Dione Lucas and L’Ecole du Cordon Bleu

 The Dione Lucas Cooking Show

I have always felt comfortable being in a kitchen. Kitchens are the heart and soul of any house. Kitchens are gathering places for friends and family. It is where the very sustenance of life comes from. It is also a place of learning. I think I was born a gingerbread boy, and when I popped out of the oven, my first adventure in life was to become Grandma’s little helper. Nothing could be more fun for me than to lend a hand in her creations-whether it was peeling vegetables or plucking chickens. The best times had to have been when I would have one of her aprons tied around my small frame under my arms and she encouraged me to get creative with eggs, butter and flour. Carefully guided and rarely discouraged, she slowly unveiled the secrets of her magic to me. Lots of trials. Lots of errors. I was just beginning to learn that is what they call ‘life’.

There were six of us growing up- three who enjoyed cooking endeavors and three who could care less or were not at all inclined. When we were not at my grandmother’s house, sometimes the task of preparing the family meal was dealt to those of us who wanted to do it–or could.  ME!…..I”LL TAKE IT!  My mother abhorred the whole idea of being a domestic diva, and she had her hands full doing the rest of what is required to run a family as large as ours- plus working full time. As I got older, I loved being able to feel like I was helping her by whipping up something tasty to eat. She was a very good cook when she felt like it. I think that the day-to-day chore of making sure six mouths got fed was frustrating and tiring. She never used cookbooks and I know she introduced me to the idea of exploring new combinations of ingredients. The early repertoire on which I prided myself included such gastronomic delights as tuna noodle casserole, English muffin pizzas, and a mean tasty spaghetti sauce that we ended up eating quite often.

In the summer of 1968, through my good buddy Chip, I got involved in manning the phones at the local headquarters of the ‘Eugene McCarthy for President‘ campaign. I was befriended there by an activist mother of a fellow thespian in the high school drama club. She was a Bennington College graduate and co-owner of the revered Bennington Pottery. Apparently she liked my energy, and one day came to me with an offer to work at a new small restaurant she was opening in the pottery courtyard to be called The Brasserie. She said she needed a dishwasher and someone to help with kitchen prep for a famous chef who was coming up from New York. The logo for the restaurant was a cross section of a hard cooked egg with its yellow yolk and upside-down egg shape, lines much in keeping with the clean design of Bennington pottery. I was grateful for the recognition from Gloria and intrigued by the idea of becoming involved in the fun world of working with Bennington College gals also enlisted by Gloria. I took the job.

I had never heard of this chef from New York. I was told she had a sister who taught at Bennington and a son who lived in the area. Well known to many, she had operated several successful restaurants in New York City and now wanted to semi-retire in Vermont to be close to her son. I don’t remember if I’d ever heard of the cooking school called the Cordon Bleu before, but I doubt it.  I’ll always remember the day I first reported to work. I stood outside peering through the window which looked into her kitchen. Inside was a elderly nice looking matron dressed in a gray/green dirndl with a long braid wrapped into a bun. Gloria introduced me to Dione Lucas. I had no clue that my life was about to be changed forever.

Dione Lucas was the consummate teacher and believed that everyone in a restaurant operation should be involved in some capacity with food preparation. My first chores were to tidy up the pots and cooking equipment and to polish some of her exquisite copperware to hang on the walls. She had a collection of stock pots, saute pans, and beautifully intricate molds that I envy having to this day. I was soon shown how to carve the breast meat, or supremes, off the bones of chicken; whip cream in one of her large copper bowls; stuff escargots; properly use a knife like a little saw to remove the skins off of pineapples and citrus. I was an apprentice and there to learn. She talked with a very proper British accent and entrusted me with making sure she always had her beverage of choice at hand in a hot kitchen, which was a 50/50 mix of Guinness Stout and ginger beer.

Dione (dee-oh-nee) was born in Italy and raised in France. As a young girl, her love of cooking led her to enroll in the world renown cooking school, “L’Ecole du Cordon Bleu’, a centuries old institution. The name has been synonymous with excellence since the 16th century when King Henry III of France created the L’Ordre des Chevaliers du Saint Esprit or Order of the Knights of the Holy Spirit in 1578. It was the most exclusive order in France until 1789. This was due to the fact that it’s members (including royalty) were awarded with the Cross of the Holy Spirit, which hung from a blue ribbon known as a Cordon Bleu. The sumptuous banquets accompanying their award ceremonies became legendary.

