In a moment of madness at the end of last year, Reena Pastakia quit her job and signed up for an Intensive Cordon Bleu Diploma course. Here she tells us about the first three weeks.
By Reena Pastakia
I am of Indian descent and while I can cook a mean curry, the thought of making shortcrust pastry fills me with terror. That is until recently; Three weeks ago I started my Intensive Cordon Bleu Diploma course and already I can whip up a latticed apple tart that will have you dreaming of orchards in Normandy with the first bite.
This transformation hasn’t come easily however; the course is called “intensive” with good reason. Since I started the course I have cooked on average for 6 hours a day either at school or at home. When I’m not cooking I’m either watching a demonstration or reading about the theory of food. Coincidentally my book group is reading The Sharper Your Knife the Less You Cry – a factual account of the author’s experience at Le Cordon Bleu Paris. So before I go to bed I read about someone else going through a similar experience to the one I am living during the day. The result is that I am dreaming about cooking every night and I am grinding my teeth for the first time in years. Historically I have associated cooking with relaxation and leisure and I have been taken by surprise by the demanding nature of the course. In retrospect it should have been obvious – after all we are being trained for the fast-paced atmosphere of professional kitchens. So whilst I’m incredulous that this course is more stressful than my banking job, I am actually enjoying each day and learning more than I thought possible.
People keep asking why I chose to study at Tante Marie as opposed to Leith’s School of Food and Wine or Le Cordon Bleu London – both of which are much closer to home. The main reasons were the:
- length of the course – six month’s of lost income was significantly more palatable than nine months.
- staff to student ratio – as someone who likes regular feedback, this was important to me and at Tante Marie there is a ratio of one teacher to ten students. A friend who recently graduated from Le Cordon Bleu London stated that there were eighteen students in her class.
- culture and atmosphere – The clincher was when Andrew Maxwell, the principal of Tante Marie, explained his approach to recruiting teachers:
“They need to have to have the right temperament – the patience for teaching. They need to be able to hold themselves back slightly; if the pupil is doing something wrong they can’t just jump in and correct them as making mistakes is the best way of learning”.
I don’t thrive in fear cultures and this supportive approach to teaching resonated strongly with me.
With my intermediate practical exam looming in a week’s time I have to admit I’m worried. I am struggling compared to the majority of my classmates and I suspect this is primarily due to the fact that I didn’t grow up seeing my mum bake cakes, make pastry and stocks etc. In fact, the reason I wanted to do a chef’s training course was precisely to learn these skills. The Intensive Diploma assumes more experience than I had anticipated and I am trying to compensate by practicing potential exam dishes in the evenings and at the weekends. As a result, my weekly food bill has tripled and my fridge is stacked full of lard, whole trout, beef, pork and stock – ingredients I would never have even considered buying prior to the course.
Thirty minutes before my exam starts next week I will be presented with a three-course menu to prepare and serve in five hours split across two days. I suspect the proof will literally be in the pudding and this will be when I find out whether I have bitten off more than I can chew.
Reena grew up thinking Indian cooking was a dark art where the quantities of spices required in each dish were innately known to a chosen few. It was only after she married an Englishman with a voracious appetite for Indian food that she started phoning home for cooking tips. She started her blog (coconutraita.com) in an attempt to document her family’s recipes and make Indian cooking accessible to all.