Sacre Cordon Bleu: What the French know about cooking, By Michael Booth

L'escargot and pigeon on a fresh bed of soil

David Phelan
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:10

If you've ever wanted to better yourself in the kitchen, Michael Booth's gloriously funny account of his nine months in a French cookery school may inspire you – or at least make you feel less guilty for using pre-grated cheese.

With a childhood diet of chips and Tunnock's tea cakes, a pre-teen Booth approached a family trip to France with a dread of eating "slugs' brains and horse doings". The discovery that he liked French cuisine was a revelation. As an adult travel writer and journalist with a more conventional palate, Booth became increasingly disappointed by cookbooks ("Recipes don't work. There. I have said it"). So he decided to enrol himself on the famously challenging Le Cordon Bleu cookery course in Paris.

The resulting chronicle begins with Booth throwing Delia, Jamie and other cookbooks on the bonfire and moving his family to France. At the school he learns the best way to kill lobsters and how to keep a chopping board secure. He gorges on chocolate-coated seaweed at the world's largest gathering of chocolate makers, and fights to earn the respect of snooty traders at his local food market. It is engaging, insightful, informative and even touching, but, mostly, just very funny. Booth veers between self-deprecation, bewildered outrage (at the school's unembarrassed use of packets of pre-grated cheese, for instance) and measured advice. He analyses French cookery and where it's going, provides mouth-watering reviews of some leading French restaurants and even includes a few recipes – which he insists are more free-ranging suggestions than tie-you-down instructions. In one he advises: "Continue to stir as vigorously as you can until either all the butter is incorporated or you have a stroke."

Booth seems as keen to improve the reader's knowledge and skills as he does his own, so there are cookery tips galore ("Did you know that lemon juice intensifies the salt in a dish? Me neither") and opinions firmly expressed on why restaurant food tastes better than home cooking and why Teflon is the work of the devil ("You don't want non-stick. You want stick!").

His family tire of eating pigeon during a series of culinary experiments. And while one of his children seems to have the same near-hysterical reaction to eating vegetables as Booth once had, at least his 18-month-old son Emil wolfs down the food greedily : "He seemed to appreciate my cooking most of all. Then again, bearing in mind that we would often catch him eating soil, this was no ringing endorsement."

Classes make Booth accident-prone, whether it be slicing his hand open at his first practical or unintentionally stealing and ruining another student's pastry at another. Just as enjoyable as his accounts of the lessons are his attempts to impress fellow students and chefs: "'Sushi is my absolutely favourite food,' I answered (although, truthfully, Milky Ways probably shade it)." All this in a city where his neighbours have window-ledge sex and the Metro police regard his Cordon Bleu school membership with awe.

After struggling through three terms of Le Cordon Bleu, plus a crash course in chocolate at the Ecole Ritz Escoffier, Booth even takes up a placement in a Michelin-starred restaurant to see if the life of the professional chef would appeal, and is thrown in at the deep end in a scarily hectic kitchen as the diners arrive.

As an account of a foodie's dream come true it's absorbing and informative, but it's Booth's style that's irresistible. His food descriptions are the passionate conclusions of a self-confessed glutton: "Warmed through, foie gras tastes richer and more savoury... and it melts like hot butter in your mouth before dispersing quickly through your bloodstream and blocking your arteries as effectively as putty seals a draughty window."

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