In 1895, Martha Distel, a French journalist, founded a weekly culinary publication entitled ‘La Cuisiniére Cordon Bleu’, which was published over the next 70 years and became the basis and reference for what is now perhaps one of the largest recipe collections in the world. It contributed to the codification of French Cuisine and in essence established some of the guiding principles of Le Cordon Bleu: hands on teaching, top quality chefs from the food industry, and the best ingredients and techniques combined with vibrant informative demonstrations.

Following the success of the publication, Le Cordon Bleu officially opened its doors as a culinary school in Paris in 1895. The first Cordon Bleu class was held in January 1896 on Rue St Honoré (named after the Saint of Pâtisserie Chefs) near the Palais Royal. From the beginning, famous chefs of the time came to teach at Le Cordon Bleu, including the legendary Chef Henri-Paul Pellaprat. The cooking classes were an immediate success. The reputation of the school spread rapidly world-wide, but the distinction of the title of  ‘chef’  was held mostly by men. That is, until Dione Lucas became the first woman to complete all of the training necessary to garner culinary’s highest award and honor:The Grand Diplome. Her talents were acknowledged and rewarded by an unprecedented and successful petition to Chef Pellaprat to open an extention of the historic school in London, along with another graduate by the name of Rosemary Hume.

Long before Julia Child came onto the scene to bring the joys of French cooking into the homes of America, Dione Lucas had laid the groundwork. Soon after the advent of television, she was before the cameras in what was broadcast as the very first cooking show: ‘To The Queen’s Taste’  in the late forties. Ten years later she starred in ‘The Dione Lucas Cooking Show’.

From the time I first started working with her, Dione would spend hours in her small office in the rear of the restaurant after the last customer had left, writing out recipes from her memory on a yellow legal tablet that would later be compiled into the last of many cookbooks that she authored, The Dione Lucas Book of French Cooking. I was given it as a present in 1973. I carried that book as my bible ever since, and it is now in sad need of rebinding. Many of the pages are stained by splattered sauce or chocolate, which I believe is the sign of a much used and loved cookbook. I remember going to her just before Christmas for a suggestion of a nice meal that I could prepare as a surprise Christmas dinner for my family. She hand wrote out a divine recipe for small individual game birds to be served with savory orange potatoes. Somewhere in the archives, I still have it.

I was in high school and remember a couple of times of getting taunted by some joker, saying I wouldn’t stand a chance on a basketball court against him and I fired back “I can whoop your butt in a kitchen, and I ain’t gotta play basketball- but you gotta eat!” One time in a science class, the teacher was talking about how it took cooks years of experience to be able to make a smooth lumpless gravy, when my friend Marlene blurted out “Well T. can make perfect gravy, and he isn’t that old”.

There were times when Madame Lucas downed a shot or two of brandy (“for her cough”) along with her 50/50’s, and got a little tipsy in the kitchen. She could bark orders, and did so one day when Gloria brought in her housekeeper to help out on a busy shift. ‘Granny’, as she was known to everyone, was a mere slip of an old gal who often got hijacked into babysitting Gloria’s children, as well as keeping their house in order. I must have been in the storeroom when Dione barked at Granny, for when I got back, she was a-shakin’ and a-movin’ real fast. When she was able to, she sidled up to me and whispered: “Don’t Dye-onee make you ner-r-r-rvous? She makes me ner-r-r-rvous!”

I worked with Madame Lucas for close to two years, and received an education of immeasurable value. It was at her urging that I packed up and shipped off to Paris to attend classes at the Cordon Bleu. She taught me that the proper preparation and appreciation of good food is not unlike an artist who paints, or one who sculpts. “Whatever talents I had were best expressed in the alchemy of the kitchen. Transforming raw ingredients into a finished product, knowing that my fingers and my skill were responsible for this creation, gave me a tremendous sense of satisfaction. I always imagine this is much the same feeling the leader of an orchestra experiences when he succeeds in drawing exquisite music from each instrument he directs, translating all these sounds into one harmonious composition”. She was an inspiration and mentor to many great cooks who came after, including James Beard and Julia Child. Her famous cooking schools and three world tours in which she taught the Art of Good Food and how to prepare French cooking spawned the awakening of the American palate. The Cordon Bleu has expanded with schools in many countries, and there are now countless excellent institutions for students to be taught the Art of Cooking.

