I watch in awe at the precision and speed with which Provençal chef Jean-Marc Villard peels and cores a Gala apple. The chef is demonstrating how to make a single-serving-sized tart tatin. He spoons granulated sugar into a ramekin to create flavor-enhancing caramelization, and attempts to insert the apple inside the small, ribbed dish for baking.
Only there’s a problem: the apple is too large. He swiftly removes a few slices from the flesh and pops them into his mouth. “Quality control,” he quips, grinning mischievously, as the apple now fits just right.
Six of us are enrolled in French Cuisine by Jean-Marc Villard, a one-day, hands-on gourmet cooking class taught in English. Jean-Marc has a passion for all things “gastronomique,” and is showing us how to shop, cook, and eat like the French.
Our classroom is the large, airy kitchen of the stone and tiled-roof house Jean-Marc shares with his wife, Alice, in the village of Maubec, France. Situated in the shadow of the hills of the Luberon in Provence, the Villards’ property is lushly landscaped with the requisite olive trees, lavender, flowering trees, and flowing fountain that typify this postcard-perfect region.
Our assignment: to collectively prepare – and eat! – a three-course lunch using menus that Chef Villard developed based on what’s local, fresh, seasonal, and accommodates our food preferences and allergies.
But first, coffee.
French cooking with Jean-Marc Villard
Our day of French gastronomy begins, appropriately enough, at the Villards’ kitchen table. Coffee, tea, fruit juices, water, and fresh-baked mini butter cakes help to break the ice, fostering conversation and camaraderie.
We’re an international group. My friend, Ter, who’s visiting from Cincinnati, and I make up the contingent from the United States. Father Stefan, daughter Sumien, and their friends Janette and Corien, come from South Africa.
Already I can tell the day will be informative and lively. Jean-Marc Villard has a wealth of teaching experience and a delivery seasoned with an easy-going, good humor that sets a cheerful tone. He learned English early in his career while working in a restaurant in St. Louis. For a decade, he was a chef and instructor at the prestigious Paul Bocuse Institute in Lyon, France. He then opened his own cooking school there in 2001. In 2015, he and Alice moved to Provence, where he runs his cooking classes from March to October.
He reveals our to-do – and to-eat – list:
- Amuse bouche/palate teaser – Petit Marseillais peppers
- Entrée/starter – Zucchini spaghetti and bell peppers with pastis flavor and arugula pesto
- Plat/main course – Roasted monkfish covered with bacon, brown sauce with green olives, pumpkin purée, trompette mushrooms, and parsnip chips
- Dessert – Apple tatin tart on a crumbly cookie
“Wine?” Stefan asks.
“Of course,” Jean-Marc shrugs. “You are in France.”
But first, shopping.
We hop into cars for the short drive to Naturellement Paysan food co-op. Jean-Marc calls this market his second home. He’s as familiar with the farmers and producers who volunteer here as he is with the fruits, vegetables, meats, cheese, jams, spices, grains, and other foodstuffs that line the store’s shelves.
He offers a running commentary as he leads a tour.
“You can make spelt risotto in advance, reheat, and it’s still firm, unlike rice which looks like dog food if you reheat it. Pear tomatoes are the best for soup and sauce. Remember Mangalica pork. The pigs have curly hair like sheep, and the meat is so good. Even honey bees like living in Provence.”
Tomatoes, melons, and a few other holdovers from summer are here. Fall’s rich and vibrantly-colored harvest claims center stage, however, with apples, pears, kiwi, leeks, carrots, potatoes, parsnips, rutabaga, and cabbage. Potimarron, a deeply burnished-orange squash catches my eye. Marron means chestnut in French, and its starchy flesh is similar.
“Provence is the garden of France,” Jean-Marc explains. “We grow everything here except citrus fruits, because it gets too cold. You can pick herbs from the side of the road – thyme, rosemary, mint, wild fennel, even arugula.”
We return to the kitchen with the few remaining provisions. It’s time to work.
We stand at the large prep counter, each of us with a cutting board, knives, peeler, recipes written in metric, and a stainless-steel pan to toss scraps for Jean-Marc’s chickens.
Painted on the wall behind me is a single line of script. It roughly translates to “cuisine of subtle scents, candied vegetables, chosen spices, recipes from the heart, delights in flavors.” An ode to what we’re about to experience.
Jean-Marc demonstrates each step, and we follow along.
We peel, core, slice, dice, seed, mince, process, blend, purée, deep fry, simmer, sauté, and roast. And sip wine. We slowly sweat vegetables in a pan until they’re completely cooked, but not browned. Flour gets weighed on a scale to the exact ounce, and baking rings get filled with dough. In an uncommon mix of seafood and meat, we wrap slices of smoked bacon around monkfish filets (a fish so ugly stores sell it whole with the head removed, says Jean-Marc). A sniff of pastis, a classic Provençal beverage boasting 45 percent alcohol, makes us heady. With vigor, we smash garlic with blades of our chef’s knives, spurred on by Jean-Marc’s directive to “think about our enemies.”
While quality control is a serious part of Jean-Marc Villard’s professional world, the term has morphed into a light-hearted catchphrase.
“Quality control,” he announces, his signal to sample our work, assess taste and texture, and make necessary adjustments. “Quality control,” we eagerly reply, whipping out small spoons we tucked into pockets of our red aprons. Happily, we’re controlling quality quite often. We wash and dry our spoons to keep then at the ready.
Sumien accidentally drops some food on the floor. Jean-Marc seizes another teaching opportunity.
“You’d probably say that happened because of too much wine,” he supposes. “We say not enough wine.”
Midway through cooking, Alice enters the kitchen with a welcome snack. She carries a wooden board with a fougasse, a fragrant flat bread made with olive oil, coarse salt, and herbs. At Christmas, a sweet fougasse is a favorite Provençal dessert.
“You know the mandoline?” Jean-Marc Villard asks. It’s an innocent question, but Ter and I exchange panicked looks. Concerned about possible hazards, we’ve never used one. Neither have our fellow students.
“It’s a good tool to cut vegetables and fingers at the same time,” he notes. “Do with dry hands and fingers up, otherwise you make finger spaghetti instead of zucchini spaghetti. Julienne without loss of fingers and without blood.”
All fingers remain intact.
I’m stationed next to the five-burner Smeg cooktop and oven. Aromas from baking fruit, sizzling fish, flavored vegetables, and reducing sauce have teased me for the meal to come.
After helping Jean-Marc plate each course with artistic flair, we seat ourselves at the dining table on the front porch and dive in. A light, dry mistral wind blows in from the north and stirs the trees. A neighbor’s dog howls mournfully, a counterpoint to our joie de vivre.
Wine glasses in hand, we toast Jean-Marc Villard as a culinary force. In just six hours, he’s introduced us to the abundance of Provençal farms, proper cooking techniques, signature Provençal ingredients, specialty gadgets and tools, French vocabulary, Provençal holiday traditions, and the fun of quality control.
Best of all, he’s turned us into French chefs.
I attended the cooking class courtesy of French Cuisine by Jean-Marc Villard. The experiences and story are my own.