Learning to Cook in the South of France
By Taylor Kennedy
I learned to cook in Nostradamus‘ kitchen in the south of France. Henry IV and Louis XIII also had meals prepared for them here, as did Catherine de Médicis. Fortunately there’s not much pressure to perform for royalty anymore. Here in the modern era, maestro of the kitchen arts chef Stéphane Chesnais teaches students to make dishes like ratatouille and a molten chocolate cake in the centuries-old kitchen of the Domaines des Escaunes inn.
Taking a cooking class during my travels was something I had wanted to do for a few years. I like cooking. I like eating. I like traveling. Why not combine them for a local learning experience?
One of the first things I noticed during my class is that the French have a distinctively different attitude toward dinner, and therefore the cooking of it. For the French, dinner is something to be anticipated. Savored. The ingredients are discussed and compared, not wolfed down and whipped past so you can watch your sitcom. Dinner is often the main event of the night. Which partly explains the French respected reputation in the kitchen (and dining room).
After the initial burst of excitement, we quickly and casually immersed ourselves in learning to properly chop onions and garlic and shave zucchini. The main course’s ingredients slowly came together amid relaxed chatter, a bit of laughing, a little storytelling–and luckily no chopped fingers.
That relaxed attitude all changed when the chocolate came out. Rapt attention and crowding around Stéphane were instantaneous. There was absolute silence. We were preparing to make molten chocolate cake. Eggs! Butter! Sugar! This was dessert after all! A serious event even in North America.
Chocolate reigned supreme that night. I am not really as much a fan of dessert as I am the main course, so I looked on with amusement as the eyes of my classmates widened and previously hidden note pads came out. I liked cooking with fleur de sel from the oceanside walled town of Aigues Mortes right next door, and with garlic that was different from the garlic I have at home; sweeter and smaller zucchini. I liked those parts. But chocolate? Meh.
I was clearly in the minority though.
While we waited for it all to cook, I enjoyed anticipating the meal. We sipped wine. We talked about what we had cooked. What we had seen at the market in town that day. The difference from our grocery stores at home. Our travels. Yes, lots of chocolate talk, too.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
And finally the meal came out. The candles were lit. The forks poised. Our stomachs ready. The noise level came back up and we all dug into a fabulous meal that really did taste differently. We would treasure the recipes, taught to us in an ancient kitchen in southern France with dreams of repeating it at home in our own kitchens.
We all left with a new souvenir to bring back: a dinner menu we learned to cook in an ancient stone kitchen from a modern chef.
Oh, and the molten chocolate cake was pretty good.
Photos by Taylor Kennedy