Bienvenue à Cordon Bleu

“Your orientation is scheduled for Monday at 9:30 a.m. sharp. Do not be late.” I’m usually punctual, but somehow I’ve miscalculated the timing of my metro commute. It’s now 9:24 a.m., and I’ve got (what I thought were) several long blocks to navigate. I spot a cab on the other side of the street and without thinking, I hop in and direct the driver to 8 Rue Léon Delhomme. At 9:29:30 I leap out, toss him the biggest waste of 10 euros I can imagine, then realize I was just a few short blocks away and could have easily walked from the metro stop in just two minutes.

Clad in full dark suits, a crew of five greets me at the door. My mind races – where did I miss the info about the dress code? I’m wearing jeans, boots, and an overly warm wool coat. One of the greeters escorts me into an auditorium-style classroom, and with a thick French accent asks, “Do you speak English?” “Sort of,” I reply. Sort of? I’m losing it. “Where are you from?” This question is equally difficult; I just nod and say “Oui.” What’s with the cross-examination? I’m unusually flustered, but it quickly transforms to excitement as our orientation begins.

We settle in for a few hours and review all the rules: always be on time, do not wear your uniform on the metro, and the chef is always right, even when he’s wrong. Got it. Then we tackle the schedule: classes are held Monday-Saturday, 8:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m., and the timing varies every day. When they finish, we are all cross-eyed. The last time I felt this overwhelmed and confused was when I registered for classes my first semester of college. If it’s this hard to understand where I’m supposed to be tomorrow morning, what’s going to happen when I turn on my oven?

Next comes a tour of the school: three narrow floors, each with two modest kitchens. I’m thankful I’m only 5’2” because some of the chefs have to duck to get through the doors. Around the perimeter of each kitchen are small ovens and sets of burners for each student; in the center sits a long table, which we will all share. Elbowroom will be a luxury.

Then we tour the demonstration rooms, where we’ll sit for three hours and scrawl copious notes before our practical classes begin. The mirrored ceiling allows us to see directly into Chef’s pot – is that a simmer or a rolling boil? (Trick question: It’s always a simmer, because in French cooking, there’s never a reason to violently boil). Downstairs is the sous-sol, or basement, where the assistant will retrieve our fresh ingredients each week.

The chef leading our tour plays with a giant vertebrae bone dangling from his keys. He is responsible for sourcing our ingredients, which he proudly states are 99.9% fresh. Chef gives us a quick pep talk. He says many French culinary schools get a bad rap because students can be overly competitive, tossing excess salt into their neighbor’s final dish, or slyly turning somebody’s burner up to scorch the sautéing onions. Chef waves his finger and exclaims, “This is about team work! . . . But,” he adds with fire in his eyes, “if you want to play, we can play. But you’ll lose.”

After the tour we receive our gear. I didn't realize part of our tuition included a gleaming set of Wüsthof knives – a lovely surprise. But before we can play with our new toys, we have to get our uniforms; blue and white checked safety pants, a white coat with the Le Cordon Bleu logo emblazoned in blue, and a white apron, white necktie, and white hat. Every morning we must arrive perfectly clean and pressed, as though we had never splattered tomato seeds, chicken grease, or fish blood all over ourselves the night before.

These uniforms are sized for tall, thin (probably male) chefs. To ensure a good fit, they send us to a tiny locker room, where we girls frantically throw on the uniforms, rip them off, and race upstairs to adjust the sizes. My pants are way too tight and long enough to trip over, and I can button only four of the six right-justified buttons on the jacket.

I ask for larger pants and a new jacket, then decide I had better return to the chaos of the locker room to try on these new sizes, too, just in case. I feel like J Lo trying to buy pants in the kids’ section: I’m going to need a larger pant size, but I give up on the jacket. None of us girls can button the jacket all the way down, but our hipless male counterparts can easily snap their jackets to the bottom.

As we giggle in line over exchanging pants so many times, I make my first girl friend. At least I’m in good company.

Next we receive our Wüsthof bags stuffed with the most beautiful knives I’ve ever seen – and every kitchen tool I could ever imagine, plus a few more: a scale, whisk, trussing needle, piping bags, zester, a special tool to “turn” vegetables (cutting them into a bullet shape), magnets, thermometer, scissors, crimping tweezers, and a bottle opener – and that’s just the left side of the bag. It also includes a fork and spoon, which we are to keep in our front pocket at all times for frequent taste testing.

We finish our orientation. Tomorrow we report for duty. Our first class: Hygiene 101. I hop onto the metro and ride over the Seine, past the Eiffel Tower, and pop out right beneath the Champs-Élysées. After a ten-minute walk, I’m home. A glass of wine and homemade pumpkin tarts await me. Tomorrow is going to be an exciting day.