Café de Paris
Not long ago, I took a French-cooking class. I love food, I thought it would be a fun thing to do, and I wanted to see how the Chef conducted the class. With the threat of a snow storm looming, I trundled out of my own kitchen to the local French restaurant, Café de Paris. Its a lovely place, with a warm, hospitable atmosphere that serves a small menu of great French food. Over the years the the attitude of the menus has varied a bit as have the chefs, but the current offerings are earthy, classic, and wonderfully prepared.
At the helm of the restaurant is Erik Rochard, who left Citronelle in Georgetown to open and manage his own restaurant in the DC-Baltimore suburbs in the 1990s – and we have been patrons since he first opened. Erik is warm and welcoming and regularly hugs and kisses his customers, but he also is the mastermind behind Café de Paris. “My idea was first to demystify French cooking. Second, it was to create a neighborhood French restaurant, the type found throughout France,” states Erik.
Café de Paris, Interior
He and his staff have done this and more. One of the things I love about the restaurant is the homey feel. A few weeks ago, we ate an unrushed lunch – a couple’s day out – that took about 2 hours. The service was great, we were just allowed to relax and enjoy some fabulous food. For the duration of our meal three older men held court at the corner of the bar, sipping drinks, gossiping and waiting for something to happen – just like they do in the small towns in France. Beyond the atmosphere, is the great food. The dishes are memorable. Sometimes we reminisce over the Escargot a l’ail or one of the wonderful region dishes on the menu like theCassoulet Toulousain with roasted duck and a lamb sausage served over white beans in a light sauce. Having enjoyed meals at the restaurant so often, I had to get behind the scenes.
We started with coffee and croissants at the bar – a very civilized way to begin. Lots of people knew each other from previous classes and chatted. Those of us new to the classes introduced ourselves. There were about 20 people in all – a much larger group than I expected. Just as we filed into the kitchen, the snow started to fall – an auspicious sign.
Chopping the Veg
The menu for the day was a lobster risotto, a paella, and profiteroles for dessert. On the fly, Chef Laurent Girard added a dish. A starter soup called Sorpa, which unbeknownst to him has Silk Road roots – but that is a story for another day and another blog. Also, with on-the-fly creativity, he decided what sort of paella to make. He changed his mind a few times, but finally settled on a dish featuring rabbit and chicken. He asked questions to see what we knew about food and what we liked, like: “Who has cooked risotto before?” . . . “How did you do it?” The Chefs easy, salt-of-the-earth manner – I’d bet he is from the South of France – made for instant camaraderie in the group. When he had his class sussed, he introduced a few basic concepts, but then put us to work, we now had a four-course meal for 20 to prepare in a couple of hours.
Making Lobster Stock
Some started to chop vegetables, others beat eggs until they were light and frothy for the profiterole filling, and still others started to remove the lobsters from their shells – a job which is a lot harder to do well when they are raw. With the number of cooks in the prep room, some of the tasks got done very quickly – like chopping the vegetables, and others took a bit longer and were shared because of aching arms – like mixing the flour for the profiteroles.
We bantered as we worked, trading stories. Some of my fellow classmates were discussing the virtues of grits and the Chef asked, “What are grits?” I quickly answered, “Polenta,” which although not absolutely correct, gave him a mental milestone to understand the conversation. I identified a fellow biological scientist by her use of the word, “recombinant”. She was there with her almost adult kids. There was a senior nurse involved in health research, a paralegal and several govvies. What bound us all together was our love of food.
Chef Laurent with Pastry Bag
As time elapsed, the activity grew more frenetic and scattered between the prep room and the kitchen. The Chef called out directions to us in English, “You, bring this almost to boil and then let it simmer,” Or bellowed to his wife and fellow chef – Anais – in French to get something for him. Speaking of Anais and the other cooks and interns, thanks for helping us out. I know you were there to do the real business of the restaurant – getting the lunch and dinner prepped and cooked for the paying customers – but the class would have run a lot less smoothly without your help.
Butchering the Meat
Chef Laurent really shone as he showed us the proper way to butcher the rabbits and the chicken for the paella. He told us that his grandfather was a butcher and that he grew up in his shop. He said that when he was a boy, he and his whole family expected him to follow in his “grandperes” footsteps. “Bam!” fell the heavy cleaver “Let the weight of the knife do the work for you,” he explained. “Bam! Bam!” again and the coneys were disjointed and chopped into serving pieces Even as a former prosector for the Harvard/MIT anatomy class, I have to say I was impressed by the speed and precision of his work.
Celebrating with Sparkling Wine
I have to say that when Erik broke out the sparkling wine, the class kind of fell apart. People who were not actively engaged in a task kind of drifted into the hallway to share a drink and some conversation – which is fine. Those who wanted to remain engaged, managed to do. In the kitchen, the paella was cooking cooking, the sorpa was simmering, the two types of profiteroles were baking – which made the kitchen smell dreamy – and the risotto was being steadily stirred. Chef Laurent or his wife, were tasting and advising on the completion of the meal.
Baked Pastry for Profiteroles
When the pastry for the profiteroles was done, the class fell all over the savory bites. We popped them in our mouths and let the cheese and herbs melt until only the “sweet” pastries remained. When they had cooled, we began to slice them and prepare the desserts.
Paella with Rabbit, Mussles and Chicken
We grated some good, aged parmesan for the risotto and when it was nearly done, added it to the pot. The paella was almost done with the aroma of the roast chicken and rabbit filling the air, and the frantic feeling that had cme before was gone. Perhaps it was the wine or perhaps it was the knowledge that the meal was almost ready, but the mood became relaxed and jovial as we wandered off to the dining room to sample our creations.
All in all it was a great experience. I knew a lot about cooking when I went into the class, and I learned a lot too. Best of all were the little hints, such as dab a bit of pastry dough on the underside of the baking paper to prevent it from moving around during prep. Or cover the profiterole filling with cling-wrap to prevent the formation of a scum layer on the top. The easy way to fill a pastry bag is to drape the bag over a large open can – don’t try to fill it when its floppy and without support. These may seem simple, but knowledge of them can save time and suffering in the kitchen.
Another thing I learned is now relaxed and easy some cooking classes could be. I had imagined each of us with our our work stations like a dolled-up set on TV and the Chef critiqing our technique. No, we were dicing, grating, stirring or chopping in nearly every available space with twenty people in the prep room. Interestingly for me, the change of venue was a world away from how I usually cook. Digging out old recipes or descriptions of dishes from my travels, if necessary doing further researchon them, along with the trial and error of recipe development is mostly a solitary set of tasks. The kitchen at Café de Paris was an intensely social experience and that was very different from what I am used to. I had to control my naturally bossy tendencies and fall back into the crowd which was also a bit challenging as well. But what I learned is that working with others can be both fun and delicious. (Words by Laura Kelley. All photos by Jeff Kubina.)