“It’s nice to see them doing something other than standing around smoking,” I said to my friends Annie-Claude, Philippe, Raoul et Dom as we walked into the reception room of École Jean Drouant, an école hotelière on the rue Médéric, about a 30-second walk from my friends’ apartment where I stay in Paris.
Annie-Claude had made dinner reservations for us at the school’s restaurant d’application, where future chefs, hoteliers, servers and entrepreneurs who are there to learn their trade practice their craft on the public. It’s a little like dining at one of the student restaurants at a culinary school in the U.S., though far less pretentious than, say, the one at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., where the quality of the food is often the inverse of the hauteur of the staff.
At the Jean Drouant school the welcome was warm. And the food was good. And it cost just €23 for three courses, a relative bargain for a meal that aimed to be a little more elegant than bistro fare.
I was glad to see the students at work, since the extent of my interactions with them run to stepping around one or two of them who are sitting smoking on the front step of my apartment building when I enter, or who are grouped smoking on the narrow sidewalk in front of the Café Médéric, a coffee and lunch place that recently reopened. Several times during each weekday, in fact, small clusters of Jean Drouant students – all clad in the school’s uniform of black trousers, white shirt, black jacket – gather under the windows of the apartments along the street, to clouds of smoke and blares of music. But once inside the school, and at the two or three restaurants that the school runs for its students, the kids are all seriousness, aware of what they’re doing, eager, occasionally sloppy but generally conscientious. Sure, within they are all budding professionals under the watchful eyes of teachers, rather than noisy smokers ignorant of the baleful glare of neighborhood residents, but I was heartened to see how seriously they took their roles, and how serious in general France takes service industries such as hotels and restaurants.
Pretty much all of these students find jobs after graduation, in restaurants or hotels. The school offers several sorts of degrees, including a BAC (baccalauréat professionel cuisine, commercialisation et service en restauration) to what’s known as enseignement supérieur as well as professional licenses in cuisine.
We were placed at a table that was a little too large for us to chat comfortably – it felt more suited to a convention hall than a restaurant – but that didn’t matter too much. We were offered two choices among the first courses, the main courses and the desserts. To start, I chose the bavarois de céleri et sa crème à la fourme d’Ambert, tuile salée. A bavarois is a sort of cream cake – usually a dessert. Here, it was a small creamy cake of celery-root purée, with a sauce made from the cheese known as the fourme d’Ambert, a raw cow’s milk cheese from the Auvergne, usually shaped into a cylinder. It had a thin, savory cookie with it, known as a tuile. It was delicious, really. Something very French, very accessible, very tasty and unlikely to be found at a restaurant in the U.S. The tastes – especially the raw-milk cheese that created the sauce – were too local to travel. The other choice was an open-faced ravioli with crab and passion fruit. It seemed more “international” to me and somehow less interesting. My friends loved it, though.
For the main course, I chose a caille farcie et embeurrée de choux – a stuffed quail with buttered cabbage, and a potato cake. The other choice was a râble de lapin farci sauce moutarde, pastille de poires. A râble de lapin is the back of the rabbit, deboned. The quail was a little underdone for my taste – which meant you had to work to get the meat off the teeny bones. My friend Michel does a braise of stuffed quail, and I actually preferred his humbler dish: the meat falls off the tiny bones in delicious strands. For the dessert I chose a dish that was made up of a small lime macaron on top of a scoop of homemade apricot sorbet, rather than the poached pear with the verbena sauce.
Two of the young chefs came over to chat with us after the dessert, and to get our opinions on the courses – what we liked and didn’t – and to answer questions regarding ingredients or preparation. They were genuinely interested in seeing how their work could improve. I asked them what their plans were following their training here. One young woman was planning to go abroad – New York or Montreal – to further her training, while the other was heading to Bordeaux to continue her study of wine and winemaking. Then they slipped away to meet with their professors. And, very probably, have an after-dinner smoke outside.
The Jean Drouant school is just one of several in Paris that specialize in this sort of hotel-restaurant training. Jean Drouant – also the name of a restaurant where the Prix Goncourt winners are decided (following a dinner, of course) – has been around for about 80 years, and is housed in an Art Deco-style brick building that on a gray February day can be a little somber. But inside, the building has the weathered appeal of any well-run institute of learning. The reception hall, where our dinner took place, was apparently modeled after the dining room of the old ocean liner Normandie, and has an old-fashioned airiness. The tables are widely spaced – more so than at an actual restaurant – so it felt a little more corporate than the typical Parisian bistro. But the locals there were enjoying themselves, and the folks at the table next to ours had an intense discussion over certain wines – one of the students was training to be a sommelier. I was delighted to witness how earnest everyone was, both the ardent students and the enthusiastic patrons, to continue the tradition of fine French dining.
The students, of course, were keeping up another Gallic tradition of smoking and chatting. But that comes more naturally.