Le Cordon Blue A Brief History

Rue Léon Delhomme is a quiet street on the Left Bank in Paris, not far from the EiffelTower. Usually there is not much traffic, people stroll leisurely down the pavement, and children run pass buildings that have stood undisturbed for centuries. But on the eve of February 1, 1988, Rue Léon Delhomme was the scene of much excitement. Floodlights lit the facade of No. 8 and thousands of well-dressed people filled the street. Limousines with diplomatic plates brought ambassadors from twenty-four nations. Champagne corks popped and the sound of applause echoed down the street as the French Minister of Finance unveiled a bronze plaque to commemorate the building's inauguration.

What was going on? The next day French papers announced the news: the world's most famous cooking school had officially relocated. Le Cordon Bleu had moved, and Rue Léon Delhomme would never be the same again. In the weeks to come, curious neighbours got their first glimpse of the new school, examining brochures in French, English, Japanese and Spanish neatly displayed in one window. As the year wore on, a visitor might have noticed that the students looked surprisingly tense; they were taking final examinations. Students, faced with a box full of fresh ingredients, had to prepare a dish named by the chef only minutes before; if they succeeded and the chef approved, they earned their first diploma. They could then go on and enroll in more advanced classes in hopes of one day winning the most coveted prize of all, Le Grand Diplôme de Cordon Bleu.

Though these sights and sounds were new to Rue Léon Delhomme, they were not new to Paris. Le Cordon Bleu is a well-established Parisian institution, as venerable as the Eiffel Tower, and almost as old. It dates back to 1895 when a woman named Marthe Distel formed a weekly publication called La Cuisinière Cordon-bleu, in which famous chefs gave courses via articles they wrote and in which she and others shared recipes, gave advice and discussed the pleasures of the table.

The title had been carefully chosen. It derives from the sixteenth-century French knight's order, Ordre du Saint Esprit the most exclusive in France, whose members - royalty included - were called Cordon-bleus after the broad blue ribbons they wore. Nothing was too good for a Cordon-bleu, and the dinners that accompanied their ceremonious meetings were legendary.

By the eighteenth century, the term Cordon-bleu was applied to anyone who excelled in a particular field. The term became chiefly associated with fine cooks. Some say this is because students at the school founded by Madame de Maintenon at Saint Cyr wore a blue sash during their last year of attendance, and that among the skills they mastered was cooking. Others claim chis association arose after Louis XV bragged to his mistress, Madame du Barry, that only man made great chefs. The lady believed otherwise and invited the king to a small meal prepared by her cuisinière. It was a great success and the king exclaimed. "Who is the new man you have cooking for you? He is as good as any cook in the royal household." "It's a woman cook Your Majesty," Madame du Barry replied, "and I think you should honour her with nothing less than the Cordon-Blue".

In 1827 the first Cordon Bleu cookbook was published called Le Cordon bleu ou nouvelle cuisinière bourgeoise. It remained in print for fifty years, teaching the art of cooking through its recipes. Madame Distel realized that an even better way to teach cooking would be to organize classes where students could see the chef at work and practice under his trained eye. In December 1895 subscribers were informed that "the ever-growing popularity of La Cuisinière Cordon-Blue makes the management feel that it has a duty to find new ways of satisfying those who have faithfully supported our enterprises; hence we have decided to offer free cooking classes to our subscribers and to publish the recipes taught in those classes in future issues of our magazines".

Professional chefs were invited to teach the newly announced classes; among those active in the early years were Chef Barthélémy, director of a professional pastry chefs' publication; Chef Charles Poulain, former director of one of Paris's most famous catering houses; and Chef August Colombié, whose cookery books were extremely popular at the turn of the century.

The first Cordon Bleu cookery class was held on January 14, 1896, in Paris's Palais Royal. Its organizers proudly announced a glimpse of the latest in culinary technology - electricity was installed in one of the kitchens!

The cooking courses were a great success. At first the emphasis was on La Cuisine pratique (practical cooking), although in September 1896 the magazine announced that courses would also be given in haute cuisine classique. These early courses were overseen by one of the most prominent chefs of the day, Charles Driessens. He would later become Directeur des Cours de Cuisine du Cordon-Bleu, Mademoiselle Distel remained director of the magazine, staying discreetly in the background until 1904, when she became head of the cours de cuisine as well.

Both the magazine and the classes attracted the attention of cooking professionals around the world, including Russia. By the time of Mademoiselle Distel's death in the late 1930's the magazine had twentyfive thousand subscribers, and the school - begun as an "extra" offered to subscribers - had become a drawing card in its own right. Indeed, less than ten years after the first courses were offered, the magazine became dependent upon the school, existing simply as the school's official publication. The magazine's importance diminished until in the 1960's, it was discontinued.

By publishing the school recipes, the magazine contributed in a major way to the codification of French cuisine. In its pages definitions were furnished and examples given that provided form and substance to ideas that were sometimes expressed for the first time in print. Both the magazine and the school responded to the growing demand for a rigorous culinary education as well as contributing to and reflecting the evolution of the art of cooking in France for more than half a century.

