Sacre Cordon Bleu! The cooking-school exam that ate Julia Child

By late 1950, I felt ready to take my final examination and earn my diplome from the Cordon Bleu in Paris. Bur when I asked Mme. Brassart, the school’s director, to schedule the test -politely, at first, then with an increasing insistence -my requests were met with stony silence. The truth is chat Mme. Brassart and I got on each other’s nerves. She seemed co think that awarding a student a diploma was like inducting them into some kind of secret society; as a result, the school’s hallways were filled with an air of petty jealousy and distrust. From my perspective, Mme. Brassart lacked professional experience, was a terrible administrator and tangled herself up in picayune details and politics. Because of it’s exalted reputation, the Cordon Bleu’s pupils came from all over the globe. But the lack of a qualified and competent head was hurting the school – and could damage the reputation of French cooking, or even France herself, in the eyes of the world.
I was sure that the little question of money had something to do with Mme. Brassart’s evasiveness. I had taken the “professional” course in the basement rather than the “regular” (more expensive) course upstairs, which she had recommended; I never ate at the school; and she didn’t make as much money out of me as she would have liked. It seemed to me that the school’s director should have paid less attention co centimes and more attention to her students, who, after all, were -or could be her best publicity.
After waiting and waiting for my exam to be scheduled, I sent Mme. Brassart a stern letter in March 1951, noting that “all my American friends and even the U.S. ambassador himself” knew I had been slaving away at the Cordon
Bleu, “morning, noon and night.” I insisted that I take the exam .before I left on a long-planned trip to the United States in April. If there was not enough space at the school, I added, then I would be happy to cake the exam in my own well-appointed kitchen.
More time passed, and still no response. I was good and fed up and finally spoke to Chef Bugnard, my professor, about the mat.ter. He agreed to make inquiries on my behalf. Lo and behold, Mme. Brassart suddenly scheduled my exam for the first week in April. Ha! I continued to hone my_ technique, memorize proportions and prepare myself in every way I could think of . . On the big day, I arrived at the school, and they handed me a little typewritten card that said, “Write out the ingre­dients for the following dishes, to serve three people: oeufs mollets; cotelettes de veau en surprise; creme ren­versee au caramel.” I stared at the card in disbelief.
Did I remember what an oeuf molter was? No. How could I miss that? (I later discovered that it was eggs that have been coddled and then peeled.) How about the veau· “en surprise”? No. (A sauteed veal chop with duxelles, or hashed mushrooms, on either side, overlayed with ham slices and all wrapped up in a paper bag – the “surprise” – that is then browned in the oven.) Did I remember the exact proportions for caramel custard? No.
Zut alors, and flute!
I was stuck, and had no choice but to make everything up. I knew I would fail the practi­cal part of the exam. As for the written exam, I was asked how to make fond brun, how to cook green vegetables and how to make sauce bearnaise. I answered them fully and cor­rectly. But that didn’t take away the sting.
I was furious at myself. There was no excuse for not remembering what a molet was or, especially, the details of a caramel custard. I could never have guessed at the veau en surprise, though, as the paper wrapping was just a lot of tomfoolery – the kind of gimmicky dish a little newlywed would serve up for her first dinner party to epater the boss’s wife. Caught up in my own romanticism, I had focused on learning far more challenging fare – filers de sole a la WaJewska, poularde Toulousaine, sauce Venetienne. Woe!
There were no questions about complicated dishes or sauces, no discussion about which techniques and meth­ods I’d use. Instead, they wanted me to memorize basic recipes taken from the little Cordon Bleu booklet, a pub­lication written for beginner cooks that I had hardly both­ered to look at. This exam was far too simple for someone who had devoted six months of hard work to cooking school, not to mention countless hours of her own time in the markets and behind the srove.
My disgruntlement was supreme, my amour-propre enraged, my bile overboiling. Worst of all, it was my own fault.
I despaired that the school would ever deign to grant me a certificate. Me, who could pluck, flame, empty and cut up a whole chicken in 12 minutes flat! Me, who could stuff a sole with forcemeat of weakfish and serve it with a sauce au vin blanc such as Mme. Brassart could never hope to taste the perfection of! Me, the supreme mistress of mayonnaise, hollandaise, cassoulets, choucroutes, blanquettes de veau, pommes de terre Anna, souflee Grand Marnier, fonds d’anichauts, onions glacees, mousse de faisan en gelee, balancines, galantines, terrines, pates, laitues braisees … me, alas!
Later that afternoon, I slipped down to the Cordon Bleu’s basement kitchen by myself. I opened the school’s booklet, found the recipes from the examination – oeufs mollets with sauce bearnaise, cotclettes de veau en surprise and creme renversee au caramel – and whipped them all up in a cold, clean fury. Then I ate them.

