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May 12, 2008

Renaissance Man: Learning to Eat

Having my macaroons and cooking, too.


Conde Nast Traveler stuntman Mark Schatzker is on a mad quest to make himself into a modern-day Da Vinci during a month's stay in Europe. So far Mark has "mastered" golf in Scotland and "excelled" at gardening in England. His next task: cooking in Paris.

I don't quite know how to put this, so let me just describe what happened. I got on the train at St. Pancras in London. It was light, then it was dark for a bit, then it was light again, and when I looked outside, the cars were being driven on the correct side of the road. Two and half hours later, the train stopped at the Paris Nord station. I got in a Mercedes taxi and was taken to the Hotel St. James. When I got to my room, I found a bottle of champagne and a tray of cute little sweets waiting for me. The French call the sweets macarons, but they're not what you or I would think of as a macaroon. Regardless, I polished them off in less than 12 minutes. France, I thought to myself. I could get used to this place.

About an hour later, Christophe Raoux arrived. Christophe is a chef with L'ecole de Cuisine d'Alain Ducasse, and he has been charged with teaching me how to cook. Christophe handed me a sheaf of papers. In typical French style, it opened by laying out some principles. The second one read, "To learn how to cook is to learn how to eat." Over the next three hours, Christophe was going to teach me how to eat.

Alain Ducasse, the wildly successful international uberchef, owns something like 21 restaurants in France, Japan and New York. At one point, he held three Michelen stars in three different countries. The first one we visited is a cozy little place called Benoit that specializes in classic Parisian cuisine. (Classic Parisian cuisine, it turns out, is quite hard to find in Paris these days.) We toured the kitchen, where I laid eyes on a crate containing the largest assemblage of morel mushrooms I have ever witnessed. Downstairs, we saw another kitchen, and I saw several more wooden crates of morels. Benoit, it would seem, is the Fort Knox of morels. Deeper still, I was taken into the Grand Cru wine cellar--wall-to-wall bottles of Burgundy and Bordeaux--which is worth at least double what Fort Knox is.

Pate en croute.

Eventually, we sat down and the chef sent out sortie after sortie from the kitchen laden with rich French delicacies. The first was head cheese. I happen to be one of those people who eats head cheese on a semi-regular basis. It isn't actually cheese, but it is made from the head of something--a baby cow, a pig, what have you. No head cheese I've ever tasted was anywhere near as good as this stuff. Next, a pate en croute, which is a French way of saying a pate that's cooked inside a crust. (I agree--it sounds better in French.)

A whole lot of veal bits = good.

For the main course, I was handed a dish called "Saute gourmand de ris de veau, cretes et rognons de coq, foie gras et jus truffe." I'm still not clear on what this was. But what I know for sure is that it contained veal sweetbreads and veal kidney. Christophe seemed to suggest it contained veal testicles, too, and since I've never tasted those before I can't exactly say whether he's right or wrong, but I suspect something got confused in translation. However, if veal testicles were indeed in the saute gourmand, then I will say the following: Thank you, sir; may I have another? They, along with every other ingredient in the dish, were delicious. The wine, in case you're wondering, went as follows: white Burgundy, white Cotes du Rhone, red Burgundy.

Wine, wine, and wine.

A sweet finish.

Back at my hotel, I stepped on the scale. It said I weighed 80 kilograms. This, people, is the joy of entering a country that uses the metric system: Immediately, you weigh half as much as you did when you left. That's a good thing, too, because we're going to be eating at a different Alain Ducasse restaurant for the next five nights, which means that a few days hence, I'm going to be tipping the sales at 160 kg.

Not that I mind, of course.

<< Photos from an English Garden | A Dessert to Kill For >>

Tipping the scales at 80 kg.


Looks like this is the culinary highlight so far.

Crete de coq translates as cock's comb. That dish looked particularly delightful.

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