At an advanced culinary arts program in France, food is picked over, literally and theoretically. Christopher Petkanas is there to take notes.
It's hard to imagine a nation more consumed by celebrity than our own, but France may be fast leaving America in the dust, wallowing in greasy back issues of Life & Style Weekly. In a recent survey commissioned by a trade group of tabletop manufacturers and shopkeepers to track trends in how the French entertain at home—and to figure out how to get them to buy more china, glass, and silver—the populist chanteur Jean-Jacques Goldman emerged as the guest people would most like to invite to dinner. (Never heard of him?A lot of these names won't mean anything to you. The French like to whinge about American cultural imperialism, but insularity is enjoying an uptick.) When the survey results were narrowed to Parisians, Renaud, a pop singer with an even thinner international profile than Goldman's, took the lead. Trailing Goldman for the entire country were, in descending order of dinner-guest desirability, Mimi Mathie, a dwarf comedian; Zidane, a soccer player for Real Madrid; Sophie Marceau, a pouty B actress; and Jacques Chirac. Mr. Chirac needs no ID, but then, only three percent of those polled thought it would be fun to break bread with him.
What does this gallery of oddities have to do with France's new Institut des Hautes Études du Goût, de la Gastronomie et des Arts de la Table (IHEGGAT), a mouthful that translates as Institute of Advanced Studies in Taste, Gastronomy, and Table Arts?Une minute, s'il vous plaît. IHEGGAT bills itself as one of just two schools in the world to adopt a multidisciplinary soup-to-nuts approach to its subject, meaning that food and drink are examined not just from a sensorial point of view but also from historic, scientific, humanistic, sociological, agricultural, economic, and even judicial perspectives. (Classes are in French, with simultaneous English translation on headphones.) The sole competition the Institut acknowledges is Slow Food's University of Gastronomic Sciences, in Italy, which offers a one-year master's degree program. The Institut's master's course (capped at 30 students) is four weeks, divided into two sessions of classroom instruction—leavened with pedagogic meals and field trips—held five months apart in Paris and Reims. Diplomas are issued by the Université de Reims Champagne-Ardenne. Because IHEGGAT is so young—this November, it convenes for the second time—the value of these diplomas is unknown at best and meaningless at worst. But if the Institut takes off, graduating from it could become a shiny badge of honor, like apprenticing in Ferran Adrià's kitchen.
The one thing the school doesn't teach is how to actually cook. Students do get to eat a fair amount of intriguing food, including breathtaking molecular manipulations of traditional recipes and eye-opening re-creations of medieval and 18th-century dishes, but they never rattle a saucepan. IHEGGAT is happy to leave that to the 1.2 zillion (at last count) cooking schools out there. The Institut's ambition is loftier, more abstract: to furnish its charges with a deep, rounded context for their interest in food. The benefits of the sweeping body of knowledge acquired aren't immediate. Rather, pupils see attending IHEGGAT as a career investment, or simply as an enriching academic experience for which there may never be any direct application: brain scrubbing as its own reward. Food professionals (a sommelier, say, or a pasta-fork designer, or the marketing manager of a line of organic stocks) typically enroll for no other reason than wanting to do their jobs better—or because they want to change jobs and are looking for new possibilities. Or maybe you're the owner of a Dallas specialty-foods shop, looking for new ideas to jazz up your haute take-out menu. Or it may be that you're a Dallas housewife who cannot face another hen luncheon if it means serving céleri rémoulade. On the other hand, you could just be one of those super-ardent foodies who travels to eat.
Visits to blue-ribbon Bresse poultry farms and august wine estates like Château Margaux are easily the sexiest part of the school's curriculum. Marquee chefs who will never be accused of wearing their stars lightly are also brought in to blow their horns under the guise of themed talks like "Restaurant Concepts" (Alain Ducasse); "Culinary Art: Improvisation and Accessibility" (Pierre Gagnaire); and "Cuisine: Expression of a Landscape" (Michel Bras). Having sat in on these and a dozen other seminars and dinners at the Institut, I can tell you that many students consider the opportunity to breathe the same stale classroom air as these demigods worth the cost of tuition: $4,800. Local transportation plus lodging and meals are an additional $3,600. (Those who signed on for this option stayed and dined at the charming and tasty Assiette Champenoise in Reims—but also at a deadly Paris Novotel.) Days are long: 9 to 14 hours, less breaks. Although IHEGGAT insists that there is a selection process and that to win a degree enrollees must achieve a certain grade on their exams and papers, it seems unlikely that at this stage the Institut is turning away business or failing anyone.
