Early on in Julia Child's autobiography, My Life in France, the California-born chef recalls a significant encounter in 1950, one that would change her life – and American cooking – for ever. "Out of curiosity, I dropped by L'Ecole du Cordon Bleu, Paris's famous cooking school," she writes. "There, professional chefs taught traditional French cooking to serious students from all over the world. After attending a demonstration one afternoon, I was hooked. The next class began in October. I signed myself up for a six-week intensive course, and smacked my lips in anticipation of the great day."
Child, who later introduced French cuisine to her homeland via seminal books such as Mastering the Art of French Cooking, clearly understood the weight and esteem of Le Cordon Bleu. In short, for those passionate about French gastronomy, it is Mecca.
Founded in Paris in 1895, after La Cuisinière Cordon Bleu, a culinary magazine, decided to offer cooking classes to subscribers in the hope of promoting readership, Le Cordon Bleu quickly established itself as the most prestigious and revered cooking school in the world. Since 1984 it has been owned by André Cointreau, the scion of the illustrious Cointreau and Remy-Martin families, who now presides over a cooking empire comprised of more than 40 schools operating in over 20 countries, annually training more than 20,000 students in the culinary arts, hospitality and management.
Last month, Le Cordon Bleu opened a new International Flagship Institute in Bloomsbury Square, London. While there has been a school in Marylebone since 1933, this move has exciting implications. Firstly, the new state-of-the-art, seven-storey development has room for up to 700 students, more than twice the capacity of the previous school. That means it can offer a host of new opportunities, including short courses (and for the first time, a one-day lesson) and wine courses. Secondly, and perhaps most significantly, the move is a huge vote of confidence in London as a culinary capital.
"London is a wonderful city and our students love it," Cointreau says. "I feel there has been a vibrant buzz in London for the last 10 years and a growing recognition of culinary arts there. It was interesting for us to have our shining star there; it made sense."
Of course, the famous and coveted Grand Diplôme, an intense nine-month programme in cuisine and pastry, will continue to be offered. It might set you back a whopping £27,750, but it is still considered "the passport to the culinary world".
Those who have graduated from such an intensive course are extremely attractive to employers and the schools have an extensive network of partners, meaning chances of employment upon finishing the course are high. And despite the current economic climate, applications for the hallowed course rose by 25 per cent in the last 18 months. It is, by any measure, a worthy investment. But not everyone who attends the school is looking for a career in food; Le Cordon Bleu also caters every year to thousands of passionate foodies who have always dreamt of studying at the distinguished school and may be more tempted by one of the shorter courses on offer.
But don't expect to come out of these programmes with a list of dishes that you will be able to cook; courses are designed to teach skill, technique, creativity and innovation rather than specific recipes.
So what is it that makes Le Cordon Bleu so special? "It is a few things," Cointreau says. "We became very international, very quickly, and have continued to be. We are also very industry driven; our teachers come from inside the industry. Le Cordon Bleu's reputation today is nothing else but the repeated success of our students." Later this month will see the opening of the first Café Le Cordon Bleu in Europe, as part of the new development in Bloomsbury Square, which devoted followers will be pleased to discover has a façade that has been made to resemble Le Cordon Bleu Paris as it was in the 1950s. Selling all the usual suspects – tartes au citron, éclairs, baguettes, pains au chocolat et al – they will also offer a basic lunch menu including soup, quiche, salads and sandwiches.
While that might not sound particularly cutting edge, you can be sure to expect a high standard: all the food in the café is freshly made by the school's master chefs. So even if you don't have the inclination (not to mention the money) to study at Le Cordon Bleu, you can at least get a little peek into a genuine institution, all for the price of a loaf of bread.