What's for lunch in Paris? Maybe a cooking lesson

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

For years I had thought of taking a cooking class. I love food, enjoy entertaining, and most of all, live in the world's gourmet capital, Paris. But the idea always appeared a little daunting. Courses seemed expensive, time-consuming, and - most of all - too complex.

That is, until cooking school L'Atelier des Chefs opened its doors last summer, offering 30-minute classes at lunchtime, not to mention a table on which to eat your meal afterward in the company of fellow students. All that for about $20, the price of lunch in an average Paris brasserie.

L'Atelier des Chefs is located in an open space with a large kitchen in the center, partitioned off by glass walls. On one side, there's a large wooden table, surrounded by racks of wine and fine grocery products. On the other, rows of colorful cookbooks and shiny cooking utensils line the walls.

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As I pushed open the front door in time for my class, two young men, dressed in suits and carrying briefcases, followed me in. Those who had arrived before us - mostly in their late 20s to early 30s - browsed through the cookbooks, chatting and laughing as they waited for the class to begin.

There was nothing intimidating about this place. It felt as though I were in someone's home.

"When we came up with the idea of a cooking school, our main aim was make this place accessible," says Nicolas Bergerault, who, with his brother, François, is the founder of the cooking school.

Mr. Bergerault, former marketing director for Nestle, has always been passionate about cooking. He wanted to create courses that differed from other cooking schools in Paris, which can be intimidating, he says, and not always handy for the working man and woman.

"We wanted to cater to 25- to 45-year-olds who have never learned to cook, who work, and don't have the time to attend cooking classes at the traditional times," he explains.

"I wouldn't usually go to cooking classes, but this is simple, and it doesn't take too long," says Alexis Thuaux, who works for a consulting company and has brought along a friend. It's their first visit. "Lunchtime is great, as it doesn't take up too much time, and you learn something," he says. "Even better, you get to eat what you make."

Students are taught to cook only one dish in each class. The recipes are deliberately simple but with a touch of sophistication so that people can reproduce them at home and impress their families and friends, says Bergerault.

Today's recipe was chicken curry with cardamom-flavored basmati rice. When we went into the kitchen, each person took a place at a table in front of a chopping board. Within seconds, our chef - a former employee of the Ritz hotel in Paris - was showing us how to remove the meat froma chicken leg. Ten minutes later, we had chopped up the other ingredients and were crowded around the stoves to cook the curry and basmati rice. Shortly after, as a delicious spicy smell wafted through the air, our meal was ready to enjoy.

As people ate their meals, it was clear everyone was having a good time. For a few extra euros, some chose to have a glass of wine, followed by cheese, dessert, and coffee. Everyone talked, sharing their experiences.

A young woman sitting next to me confided she comes here once or twice a week, because it is nicer than eating in a restaurant on her own.

Next to her, Sandrine Séchaud, who works in advertising, said she had enjoyed herself so much she now wanted to try other classes.

"I've been coming here since September," says Joelle Thueut, an American exchange student attending the Sorbonne. "I wanted to learn to cook, but I also wanted to meet people. And this is a good way to immerse yourself in the culture."

Ms. Thueut said she had looked into other cooking schools, but the courses were too long. She also said they made her nervous, and decided to come here because of the lunchtime class. "I'm not very gifted in the kitchen, but now I usually cook four times a week, compared to never [before]. I actually want to cook."

L'Atelier des Chefs does offer more traditional and expensive cooking courses, taught by chefs trained at some of the world's best restaurants. But the lunchtime classes are by far the most popular.

"We had absolutely no idea people would be so enthusiastic about them," says Bergerault. "What's different here, is that people come first and foremost to have a good time. Then, they come to eat; it's like a different sort of restaurant. And lastly, they come because we have great chefs, but the cooking is easy. We've even had omelette- and sandwichmaking classes. We thought if people eat sandwiches, let's at least teach them to make great ones. No other school does that."

Because of the popularity of L'Atelier des Chefs' lunchtime classes, a competing school has opened. But this doesn't seem to worry Bergerault. "Half of the people in today's class have already been here," he says. "We have become their canteen. They come to lunch, discover they like cooking, and then come to other lessons. In a way, we democratize cooking for the masses."

As for me, I'll be back next month with a couple of friends. We've booked the full-menu evening class.

L'Atelier des Chefs, 10 rue de Penthièvre, 75008 Paris, France; 011 33 1 53 30 05 82; www.atelier deschefs.com.

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