When you sign up for a cooking class in Paris you may have visions of quietly strolling through bustling streets lined with food shops, chatting with a friend as you knowledgeably select just the right ingredients for a meal you’ll prepare yourselves in an intimate, but exquisitely appointed, Parisian kitchen. And with Paule Caillat’s Promenades Gourmandes that is exactly what you can expect. In addition to her years of experience as a culinary teacher, Caillat is a lifelong Parisian with a real feel for the local food culture, and a flair for life in Paris. But, more than that, she has a genuine desire to make Promenades Gourmandes a practical experience that her students can use not just shopping during their stay in Paris, but also in their kitchens back at home.
Meeting her class on Rue Montorgueil, one of Paris’ most lauded culinary enclaves, Caillat greets everyone warmly and asks after any food preferences or allergies, making a point of recalling previous menus prepared by two returning students.
She keeps scrupulous records in an attempt to provide regulars and repeat customers with a unique experience each time they cook with her. And after a few minutes spent balancing everyone’s preferences for meat, veg, spices and such, a tentative menu is formulated and a market plan sketched.
Caillat then leads her culinary ducklings into her favorite cheese shop, butcher, and fruit & veg markets, progressing out of the Marche Montorgueill and onto Rue du Nil as she infuses talk of Parisian food culture with tender morsels of local history, lore and legend. [HINT: Rue du Nil (Nile) is a kind of memorial to the French passion for all things Egypt after Napoleon’s jaunt through that part of the world.] Finally, bags laden, and heads filled with newfound knowledge of how to select the best from local food shops and what to expect when interacting with the purveyors, Paule leads her students to the classroom.
Here, in her well-appointed home teaching kitchen, no bigger than any large home kitchen, but centered around a massive prep counter that doubles as desk space for 8-10 students, the work really begins.
As each dish is begun, Paule tells her students what they’ll be doing and why. Careful to match tasks to individual skill levels, while not infantilizing anyone, she gently challenges students to push themselves and make their experience rewarding and memorable.
Tasting a bit of this and that as they go, students don aprons, pick up knives and peelers, and gleefully get to work.
Punctuated with a cheese tasting and wine pairing tutorial, the class portion of Promenades Gourmandes is leisurely paced but never boring. When mistakes are made, fun is had, lessons learned, and the meal preparation progresses.
In the end, students are sent home with copies of recipes for the day’s meal. Paule has an extensive database of recipes that allows her to print copies of whatever menu was chosen based on student preferences and the vagaries of the day’s market. Caillat is also good about telling students which Paris shops to visit to source spices and kitchen goods used in the class.
Her suggestions are highly personal (subjective), but that means they genuinely appear to be the result of personal experience and preference and not any sort of commission structure. She might tell you she likes this or that shop because things are always fresh, and she avoids that other shop because she’s had a bad experience or two, etc.
I have to admit that for logistical reasons on the day of my course, I stayed and helped cook but couldn’t eat with my fellow students. That said, given the skill and grace with which everything else at Promenades Gourmands is handled, I’m sure the final dining experience is as fun and rewarding as the market tour and cooking class.
Text and photos by Glenn D. Kaufmann
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