How I Became A French Chef’s Apprentice

Saturday, February 18, 2017

“I want to learn how to make Tarte au Citron. It’s my mother-in-law’s favorite.”

It was a cold winter day in Versailles and I had just summoned the courage to ask a Cordon Bleu trained chef Patricia Boussaroque, who gives culinary workshops in her atelier, to take me in as her “stagiaire”, an apprentice. When asked why, I gave my reason. Unexpectedly, she said I could assist her for a class that weekend.

Patricia is the antithesis of the typical French chef, a blond woman with laughing eyes, a welcoming bisous and a pink apron tied around her waist, twice of course. That's probably the first thing they teach you at the Cordon Bleu.

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My first day of working with her was an initiation of sorts. It was not a simple pastry class. Rather, I got thrown into a half day cooking class where we prepared a 3 course meal. The main dish of bavette aux échalotes con tes ( ank steak with caramelized shallots) takes much longer to prepare than I imagined. We simmer prime cuts of beef with spices in vinaigre de xérès, a wine vinegar made from sherry, for nearly an hour. I cannot hide my consternation when she pounds the cooked meat into a metal strainer to squeeze out the juice, then throws it away. When she catches my look, she explains,

“It was only to make the sauce.”

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As an accompaniment, we make the crisp potato puffs known as pommes dauphine. This starts with a mixture of mashed potatoes and savory pastry cream, which we pour into a pastry bag, before shaping them into dumplings to be deep-fried. And for dessert, Patricia announces that we are making mille-feuille, a complex, multilayered pu pastry sandwiching glistening drops of vanilla- avored crème mousseline enlivened by the tang of rum from the French West Indies.

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Together with a small group of paying guests, we spent the day preparing the food, learning about the basics of French cuisine, taking sips of wine, preparing the table and finally, we sat together to enjoy the meal we had all prepared.

Before working with Patricia, I prepared myself to work military style, in a hostile environment where I had to put things “mise en place”, everything in its place, or take orders with a “Oui chef!” What I was not ready for was the constant encouragement. If I made a mistake for instance, in weighing the ingredients or allowing a single drop of egg yolk into the whites to do a meringue, Patricia only chastised me by saying “You did a bêtise. Ce n'est pas grave”. You made a little mistake, but that’s ok. You can start again. My efforts would often be met with a “Perfect! Well done, chef.”
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After only a few weeks of working as an apprentice, I began to understand what sets French cuisine apart. It’s the seemingly negligible but often crucial techniques like putting the dough or cream into a cooling apparatus to allow it to rest before baking. Or slamming a tray filled with macaron batter a few times on the table to release air bubbles. Patricia would often say “Délicatement!”, as we mixed creams or worked with pastries. It was necessary to delicately put air into the mixture rather than overwork the batter.

French cooking often shocks those who are not from the country. When an American couple saw the ridiculous amount of butter that went into a single dish, they asked “Can we substitute margarine with that?” She laughed it off and said,

“What’s French cooking without butter?”

I’m surprised to learn that Patricia wasn’t always a chef. After 20 years of working at a large company, she left her comfortable job as a human resources manager to follow her passion by studying cuisine and patisserie at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. Patricia graduated with top marks in 2009, but did not proceed to work at a restaurant as most of her peers have done. Instead, she opened a cooking school in her hometown, just opposite Versailles’ Notre-Dame Market, where she could procure her ingredients from the best artisans and producers each day.

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The most memorable part of my experience goes beyond tasting a freshly baked meringue or honing my culinary skills. What remains with me is Patricia's excitement, an unchanging constant in each of the classes she conducts.

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“My dream,” she says, “is to show people the pleasure of cooking with only the best ingredients, giving them new ideas and allowing them to discover new avor combinations. What drives me is the joy of coming together around a meal cooked with love.”

L'atelier Cuisine De Patricia
4 Rue André Chénier, 78000 Versailles, France

Lois Yasay Ribeiro is a writer from the Philippines. She spent the last half decade traveling the world. Her passions are traveling, surfing, making good food and bringing people and ideas together. She lives between France and Portugal with her husband and daughter.

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