I'm Still Thinking About That Time I Took Cooking Classes at the Ritz
Fifteen years ago, on my first trip overseas, I committed an epic gaffe on an Air France flight. As a flight attendant welcomed me aboard with a glass of Champagne, she asked, "Parlez-vous Français?" Four semesters of college French had at the very least equipped me to utter the proper response. Instead, I panicked, responding—in English—"Uh…I speak American?" American. The shame of that moment was seared into the strands of my DNA, rendering me incapable of uttering a word of French with confidence ever since.
Fast-forward to 2019, and that enduring shame gave rise to a deep anxiety about attending culinary classes—taught in French—at one of the world's most exquisite culinary schools: the École Ritz Escoffier, tucked in the subterranean labyrinth of the Ritz Paris. But when your editor proposes a trip to France, you swallow your fear, download a translation app on your phone, and allez.
A few months later, clad in a faux-velvet jacket hastily purchased from H&M, I tried my best to blend in as a first-class Air France passenger. Haunted by my previous linguistic misdeeds, I kept the talking to a minimum, clinging to my life rafts, "oui" and "merci." Champagne? "Oui, merci!" Complimentary in-flight toiletries and a satin eye pillow? "Oui, merci!" A three-course menu curated by chef Daniel Rose starring butter-poached lobster, with wine pairings and a glass of Calvados to wrap things up? "Oui, merci BEAUCOUP!"
Nine hours later, jet-lagged in my now faux-crushed-velvet jacket, I stood in the grand lobby of the Ritz, mouth agape, bleary eyes wide. It's everything you'd imagine: soaring, gilded, gently yet richly fragrant—a cathedral of luxury. Though I half-expected the bevy of uniformed bellhops to sniff out the Mississippi in me and immediately deposit me on the curb like a trespassing racoon, they welcomed me with smiling, graceful eyes and French-intoned English. I was in. Time to go to school.
Day 1: Le Massacre Du Poulet
I had three days of culinary instruction ahead of me—one day on the "professional" track, followed by two days of "community" classes (like a Wednesday night at Williams Sonoma, times a thousand). After donning a white chef's coat and capping off my costume with an absurdly towering paper toque, the day's lessons began. With a dedicated translator by my side (thank God), I listened as the chef-instructor guided the class of four career-track chefs through an overview of the day, which included lessons on making stock, turning vegetables, and roasting squab. And then we turned to le poulet.
The chicken arrived barely dead. Just in case, we proceeded to make very sure. First, off with his head! Then came a flurry of feather plucking, followed by a full-body blowtorching. (Despite my fears, I set neither the chicken nor the Ritz on fire.) Next, through some insanely meticulous knife work, I (mostly) deboned the bird and ended with a Mortal Kombat–style kill move, whereby I plucked the skeleton from the defeated corpse, barely refraining from holding it aloft in victory. Sans skeleton, the Creature Formerly Known as a Chicken needed some structure, so I piped in a meat-based stuffing, trussed it shut, laid it on a funeral pyre of hay inside a Dutch oven, and then sealed it in with a braid of bread dough and popped it in the oven for a final immolation. Je suis désolé, Monsieur Poulet. Au revoir.
Day 2: Les Poissons Terribles
The second day was a more casual class, open to the general public and thus filled with everyone from vacationing aunts to Christmas-gift-redeeming couples. After learning how to roll perfectly ridged gnocchi using our thumbs and a dinner fork, we tackled a much more visceral task—skinning a monkfish. If you're not familiar, monkfish is the most ghastly looking fish in the sea. Dark, mottled gray with a flat body and a wide, tooth-filled mouth that orthodontics forgot, it looks like a cartoon version of a fish, crushed yet inexplicably clinging to life. To add insult to the injury of its mere existence, we were tasked with removing its skin and cutting fillets to simmer in a rich chorizo-and-mussel emulsion. Our charming and mischievous instructor showed us the way, deftly swiping her knife along the flesh and proudly holding the freshly freed skin high for all to see. "If you do it correctly," she said, grinning, "the skin should look like a pair of—how do you say?—women's underwear!" As a gay man, I admittedly don't know much about this subject. Perhaps monkfish is the next leopard print? Je ne sais pas.
Day 3: Le Miracle De La Pâtisserie
On the schedule for my final day: a "beginner's" pastry class. On the syllabus: mousse-filled, ganache-dipped pâte à choux éclairs; lemon curd tartlets with steamed meringue; and crisp, hazelnut praline–drizzled meringues. You know, the basics. I don't bake much in my own country; the precision and fastidiousness of pastry is not my culinary love language. But surprisingly, spending the day with absolute strangers as we worked our way through each technique and component was quite thrilling. Sure, there were some mishaps. Did some éclairs get overfilled and erupt like a ganache geyser? Certainement. But at the end of the day, I was quite proud of the box of pastries I presented to my husband. "You made these?" he asked, skeptically. "Oui!"
I left the Ritz a changed man. Sure, my jacket was still crumpled. My French? Still embarrassing. But I walked away markedly less paralyzed by pastry. In fact, upon returning home, I attempted one of the recipes—the éclairs—and succeeded without a single Old Faithful event. And while I won't be quitting my day job to open a French patisserie, I will be tying on my Ritz apron to tackle the ethereal hazelnut meringues that still whisper from my dreams. It's just the sort of delicious challenge that I now face with a sense of mischief rather than trepidation. Surviving a trip outside your comfort zone reveals a powerful secret—all it takes to transform fear into fun is a simple flip of the script. C'est la vie.
Back to School
With professional courses spanning from three days to five weeks plus à la carte pastry and cuisine workshops, the Ritz has classes (including virtual ones) for every skill level and interest. For schedules, details, and pricing, visit ritzescoffier.com.
Until the world returns to "normal," there are plenty of ways to bring the Ritz to you. With a little planning, you can re-create a piece of this magical experience at home.
L'Ambre Ritz Home Fragrance
Does your home lack a certain je ne sais quoi? Then give it a spritz from the Ritz. This amber and toasted vanilla spray is anything but cloying; its lingering scent wafts through your home, reportedly increasing your property value—and your mood—by 33%. ($85, ritzparisboutique.com)
A walk through the Ritz reveals a surprising omission from the color palette—white. Marie-Louise Ritz, wife of hotel founder César Ritz, insisted that white was not flattering to a woman's complexion, so everything from the sheets to the towels are a soft, blushing peach. (Towels from $85, ritzparisboutique.com)