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FOOD AND TRAVEL

A French twist on fast food for lunch

Students in a 30-minute lunchtime cooking class (above) held in the housewares section of the Galeries Lafayette department store in Paris learn how to prepare honey-soy lacquered bass (below). Students in a 30-minute lunchtime cooking class (above) held in the housewares section of the Galeries Lafayette department store in Paris learn how to prepare honey-soy lacquered bass (below). (photos by david lyon for the boston globe)
By David Lyon
Globe Correspondent / November 26, 2008
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PARIS - One of the best meals I had on a recent visit here cost about $23 and I made it myself. L'Atelier des Chefs (Chefs' Workshop) offers an array of classes for home cooks. In an hour (or in half a day), you can prepare a three-course meal or learn the secrets of perfect macaroons. Popular lunch-hour classes are only 30 minutes, allowing students time to eat before they go back to work. L'Atelier des Chefs supplies the tools, ingredients, and kitchen. You supply enthusiasm and an appetite.

This was an idea even an American in a hurry could embrace: In a brief midday intermezzo, I could add to my cooking repertoire and have a casual lunch with Parisian food lovers.

Most classes are limited to eight participants, and tend to fill up fast. I signed up in advance through L'Atelier des Chefs website for a class in the Galeries Lafayette department store, near the Opera stop on the Metro and the most central of the school's locations. The kitchen is a glassed-in cubicle, just steps from shelves proffering the same knives, cutting boards, saucepans, and woks we use to make honey-soy lacquered fish fillets with stir-fried vegetables.

All classes are taught in French, and my instructor, Nicolas Thoueil, apologizes for speaking no English. I apologize for my amusing French, and thereafter nod a great deal. Pas de problem. Cooking is a matter of learning by watching, then by doing. Thoueil explains a step, then demonstrates, and looks at each of us to make sure we understood.

Our uncomplicated dish suits our group. Two young women and a man in business attire have to be shown how to hold a knife. No matter. Even with seven (one no-show), Thoueil manages to correct his students' vegetable cutting techniques, swiftly teach how to remove bone tips from a fish fillet without messing up the shape, and make sure we each stir-fry. About five minutes into it, we put the honey-soy coated fish into the oven and to tell if it's ready, the chef asks each of us to probe the fillets with a fingertip to learn exactly how cooked fish should feel. He packs a lot of hands-on instruction into a half hour.

It's time to plate the dish. Thoueil lays out a line of vegetables, places a fillet, lacquered side up, on top, and decorates the plate with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. We each follow suit, then sit at our prep table to dine.

Thoueil passes bread and pours white wine. My weak French makes me a less than scintillating lunch companion. (Phrases like "because my Metro ticket doesn't work" are not all that useful in casual table talk.) But my language skills are good enough to recognize that Thoueil is explaining how to generalize our new skills for other fish and vegetables. And I don't need fluency to guess that several of the women signed up for the class because Thoueil is a good-looking young chef.

After dessert of grilled pineapple with whipped cream (prepared by the chef), Thoueil gives each of us a paper with a billing code for the cash register, and proceeds to stamp coupon books from repeat students (you get a free class for every six you purchase). Three women ask when he's teaching again.

L'Atelier des Chefs classes are held all over Paris. Thirty-minute lunch classes cost about $23. Go to www.atelierdeschefs.com.

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