the dish's texture."
I fire question after question at Rostang as he instructs me to keep my eye on the razor-sharp blade. I want to know where he buys his knives, what sort of butter we're using, what the sous chef is fiddling with in the corner. And while we're about it, I want to unlock the mysteries of the potato, dammit. Rostang gets more and more agitated as my fingers veer closer to the blade. It's only when I slice the tip of my finger that I'm finally silenced.
I ask Rostang what the rules of a Michelin kitchen are. "There are no written rules but there are rules in the head. It's essential to have cleanliness, order, punctuality and discipline." He hesitates for a moment before adding, "And not too much talking, because you have to concentrate on your work. It's necessary to be very strict about this."
We run through a number of recipes on the day's menu, all of which are surprisingly simple, such as a toasted truffle sandwich even a clueless student could muster, given a large enough trust fund. But when will I be initiated into the secret spells of the magic circle of Michelin chefs? When do I learn the conjuring tricks, the know-how, all that mysterious sorcery of high French cuisine?
According to Rostang, it's all fairly simple. Forget the fancy Italian-designed surroundings: the two kitchen essentials to turn out Michelin-quality fare are a really big frying pan and a large gas flame. And the best knives are made in France (of course).
By 11.45am, the kitchen has been abandoned. The surfaces have been wiped down and all evidence of food preparation hidden away. The "brigade" has escaped to the backyard where, true to cliché, they drag on cigarettes and knock back espressos. I can't help noticing some impressive burn scars on their hands, putting my mandoline wound into perspective. At noon, everyone returns to their stations, having changed from blue aprons into proper pristine chef's whites.
The dining-room lights dim. Then, bang - it's as if 40 guests enter the restaurant simultaneously, and the race begins. Waiters with slicked-back hair dive in and out like fishing cormorants. I'm expecting to witness temper tantrums à la Gordon Ramsay, but the only expletive I hear is a slightly menacing "merde" from Rostang when someone knocks over a starter. The rest of the time he calmly surveys the scene as his staff prepare and plate dishes with the agility of capoeira dancers in a Channel ferry cabin. Suddenly, the kitchen is suffused with the scent of truffles as a wooden box is carried through. Long after it's disappeared, the perfume remains - so thick you can almost feel it.
After two hours things start to calm down and I'm ushered to a table where I get to consume some of the dishes I've witnessed being prepared. The gratin dauphinois and roast wild duck are a match made in cardiac-arrest heaven. Suddenly, the genius of simplicity becomes apparent. Why fuss unnecessarily? Allow the best ingredients to speak for themselves. Great cuisine doesn't have to be a matter of complication but, if you want to get into Michelin territory, a fat wallet helps, whether you choose to dine out or eat in. s
For details on L'Ecole des Chefs, as well as on group classes (also available), contact Mario Pellerin, tel: 00 33 1 5818 3000 or visit www.relaischateaux.com
Warm, crunchy tart of raw salmon and thick cream with melted onions
300g/101/2oz puff pastry
2 fillets (1.5kg/31/3lb) fresh salmon
200g/7oz thick cream
2 large onions
60g/2oz salmon eggs
1/2 bunch dill
Salt and pepper
2 egg yolks
Heat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas6. Chop up the onions extremely finely and sweat them in the butter over a medium heat without letting them brown for 30 minutes. Drain with a sieve. Once cooled, mix the onions into the cream and season well.
Using a serrated ham knife, slice the salmon fillets very, very finely - roughly the thickness of smoked salmon.
Roll out the pastry and divide it into 6 tarts by using a pastry cutter or cutting round a 120ml (4fl oz) vol-au-vent circle. It's very important to cut the edges neatly to stop the sheets of pastry binding together. This will not only stop it from puffing up but also help prevent it from forming a thick crust around the edges.
With a brush, paint the tops of the tarts twice over with the egg yolk. Once the coating has dried, bake the tarts for 10 to 12 minutes in the warm oven until the pastry is brown and brittle. Allow to cool on a metal rack, to prevent the pastry from softening with condensation.
Spread the cold cream and onion mixture over the top of the warm tarts (these can be prepared in advance and reheated). Cover the entire tart entirely with 3 to 4 slices of raw salmon, and season. Place 10g (1/3oz) of salmon eggs on the centre of each tart and sprinkle dill over the centre of the eggs. Serve the tart while still warm, accompanied by the rest of the cream and onion mixture in a separate sauce boat.
Sardine club sandwich
200g/7oz fromage frais (St-Moret if you can get it)
100g/3oz tinned sardines in oil
100g/3oz creamed butter
Pinch of salt and pepper
Juice of half a lemon
1 soup spoon Dijon mustard
12 slices sourdough bread (Poilâne is ideal)
Drain the sardines, remove the spinal cords and crumble. At room temperature, mix the creamed butter and fromage frais. Add the lemon juice and mustard, mixing well with a wooden spoon. Add the drained sardines and continue to mix. Put in a cool place for 2 hours.
Spread the mixture between two slices of bread and toast on both sides under a grill for 3 minutes. Slice each into four and decorate with a herb salad or lamb's lettuce. (omega)
Sandwich of fresh truffles with butter
230g/8oz black truffle (tuber melanosporum)
200g/7oz semi-salted butter
12 slices of French bread (again, Poilâne is ideal)
Salt and pepper
30ml/1fl oz sherry vinegar
100ml/3fl oz peanut oil
Cut 180g (61/3oz) of the truffles into slices, 2-3mm thick. Butter the bread and spread the truffles on every second slice, allowing about 30g (11/2oz) per person. Close the sandwich and wrap in clingfilm and chill for two days.
Finely chop the remaining truffle, add to the peanut oil and infuse overnight. Grill on both sides until golden.
Add the vinegar to the oil and season. Serve hot with a salad of rocket dressed with truffle vinaigrette.
Jo Rostang's gratin dauphinois
500g/171/2oz firm fleshed potatoes
550ml/1pint fluid cream
400ml/14fl oz milk
1 clove garlic
Salt and pepper
Heat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas4. Rub a gratin dish with the cut surface of the garlic clove and butter. Peel the potatoes and, using a mandoline, slice them finely, so that they are transparent when held up to the light.
In a bowl, moisten the potatoes with the milk and 200g (7oz) of cream. Allow to soak for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Pour into the dish, season, put on the hob and when it starts to boil, scatter on a few knobs of butter and place in the oven, reducing the heat to 150C/300/Gas2, for an hour. Skim off any brown patches. Add the rest of the cream. Return to the oven for another hour. Serve hot.Reuse content