Le Cordon Bleu grew, changed, and flourished in the following decades. Originally a purely Parisian institution, the school quickly became international, and by 1905 students were coming from as far away as Japan to learn French cooking. An article in the London Daily Mail, dated November 16, 1927, described a visit to the school in Paris where, the author writes, "It is not unusual for as many as eight different nationalities to be represented in the classes.... the purpose of the students vary; some are instructors desiring to add further to their qualifications, while others are novices who intend to become chefs".

Those who attended courses in the early years of this century had the privilege of learning French cuisine from one of the great master chefs of the day, Henri-Paul Pellaprat. Born in 1869, he began cooking at the age of twelve. His talent was quickly recognized and he went on to direct some of the finest restaurant kitchens in France. As time passed, he realized that his real calling was teaching and he accepted a professorship at Le Cordon Bleu. He taught at the school for forty years, during which time he wrote his master work L'Art Cullinaire Moderne. It was translated into five languages, and when it appearred in English (as The Great Book of French Cookery), it was hailed as "the most comprehensive, authoritative, and up-to-date book on French cooking and gastronomy ever written". As an author and teacher, Pellaprat did much to consolidate Le Cordon Bleu's position as the world's leading cookery school, and the tributes paid to his books echo the importance given to the school, which was setting standards and teaching classic French cuisine to an ever-growing number of graduates. Rosemary Hume, who later went on to found "Ecole du Petit Cordon Bleu" in London trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris under Henri-Paul in the 1920s.

After the Second World War, Le Cordon Bleu continued to prosper and grow under the direction of Madame Elisabeth Brassart. She welcomed two generations of cooks to Le Cordon Bleu, revised the curriculum, and saw the school receive official recognition. One of the female students who was enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu did more than sense the trend towards "good cooking and eating," she made it a reality in millions of homes across the United States. That woman, a tall energetic American, to whom Madame Bressart awarded the Grand Diplôme du Cordon Bleu was Julia Child.

By the 1950s Le Cordon Bleu represented not only the highest level of culinary training but was a symbol of Paris itself. It seemed only natural for Audrey Hepburn to attend a cookery school in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower when she played the role of Sabrina in the film of the same name. The reference to Le Cordon Bleu could hardly have been more explicit, and the scene in which she learns to make an omelette was yet another illustration of the growing interest in French cooking and Le Cordon Bleu in particular.

Le Cordon Bleu has not only set the standard for cookery schools around the world but has been innovative in more ways then one: it was the first school to organize demonstrations during which a chef cooked dishes and gave the participants a chance to sample each one (on the following days students made the same dishes in practical classes themselves). Through a judicious mixture of practical classes and demonstrations, students learn French cuisine from French chefs "at the source". When it comes to the teaching of French cuisine and pastry, Le Cordon Bleu is unrivalled. The school's reputation is based on the professional quality of the courses taught. Beginners are introduced to basic techniques and professionals improve their skills through contact with award-winning French chefs who hail from Michelin-starred restaurants. Le Grand Diplôme du Cordon Bleu is recognized throughout the culinary world and opens the doors to the best kitchens in France and abroad.

Today, as in the past, courses are conducted entirely in French, though teaching assistants translate the chefs instructions into English Students in all classes have their own work surface, fully equipped with refrigerated marble work surfaces, a professional oven, and a whole range of kitchen utensils. Special work areas are reserved for courses devoted to pastry, bread baking and sousvide (vacuum-packed) cuisine. Intensive sessions treat such specific aspects of French cuisine as pastry, chocolate and regional cuisine.

Le Cordon Bleu also organizes workshops for groups visiting the school and those eager to get a glimpse of the famous kitchens. It has close academic ties with professional training institutions inside and outside France, and in 1990 purchased Le Cordon Bleu London with which it had no previous affiliation. There, students receive the same rigorous classical training in French cuisine as their counterparts in Paris, but have the added benefit of being offered courses designed to exploit such fine British products as Scottish salmon or Welsh lamb.

With the publication of this book cooks everywhere will be able to benefit from the years of experience that have made Le Cordon Bleu the place to learn French cooking and to perfect culinary skills. No other school can claim a hundred years experience in teaching French cuisine, or boast of better qualified staff or well-equipped facilities.

Located in the culinary capital of Europe, in a city whose cultural and artistic importance never ceases to grow, Le Cordon Bleu is more than a cooking school. It is an institution devoted to promoting and preserving a fine art - French cooking. The school's name is synonymous with excellence, and it is easy to understand why there is a long list of prospective chefs and cooks eagerly waiting to be admitted and why each year enthusiastic men and women from fifty countries are so eager to cross the threshold at No. 8 Rue Léon Delhomme. These new students know they will be a part of a great tradition and that French cuisine will soon hold no mysteries for them. As time passes, they gain confidence in their skills and, if they apply themselves, they will be awarded one of the school's prestigious diplomas. Those who pass their examinations can feel proud; they are now members of a very special group - graduates of Le Cordon Bleu.