Cotelettes de Veau en Surprise (Veal Chops Surprise) 

  • 11 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 large shallots. finely chopped
  • 10 ounces mushrooms, trimmed
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 6 veal chops. trimmed, rinsed, dried and finely diced
  • 6 ounces each
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 12 thin slices cooked ham
  • 1 egg white, beaten
  1. Heat 3 tablespoons of the butter in a large skillet over low heat. Add the shallots and saute until softened. Increase the heat to high and add the mushrooms. Season with salt and pepper. Saute until all the moisture has evaporated, then spread the mixture on a plate to cool.
  2. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Season both sides of the chops with salt and pepper. Heat the oil and I tablespoon of the butter in a large skillet over high heat. Add the chops and brown lightly on both sides. Transfer to paper towels to drain, and pat dry.
  3. Cut six 12-by-10-inch rectangles of parchment paper. Melt the remaining 7 tablespoons butter. Position a rectangle of parchment so that the IO-inch side is directly in front of you. Brush with butter, and place a tablespoon of che mushroom mixture in the middle of the lower half of the rectangle. Top with a slice of ham, topped with a veal chop. Cover the veal with another slice of ham and another tablespoon of mushrooms. Repeat with the remaining pieces of parchment paper, veal chops, mushrooms and ham.
  4. Brush a ¼-inch border of egg white along the 3 edges of the lower half of the rectangles. Fold the upper half of the rectangle over the veal, and align the edges. Again brush the 3 edges with egg white, then fold and crimp the edges to make a strong seal. Continue until all six chops are encased in parchment. Brush the surface of the parchment with the remaining melted butter, and brush the crimped edges again with egg white. Lay the veal packets on a baking sheet and bake until the packers are puffed and brown, about 15 minutes. Transfer each packet to a place co be opened at the table. Serves 6. Adapted from Le Cordon Bleu.

Creme Renversee au Caramel (Caramel Custard) 

  • ½ cup plus 2/3 cup sugar
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 large eggs
  • 4 large egg yolks
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a small saucepan, combine½ cup sugar with ¼ cup water. Bring to a boil over low heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Increase the heat to high and cook, without stirring, until the syrup turns a light caramel color. Remove the saucepan from the heat and dip the bottom into cold water to stop the cooking. Pour the caramel into a 4-cup charlotte mold, and tile so that it covers the bottoms and sides. Let cool.
  2. 2. In a small saucepan. bring the milk and vanilla to a boil. In a heatproof bowl, beat the eggs, egg yolks and½ cup sugar until blended. Whisking constantly, pour the hot milk into the egg mixture; let rest for a few minutes, then strain. Pour the custard into the caramel-coated mold.
  3. Put the mold in a small but deep baking or roasting pan, and add hot water to come about two-thirds up the sides of the mold. Place the pan on the stove over medium heat, and bring the water to a simmer. Transfer the pan to the oven. (The water should stay at a low simmer at all times; do not let ic boil or the custard will overcook.) Bake until a knife inserted into the center of the custard comes out clean, 40 to 50 minutes. Keep the custard in the baking pan until the water cools. Remove from the pan to finish cooling. To serve, run che tip of a knife around the top of the custard to loosen it. Invert a sen·ing platter over the mold and quickly turn it over again. Carefully remove che mold. Serves 6. Adapted from Le Cordon Bleu.

Julia Child was an author of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” and the host of “The French Chef.” She died in 2004. Alex Prud’homme, Childs’s nephew, is the author of “The Cell Game.” This article is an excerpt from “My Life in France,” by Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme, to be published in April.
Photograph by Paul Child