“It’s all about the ingredients and knowing where they come from,” said Marjorie Taylor, chef and co-founder of The Cook’s Atelier, as she led us through the bountiful and beautiful stalls of fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses, olives, and herbs from some of her favorite artisan producers. “Food should be real, fresh, seasonal, and local.”
We were shopping at the Wednesday outdoor market in historic Beaune in the Burgundy region of France for some select items that we’d soon use to create a five-course spring lunch in her hands-on cooking class. The market is an integral part of French life and speaks to the country’s renowned tradition of good eating. Depending on the size of the city or town, the market could be weekly, bi-weekly, or more often. Beaune’s larger market is Saturday. Among the goodies in Marjorie’s straw bag were long fava bean pods, stalks of thin green and thick white asparagus, delicate leeks, Époisses cheese, and tiny quail.
Bill and I had relished one of The Cook’s Atelier’s combo market tour/class sessions during a previous trip to Beaune. We thought his mom, Ann, a retired home economist, also would enjoy experiencing Burgundy’s food and wine culture. Beaune is just a little over two hours away from Paris via high-speed TGV train, so a day trip was on the itinerary. Ann and I took the class while Bill strolled through the city.
How Marjorie came to Beaune from America and, with her daughter, Kendall Smith Franchini, started a business that showcases small artisan producers and preserves Burgundian culinary traditions is the stuff of dreams.
In 2008, Marjorie, former co-chef and proprietor of a restaurant and cooking school in Phoenix, AZ, and Kendall, the self-described “wine girl,” established The Cook’s Atelier to reflect their love of France, food, wine, markets, and family. Kendall had studied in France and worked at Christie’s in Paris. She then moved to Beaune to study viticulture and worked for Kermit Lynch, an American wine importer. Kendall was fully entrenched in French life (now with a French husband and two children), and Marjorie decided to make a permanent move across the “big pond.”
Their epicurean center, housed in a 17th century building, includes a teaching kitchen, a wine shop featuring an eclectic collection of wines from Burgundy and other areas of Europe, a retail shop stocked with cooking tools and artisan food products, and a dining room.
From the moment Ann and I met up with our fellow classmates — Ed from Los Angeles and Jo and Willard from Santa Barbara – outside the Alain Hess Cheese Shop at La Place Carnot to begin the market tour, Marjorie and Kendall fostered an atmosphere that was convivial and casual. We felt an instant rapport with a common eagerness to learn about the connection between farmer and cook, and partake of the pleasures of the Burgundian table.
Once inside the light-filled kitchen and suited up in white aprons with the requisite hand towel tucked into the strings, that same sense of ease and fun continued.
The ingredients were picture-perfect, attractively laid out on the long work table. Our appetizing menu: gougères cheese puffs served with chilled crémant de Bourgogne, the local sparkling wine; salad with thinly sliced jambon, white asparagus, radishes and six-minute eggs; roasted quail, or caille, stuffed with garlic and herbs in a white wine sauce with roasted potatoes, roasted tomatoes, and sautéed asparagus and fava beans; the requisite French cheese course; and a light-as-air cake topped with first-of-the-season gariguette strawberries.
Rather than refer to printed recipes (available on The Cook’s Atelier’s website), we simply followed Marjorie’s verbal instructions. She wove through the kitchen in perpetual motion, guiding us through the steps for each dish with a steady stream of commentary and laughter.
“Snap off the tough bottoms of the asparagus and peel them to remove the outer strings,” Marjorie said to Willard. “Use a big whack with the meat cleaver,” she said to Ed and me as we prepped quail. “Stir, stir, stir,” she encouraged Jo as she used a wooden spoon to beat a mixture of water, melted butter, flour, eggs, and cheese rapidly enough to ensure the proper consistency for the gougères. “Stir, stir, stir,” she echoed to Ann, who was creaming butter by hand for the cake. “You could do that in an electric mixer, but heck why. We’re in France! It’s all good!”
Throughout both the market tour and the cooking lesson, Marjorie dispensed nuggets of culinary wisdom. Some of the differences between the Burgundian kitchen and the typical American kitchen stood out.
- Don’t buy eggs that say vegetarian. Chickens aren’t vegetarians. Chickens here wander, eat bugs, exercise, and have leg muscles. Chickens are much more flavorful here, although you’d think they’d be tough. Americans think of chicken as cheap protein, and the French don’t look at it that way.
- Don’t buy parts of chickens because you don’t know if the parts are related. Buy a whole chicken and take it apart yourself.
- The most important thing you need when making gougères is a wooden spoon.
- To make parchment paper adhere to a cookie sheet, place a little of the dough between the two.
- When you cook, think like it’s one big, continuous dinner preparation. If you’re doing chicken today, make stock for tomorrow.
- Through every step, think about what the food will look like on the plate.
- Always cook with unsalted butter.
- Do what you can ahead of time. For example, blanch asparagus, shock them in an ice water bath to stop cooking and preserve color, and then finish them in a pan with some butter right before eating.
- When you’re baking, use a scale to measure ingredients.
- Slice garlic cloves in half and remove the germ, which is what people who can’t tolerate garlic can’t tolerate.
- Use wooden boards because they’re better for your knives. Layer parchment paper over them for extra protection. Disinfect wooden boards with straight vinegar. If the board smells funny, squirt it with lemon and rub in some salt.
- When you salt food, do so from height so it rains down.
- When you sear meat, it shouldn’t be wet and your pan should be hot.
- For the cheese course, start out with the mildest cheese first.
As we sat down at the French farm table to enjoy the fruits of our labors with Kendall’s wine pairings, Marjorie noted it’s not just about eating, but everything that goes with it… having a glass of wine, taking the time to truly savor your meal, appreciating your dining companions, and engaging in conversation.
That’s the French joie de vivre, or the cheerful enjoyment of life. We shared it that day with gusto.