Cap d’Agde, a small town in southern France, isn’t famous for prize-winning culinary schools or vintage reds. Its reputation hails from a local naturist colony, or nudist village. Reviewers on Trip Advisor comment on how liberating it is to be in Cap d’Agde and enjoy their café au lait and croissants in the buff. I can’t help but imagine a long line at the Cap d’Agde Starbucks. I discovered this just after I wired my first deposit to enroll in the culinary and pastry program at Gastronomicom International Culinary Academy.
When my French friends said they’d never heard of Cap d’Agde, my uncertainty compounded. The whole country of France is only the size of Texas; how obscure could this beachy town be?
I arrive at Gastronomicom on Sunday afternoon. The place looks like a prison for misbehaved IKEA employees: a concrete wall surrounds a gravel courtyard, and the only splashes of color are a few picnic tables with red Coca Cola umbrellas and a couple of lime green planters. Inside, the common areas are brightened with neon green and orange accent walls, and plastic chairs.
But downstairs are two gorgeous industrial kitchens, gleaming with stainless steel tables, KitchenAids to arm a squadron of egg-white-whipping pastry chefs, and ovens big enough to bake hundreds of croissants. My class of fifty-five students is the first to enjoy these brand new kitchens.
I check in with the office and receive my uniform -- it’s as flattering as my foie gras ensemble: black chef pants high on my waist with a six-inch zipper, like “mom jeans,” the bottoms cuffed so I don't trip en route to the oven; thick white security shoes to protect my feet from falling knives; a crisp white jacket emblazoned with the Gastronomicom logo, and over all of this, one long white apron. Every Monday we will trade in our jackets and aprons for a freshly pressed set. I do not envy the person responsible for restoring these garments to a clean white.
At noon all of the students meet for cocktail hour. Cocktails at noon! C’est très français. We are greeted with bottles of champagne and an impressive spread of appetizers, which are likely included in our curriculum over the next month: diced cucumbers in an Asian vinaigrette, shot glasses of cinnamon-y pumpkin purée, and small pastry rolls stuffed with caramelized onion.
My fellow students have come from all over the world and bring extremely varied backgrounds: 18-year-olds with impressive restaurant experience; twenty-somethings charting new career paths; and mothers and wives hoping to up their game in the kitchen. The fifty-five of us represent at least twenty different countries: Saudi Arabia, Guatemala, Brazil, Thailand, Romania, the Czech Republic, Bahamas, England, Taiwan, Germany, Uruguay, Canada, France, Japan, Australia, and Ivory Coast. There’s also a handful of wonderful Americans – the first I’ve seen (besides Matt and Amy) in quite some time.
In the mornings, we will tackle “Pastry,” and in the afternoons “Cuisine.” Each week has a different focus. In Cuisine, we will study cold starters, hot starters, fish, and meat; and in Pastry it’s breads, entremets (fancy cakes), chocolate, and plated desserts. We get a quick introduction to the pastry chef, cuisine chef, sommelier, and school director; then we are adjourned.
We students live together in a beachy apartment community just a short bus ride from school. My sweet Canadian 23-year-old roommate and I hit the grocery store to stock up for the week, then take a long walk down a gorgeous bluff overlooking the ocean. So far, everybody has been fully clothed sans a few topless women sunning on the sand. But in France, c’est normal.
We stop at a cute beachside restaurant for big salads with salmon and shrimp, then head home to get a good night’s sleep before our first day of school. My uniform negates the normal excitement of choosing my first-day-of-school outfit, but the thrill of wondering what the first dishes on our menu will be keeps me up a bit later than I hoped.