Greetings dear readers and friends! I’m thrilled to share with you a wonderful day I had attending a cooking class in the Luberon. Besides being an absolutely stunning region, my day spent at Jean-Marc Villard’s Cooking School was an unforgettable (and delicious!) experience.
I’ll just have to take a minute to set the scene here… Tucked away in the countryside of the Luberon national park, you’ll find Jean-Marc and Alice’s charming Provençal-style home in the village of Maubec. And what a dream location it is. As I left Toulon in the early-morning hours to make the 8:45am start-time, I had a chance to admire the never-ending vineyards, rolling poppy fields, and picture-perfect villages that dotted the road. Remember, this is the fabled-region of the villages of Gordes, Lourmarin, Roussillon, and Bonnieux (to name a few!).
And upon arriving at Jean-Marc’s home, I was greeted by the lovely Alice who served myself and my classmates coffee and homemade madeleines – fresh from the oven. I really appreciated this warm welcome, as we had a chance to chat and learn more about each other before the class started.
In our class, besides myself, there was an American couple, a Japanese restaurateur / sommelier, and a lovely Australian woman. We made our introductions, lingered a bit over our coffees, and then it was off to the market with Jean-Marc. He took us to the Petit Palais farmers’ market (which lies in the commune of Isle-sur-la-Sorgue). While we shopped for ingredients for the day’s menu, Jean-Marc explained that is was truly a local market in which each producer really specialized in his / her specific product. If you wanted fava beans, you went to the first stand on the left. Cherries (organic and pesticide free) were found near the back where two gentlemen excitedly proclaimed to Jean-Marc that these were some of their first “baskets” to hit the market. We purchased a basket and everyone got a chance to “taste-test” their offerings. Fresh and delicious.
For someone who has seen a few Provençal markets, I absolutely loved the Petit Palais farmers’ market. It was small, but you had the feeling of really being on “the inside” with Jean-Marc’s guidance and expertise. Plus, it was obvious that you were getting the best quality and authentic products from the Vaucluse region – a real treat.
We all hopped back in our cars and headed to the kitchen. Jean-Marc had each recipe set-out for us at our work stations, and he carefully explained what our menu for the day would be. And what a menu it was! Maybe I’ve been in France a little too long, but I couldn’t help exclaiming a few Ohhs and Ooh la lahhs as his listed our dishes. Here they are below:
Our cooking menu:
Amuse-bouche: Mushroom cream soup topped with a hazelnut oil-seasoned scallop
Entrée: Goat cheese cromesquis with asparagus and mixed green salad
Main dish: Sea bass on fresh garlic purée with green olives, fava beans and sage sauce
Dessert: Shortbread cookie with strawberry jam flavored with lemon verbana and sorbet
Admittedly, I felt a bit overwhelmed at the start. I mean, was this a menu for a Michelin-starred restaurant? How were we ever going to get all of this done, let alone make it taste good?
Well, I can say that one of the greatest qualities of Chef Jean-Marc is that he is extremely well-organized and an excellent teacher. He had each recipe broken-down to its most basic steps and we took on each dish piece-by-piece… which meant that I barely had a chance to feel the time pass as, well, I was having way too much fun.
Apart from being an expert cook, Jean-Marc is good-humored, patient, and laugh-out-loud funny. Plus, he speaks perfect English. So as we each had tasks to carry out, he would interject small anecdotes and lessons about particular techniques. Like how using powdered milk in a cream soup could give the same flavor without adding as much fat as a traditional cream (always appreciated!).
Jean-Marc did his chef training in Nice, where he received a culinary diploma. After working in several restaurants, including a stint in St. Louis, Missouri, he was picked up by the renowned French Chef Paul Bocuse to be one of the first culinary instructors at his school in Lyon. He spent 10 years as a faculty member of the prestigious Paul Bocuse Institute and would later come to own and manage his own culinary school with his wife Alice. Besides offering culinary courses to visitors (all in English), he has also taught individuals and teams in Singapour, Rome, Djakarta, Bogota, San Paulo, Tunis, Casablanca, Kuala Lumpur.
And the class was completely hands-on. I can now confidently (with a quick re-glance at my notes) make jam, measure the correct ingredients for shortbread cookies, cook fresh seabass, and dress a plate with zucchini spaghetti with a steady twirl of a fork – among others!
As we reached the end of our cooking duties, we stepped onto the sunny terrace and were seated at Alice’s beautifully-dressed table. We toasted the meal with Champagne, and each course was served with a different, local wine. Heavenly.
In between dishes, we shared travel stories and generally marvelled at our good fortune to be sharing such a lovely day together in Provence.
A very whole-hearted merci to Jean-Marc and Alice. I’m still thinking of this meal, thank you!