Above: Julia Child at Le Cordon Bleu in 1950. As a child I watched her on Saturday afternoons with my grandmother.
You always want your children to have it better than you did.
By and large life has been pretty good to me, but like everyone else, I entertain the odd fantasy about what I would do if I won the lottery and found myself free to hop off the path that got me here, free to do something quite different.
In my mid teens, there was the odd, fleeting fantasy of becoming a concert cellist. I prepared myself for this by not practising. This is like training for a marathon without so much as the odd long walk. Some might manage it. I, patently, was not among them.
I traveled in my gap year, sometimes picturing my future as a lone wolf journalist, always moving from trouble spot to trouble spot, dodging bullets to get my story, my luggage battered and my trusty camera my only constant companion. Apart from the fact that I never so much as kept a diary and took very few photographs, it was a thoroughly sound career plan.
Later, under pressure at university, I would dream of fleeing to Berlin and some tree-hugging commune in a run down Kreuzberg tenement. Making a living didn’t come into it. The moral high-ground would keep us warm.
Like many others, I worked my way through university in the hospitality industry and enjoyed it very much. If I didn’t make it through Law, I would throw myself on the mercy of the executive chef of the hotel I worked at and beg for an apprenticeship in his kitchen. But I kept passing those exams.
When a stock market crash meant jobs were scarce, I mentioned my culinary plan B to my mother, who pulled a positively astounding 180 degree move and went from “Be a florist if you want to, but get your degree first.” to “We didn’t put you through university so you could work over a hot stove.” in under 60 seconds.
I have long since reconciled myself to being an amateur, very amateur, cellist, dodging bullets has lost it’s appeal, and frankly, Berlin hasn’t had quite the same cachet since the Wall came down. But the cooking thing has never left me.
Le Cordon Bleu, alma mater of the inimitable Julia Child, beckoned more than once, but Paris and London were far away from home and everything that held me here. Then last year, they went and opened one right here in Wellington. For all that it is right under my nose, to a mother of three with a mortgage, it might as well be on the moon.
I never thought one of mine would make it to Le Cordon Bleu before I did. Certainly not before the age of nine, and especially not Francesca, as a toddler, possibly the most food resistant child in recent times.
Setting aside the intervening increase in appetite, it appears that disinterest in eating is not the same thing as disinterest in cooking. Ever since Francesca could stand on a chair to see the bench, she has been a keen observer of culinary processes.
Cooking shows have also played their part. Imagine my delight as my two eldest score every meal out of ten, with constructive criticism on presentation. Apparently I am not alone. Good friend and partner in crime Natasha’s girls do the same thing.
In case you are thinking that I have spawned some kind of anorexic culinary savant, I should explain.
Natasha’s eldest and mine are of an age and have played together since they were very little. Francesca was very fortunate in that when her friend got to go to a Petit Cordon Bleu class for her birthday, Francesca was invited to go too.
Classes are held in Le Cordon Bleu’s splendidly equipped kitchens. A class of eight was taught by chef de cuisine Paul Dicken, aided by assistants who took care of the dangerous tasks: sharp knife work (splitting vanilla pods), deep frying and the like.
The three hour course was packed with content. The children made hokey pokey ice cream from start to finish including preparation of the custard base. They cut pasta, crumbed fish, made pommes William and tuiles.
Back at home, I was struggling with some pasta of my own. Francesca bobbed into the kitchen proudly bearing the fruits of her labours. “I’ve been using one of those this afternoon too, Mama” she said, eyeing up my very underutilised Imperia. I was using mine to roll my dough, before slicing my tagliatelle by hand. “Chef says you need to let the sheets dry a little before you cut them” my earnest little friend told me, helpfully.
We had guests coming around for dinner and I was out of time to chat, but the next day she spent the better part of an hour giving dear old Mama a blow by blow account of what they had done, how, why and using what equipment. She had clearly engaged with the class content. She was interested and spoke about her experience with quiet confidence.
Would I send her again? Yes. It’s costly, so not too often. But in terms of what she’s likely to get out of it, worth it.
The winter holidays are coming up in a couple of weeks, so to keep the momentum going, I’ve signed Francesca and Lydia up for an on-line holiday programme on kids cooking website It’s My Turn to Cook Tonight. We have a couple of house guests and maybe another one or two besides, so I’m preparing to give my kitchen over to the ten and unders for a couple of days. No idea what the programme will be like, but if nothing else, it should be a good lesson in the use of information technology. There’s nothing to lose. The course is free and if we don’t like it, we can just switch the laptop off and find something else to do.