Back To School: Hungry Minds At Le Cordon Bleu

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Many kids and young adults are heading back to school right now. Some lucky stiffs, however, will trade cracking books for grilling, baking, sautéing and flambéing.

Ever wonder what it's like? We have.

Turns out, culinary school's lighter on the Gordon Ramsay-style discipline than you'd think and heavier on the teamwork and practical training. At least that's how it is at Le Cordon Bleu Institute of Culinary Arts in Dallas. A typical day for the some 500 students at this two-year-old North Dallas school begins with a line-up before Chef Bryant Currie, Program Chair of Culinary Arts. He makes for an imposing figure--better than six and a half feet tall with a piercing gaze that wouldn't miss a speck of dirt on a white chef's coat.

"'Mise en place' isn't always about food," he booms, putting on his best "scary chef" face.

It doesn't last long. This big guy is all smiles and laughs, and every student seems to love him. In fact, class after class (there are 15 instructional areas in all) on our visit was full of serious students having some serious fun. In one large kitchen classroom, a famous chef held court as guest instructor for the day. Asian cooking celebrity Chef McDang whipped up an amazing Pad Thai in a smoking wok, while students sampled his creation with bites of bitter banana blossom.

Now that's our kind of study hall.

A neighboring class wasn't quite so lucky, but they still seemed to be enjoying their basic "Foundation I" lessons on equipment, ingredients and, most importantly, knife skills. "Every day they're slicing and dicing something," Chef Currie explained as he waved at the rows of students lined up before twin flat-screen TV's. Dozens of numbered containers were arranged on a counter nearby for a later lesson in spice identification (no tasting allowed).

Students also study pastry and breads, butchering and garde manger, a comprehensive prep category involving everything from sausage-making to sushi. And that's not even the half of it. According to Chef Currie, a student usually arrives somewhat confused (or disillusioned) about what his (or her) culinary career path might entail. The student might be dead-set on becoming the next spiky-haired television phenomenon, but after exploring almost every aspect of the food world, many students fall in love with something totally unexpected...like actually cooking in a real kitchen.

Or maybe writing about food if they have a trust fund and therefore don't care about earning a living wage. Or working in research. As long as you can cover the $33K bill, the sky's the limit in this booming field (never pay back that loan if you go into food writing).

Anyway, something you might not know is that student-staffed Le Technique restaurant inside the school offers gourmet meals at ridiculously low prices (lunch is just $13 for three courses). We sampled pizzas, a fried goat cheese salad and prosciutto wrapped loin of rabbit on our visit and other choices included veal scaloppini and a Mediterranean tuna sandwich.

White table cloths and very attentive service (your waiter is being graded, after all) rounded out the pleasant experience. It's worth a visit if you want a taste of what the next generation of celebrity--or just plain well-trained--chefs are working on.

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