There are many delicious recipes that were taught to me by Dione, which I have prepared over and over through the years. In her last restaurant in New York before moving to Vermont, called The Gingerman, a window was installed so that patrons could watch her in action. She enjoyed elevating the status of the omelette from burnt ‘western’ style to a culinary delight. She carried with her a set of small pans used exclusively for this purpose and were never washed. They were perfectly seasoned and food never stuck in them. At the Gingerman, she wielded five or six pans simultaneously stirring constantly, because the eggs in an omelette “should never get any darker than a baby’s bottom”. Wonderful fillings such as bacon, onion, and potato slow cooked together that she called Bonne Femme, or sauteed chicken livers made these dishes into complete, nutritious meals. I particularly like a series of country soups thickened with a potato base:

* * * * * * *

Dione Lucas’ Potage Cressoniere

4 medium russet potatoes, peeled           12 tablespoons frozen sweet butter

                                                                                       1 large yellow onion, skinned                              3 ribs celery

3/4 cup milk, scalded                1 bunch fresh watercress

                                                                                       4 tablespoons salt butter                                          3 egg yolks

2 cups water                                            3 tablespoons dry sherry

3 teaspoons salt                                   3/4 cup light cream, scalded

1 teaspoon cracked pepper

Cut the potatoes, onion, and celery into 1/4 inch slices. Heat the salt butter in a heavy pan and saute vegetables over high heat for 2 minutes. Add water, salt, and pepper and bring very slowly to a boil. Cut up the sweet butter and put it into the mixture. Put a lid on the pan and cook over low heat until the vegetables are soft. Strip the leaves off of 1/2 of the watercress and set aside. Add remaining cress and stalks to potato mixture. Puree the mixture in a processor or blender. (Careful with hot liquids) Add the milk and reserved leaves. In a bowl, whisk the yolks with the sherry and stir in the cooled scalded cream. Ladle a little of the hot soup into the yolk mixture to temper it, then pour it all into the soup pot.

Do not let the soup boil. Serves 4-6

* * * * * * *

With her nod of approval and encouragement, I set out for Paris. On my first day there, I hurried myself to the school expecting to register. The two women behind the desk pretended not to speak English and my French was fractured. I gave them my name and they said “We do not know who you are, Monsieur”. I told them that I had been communicating with them for months, but in my haste of packing had forgotten to bring the letters. I said I was here to enroll in the class sessions which were to begin the following week. “But Monsieur, we are Le Cordon Bleu! We are booked solid for years-there is no space for you”. My world flashed before my eyes as I went to find my college buddy from the University of Vermont who had come with me. I sat there stunned and told him what had happened. No sooner had I said it all when I felt a little heat under my collar and stood up, turned about face, and marched back into the school. Not giving them a chance to not understand me, I pretty much just plopped $2,000 US on the desk and shoved it forward. Taken aback, the French lady was at a loss for words. “Un moment-Monsieur” and went into the back to talk with her co-worker. She eventually came back and said “I have just found out we have a cancellation for a space in the cours de pâtisserie. We may be able to fit you in.” I took the pastry class for three months and was then able to get into the general cooking class.

As it turned out, the pastry course was the prize of my whole schooling. The Cordon Bleu had fallen on hard times with the death of the last great chef. His widow, Madame Brassart, had turned over control of operations to the secretaries I’d first met who were business wise, but knew nothing of cooking, nor its instruction. It was quite a disappointment when I discovered that the menus we were to learn repeated every other week. The preparations were methods I had already learned under Dione’s tutelage. By the end of the six month general cooking course, I approached both the pastry chef and the cooking chef to ask their advice on my idea of requesting to take the final exam for the Grand Diplome– the coveted certificate of a Cordon Bleu chef. They both felt that I stood a good chance of passing the grueling exam and should petition Madame Brassart with my unusual request. I had, after all, completed two thirds of the required schooling time: 3 month introductory course, 6 month intermediary course and 1 and 1/2 year apprenticeship. Ahead should have been another 6 month ‘polishing’ course (I haven’t a clue), but they felt I should go for it. Madame Brassart–being a businesswoman–declined my request.

I really did learn to speak French through cooking terms. In my youth, I had not given a whole lot of thought into the logistics of communication and comprehension. To my surprise, I hadn’t counted on hours of lecture dictated solely in French.  My three years of high school French class proved useless. It was all in the accent, and I guess I spoke with a Vermont French twang. Fortunately, there were several other American students in my classes and we all got through it quite well.

After Paris, I did not return to the Brasserie for many years. From what I heard, not long after I left, Dione went back to New York to finish her book. Dione Lucas died in 1971. I never got the chance to come back to say thank you. I’d like to believe that she already knew that.

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