It was at an Arts de la Table lecture at Le Cordon Bleu cooking school, IHEGGAT's ad hoc Paris headquarters, that I learned how having a single name (Renaud, Zidane) could somehow up my chances of being asked home to dine by a French person, and that 75 percent of respondents in the same survey arrange food on platters when they entertain. Most surprising, given France's current affair with every style of cooking but its own, 77 percent also said they prepared French dishes when they receive. Now if only they could serve them in peace: that ringing you hear is 64 percent of the population who refuse to turn off their cell phones.
Considering that we had spent the morning listening to industry officials moan about how no one could care less about asparagus tongs and leg-of-lamb grippers anymore, it was a little embarrassing that at an evening-long tasting workshop exploring Hervé This's gastronomie moléculaire, the school managed to get an item as prosaic as spoons wrong: the utensils were too big to reach inside our first-course sea urchins. This, an excitable physiochemist from the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique, collaborated with Cordon Bleu chefs on a high-wire retake on royale, a classic garnish for clear soups. To make royale, says the 1938 Larousse Gastronomique, a mixture of five ounces of consommé and one egg plus two yolks is cooked in cylindrical molds, then diced. According to This, all that egg is not only unnecessary but a flavor-suck.
"The question is, What is the minimum amount of coagulable proteins you need to make a gel?" This explains. "Using simple arithmetic, we know that you can gelify almost twenty-four ounces of water with one egg. What's wonderful is that by reducing the protein content you also promote the liberation of flavors, because you avoid the supramolecular associations in the gel."
The toques were less amused by some of the tasks set them by Alberto Capatti, program director of the University of Gastronomic Sciences, in a comparison between French and Italian home cooking. When Capatti asked a chef to overcook the tagliatelle that would be served with only butter, the chef complained that he was trying to make the French look bad. "No, I want everyone to look bad!" Capatti roared. His next orders were to burn garlic in some olive oil, then pour it over al dente spaghetti—the Italians' favorite way of destroying pasta.
"Alberto believes that what we eat are symbols," food historian Philip Hyman says. "An exercise like this is supposed to make you question what gives a dish its national identity. What are the characteristics that give it its emblematic and mythical value?"
Hyman and his enchanting wife, Mary, are unchallenged authorities on the history of French cookbooks and regional food products. The irony of their also being American is lost on no one. Unlike so many French foodocrats, IHEGGAT's brass are unburdened by chauvinism: no jokes about McDo's or Pepsi with the cheese course, dieu merci.
Nouvelle cuisine was hardly a uniquely 20th-century phenomenon, the Hymans revealed to an engrossed assembly at their dinner devoted to the "new cooking" of 18th-century France, held in an off-site banquet room. The term was coined in 1742 to describe a reform movement that abandoned gluey sauces and promoted a higher level of technical skill. Doesn't that sound like 1972 and Michel Guérard and company all over again?
The astonishing thing about the meal was how modern it was: If you didn't know the dishes were 250-plus years old you'd have no reason to suspect it. It was thrilling to learn how components had discreetly evolved, and how designations had slyly changed meaning. The béchamel napping the turbot was a thinner, more velouté-like forerunner of the sauce we know today. Cailles au gratin was a crisp hash of chicken livers, scallions, and mushrooms that served as a bed for quail. Nowadays, of course, the idea's been literally overturned: it's the top of a gratin that's crisp.
Since the Hymans, who also gave a talk on preserving, wear their scholarship lightly, it was a little cruel to be asked to abruptly transition to Ducasse, Gagnaire, and Bras, but I survived. The chefs' guest appearances at Le Cordon Bleu might just as well have been called the Battle of the Egos and False Modesty. Ducasse said he founded his own imprint because he was tired of publishing books with the same recipes, as if he, the (ostensible) author (or his troops) weren't responsible for the recycling. Gagnaire tore out his tripe, as the French say, confessing, "Every day I ask myself if I am worthy of my clients' time and money." It was a little much for nine in the morning. Bras said his dining tables, which look like ironing boards, were inspired by the plateau d'Aubrac outside his restaurant's windows. Bras famously hates the city and, to make this point, wore a T-shirt and jeans. But it was impossible to find him insulting, because he looked so silly.
Still, who's an American to talk?We have our Pinks and our Ashantis. And if they're free Tuesday, I hope they'll come to dinner.
IHEGGAT, B.P. 183, Reims, France; 33-3/26-91-88-18; www.iheggat.com.