Friday, August 7, 2009

Ottawa for Foodies

Cointreau and Maple Syrup: A Bit of Paris in Our Canadian Capital

Chef Herve fixes the class, arranged attentively in front of him, with his intense blue eyes. He is explaining the intricacies of that elusive and challenging French concoction, pate a choux. This deceptively simple mixture of eggs, milk and flour will, in the right hands, result in those most glorious of patisseries – the éclair, the ‘religieuses au cafe’ or those elegant swans filled with cream that are to be found only in the best pastry shops. Choux pastry, Chef informed us, was invented by an Italian pastry chef called Opelini in 1540, but it was developed and perfected by French chefs.
Chef is explaining, while he demonstrates, that it is crucial to add the next egg yolk only after the first has been correctly incorporated. “Do not over mix. Do not under mix. You will know, if you are paying attention “– ( he stares pointedly at one sleepy student who is having trouble keeping his eyes open) “precisely when the time is right.”
In the overhead mirrors, and on the television screens at the side of the room, we watch as he drops one yolk into the flour and milk and begins to stir.
He holds up the bowl “Not yet”, and stirs again.
“Not yet.” More stirring.
“ Now! It is ready for the next yolk.” And amazingly, we can clearly see that exact moment when the texture of the mix changes from too runny to just right.
I make a note. I will need to know this for the practical class to come. I have made pate a choux before. To be more accurate, I have attempted pate a choux before, with varying degrees of success. This afternoon, however, I will be playing with the big kids in the kitchen, the candidates for the Cordon Bleu who will be out to score big marks for their éclairs and swans. I don’t want to embarrass myself.
The Lyonnais accent of Chef Herve, the fanatical devotion to the details of cuisine, the sparkling white chefs’ jackets with their bright blue logos, - all would suggest a Parisienne kitchen. This, however, is the Cordon Bleu Cooking School in Ottawa, the only fully accredited Cordon Bleu in North America, and one of only two cooking schools named to the list of the ten best on the continent.
Housed in the renovated Munross Mansion on Laurier Avenue, Le Cordon Bleu Paris Ottawa Culinary Arts Institute is teaching students from around the world to master the art of French cooking. The school, which originated in Paris in 1895, got its nme from the 1578 foundation of the Order of Knights of the Holy Spirit. The members of the order wore a medal suspended on a blue ribbon, and their spectacular feasts became legendary. The expression “Cordon Bleu” was later applied to mean an outstanding chef. Today there are 22 schools located in 12 countries. It is owned by Andre J. Cointreau, a direct descendant of the French Cointreau liqueur and Remy Marin cognac dynasties.
There is little doubt that the Ottawa Cordon Bleu is a bit of Paris transported to Canada. The minute you enter the door, the French style is front and centre. The high ceilinged rooms on the main floor are decorated in yellow and blue, with echoes of 17th century France, designed by Le Cordon Bleu’s sister company, Pierre Deux-French Country. It is an elegant and sophisticated space, particularly the small private dining rooms and the award winning restaurant run by the school, Signatures. The building for many years was the University Club, and, in the dark panelled bar, you can see the place where Pierre Trudeau spent many an evening when he was a student.
It isn’t until you enter the teaching areas that you realize that this is also a thoroughly modern state-of-the-art culinary school. The practice kitchens are immaculate stainless steel, with a fridge, stove and work for each station. On the top floor is the piece de resistance – an over the top fabulous teaching kitchen with Electrolux ovens and white tiles whose equal can be found in only one other place in the world – the kitchens of the Queen Mary 11.
I spent a full day at the Cordon Bleu – the morning in the demonstration lecture, and three hours with the students in the teaching kitchen completing the day’s cooking assignment. We were to produce six eclairs, three chocolate ones and three mocha ones, three religieuses, (a small ball of choux place on top of a larger ball, glazed and piped with pastry cream to resemble a nun’s habit), and three swans.
I’d like to tell you that my swans were a thing of beauty. I can tell you that they tasted heavenly, and that Chef Malik, in charge of marking the students in the practice kitchen, tasted one of my éclairs and deemed it to be “quite good.” Also, I was not at the bottom of the class. The sleepy-eyed boy ruined his first batch of pate a choux and never managed to produce even a deflated éclair. However the young girl next to me who looked to be no more than eighteen, and who is obviously on a fast track to her first Michelin star, was finished significantly faster than anyone else in the class, and her swans and éclairs were works of art.
I loved every minute of my day here. It was exciting and demanding, but it is not for everyone.. I know cooks who have taken every cooking class you can name who would love to take the challenge of a day in the company of such dedicated chefs. But I also know some who would be intimidated. For them, the school offers evening or weekend courses, covering things like plate presentation, hot and cold soups, or decorative garnishes. There are three day to four week courses in traditional bread baking and French Regional cooking. It is also possible to just sit in on the morning demonstration and lecture, without doing the kitchen practical. There is a class for every level of interest and expertise.
Outside the class, Ottawa seems to be claiming the culinary crown. I dined in the brand new Metropolitan, a bistro that rocked with energy and style and served an authentic steak and frites to rival any Paris bistro. Wilfreds, the dining room in the Chateau Laurier, is serving exquisite local specialties like Rack of Wild Nunavut Caribou with braised pearl barley and sun-dried blueberries. One morning I toured the Byward market with the executive chef from the Fairmont Chateau Laurier, and learned his secret sources for unpasturized cheese, the best rasberries and the dearest fingerling potatoes. He even introduced me to a woman on the market who sold a slice of fungus from which you could grow your own oyster mushrooms. How French is that?
In fact, these days in our capital, if you squint your eyes a bit, the Peace Tower could look a lot like the Eiffel Tower.

If You Go
Stay at the Fairmont Château Laurier- a wonderful and elegant hotel that is perfectly situated in the centre of everything. Book a Gold room if you can afford it - the rooms are fresh and pretty and huge, and the Gold Lounge is a real bonus. The Byward Market is close by, as are the parliament buildings. It is a not too difficult walk to the National Gallery.
Fairmont Chateau Laurier
TEL (613) 241-1414

The Cordon Bleu Culinary Arts Institute
(613)-236-CHEF (2433)
Toll Free: 1-888-289-6302

Via Rail
There are several trains that will take you hassle free to the train station in Ottawa, a ten minute taxi ride from the centre of the city.

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