Total immersion in French cuisine for young Japanese
If there is such a thing as the perfect place for a cooking school, it's here in the heart of France's rich agricultural area outside of Lyon, where the famous Japanese-cooking school teacher, Shizuo Tsuji has located his culinary educational center.
In the thoroughly French environment of a beautiful old estate, the Chateau de L'Eclair, 55 serious young Japanese, three of whom are women, are learning French cuisine by total immersion in the subject
Back in Japan, in Tsuji's Osaka and Tokyo cooking schools, where 2,500 young people learn professional cooking every year, the curriculum includes French cuisine along with Japanese, Chinese, and continental cooking.
But here at the French campus, opened in l979, students who have already had one year in the Japanese school, pass five or six months of study - but not just in classrooms. Some students also gain valuable experience as stagiaires in French restaurants.
Equally important are visiting instructors from top three-star restaurants, owners and chefs such as Paul Bocuse, Georges Blanc, and the Troisgros brothers.
The staff of eight instructors is headed by Gerard Fenet, professeur de cuisine francaise, who talked with me at lunch. With a dedication and thoroughness that is typically Japanese, students learn from a very intensive program.
One day there may be a farm or market visit; the next, a trip to Lyon to a famous restaurant; on other days, sausagemaking, cheesemaking, charcuterie, or chestnuts.
They ask questions; they take notes. They shop at French markets, visit fish and meat shops, watch produce buyers choosing fruits and vegetables directly from the growers.
They learn about French kitchen tools, utensils, equipment, pots and pans, and terrines.
They watch bakers turn out the perfect loaf of French bread, as only the French have been able to make it.
Everything must be perfection - the classic French sauces, the traditional pastries, the formal service, the regional dishes. Concentration is the discipline.
The goal is to take these fine skills back to the Japanese islands for the thousands of people anxious to dine in French restaurants in their own country.
French food has become increasingly important to the Japanese. Several top French chefs have part-ownerships in restaurants in Japan. Japanese restaurant owners, even bakers, have studied in Paris and brought back French ways to their own hotels and restaurants.
''It is probable that this cooking school is a response to the increasing occidentalization of Japan, which has infiltrated other culture zones such as jeans, action paintings, country and western,'' said Arthur Okazaki, professor of photography and art history at Washington University, who sat next to me at lunch.
''The interest in good food has grown with the increase in travel by Japanese tourists and business people and is reinforced by their vivid, sophisticated communications systems,'' he said.
''If you've seen any Japanese magazines and cookbooks you know how beautiful they are.
''It is by no means a temporary, but a sincere, desire for authentic culinary experiences,'' he said.
I knew about the school before coming to France, and once there I heard complimentary comments about its high standards from both Paul Bocuse and from Mrs. Fernand Point.
At La Pyramide restaurant it happened, luckily, that Mr. Tsuji came for lunch on the day I was there. Mrs. Point introduced us, and I received an invitation to visit the school.
My favorite impression of these students is from the cooking class I saw in one of the large classroom kitchens.
From a row of ovens, students were removing individual soup bowls, each topped with a golden brown orb of puffed pastry that looked like a giant mushroom.
They were bowls of the famous Bocuse truffle soup I had enjoyed at Paul Bocuse restaurant earlier in the week. They looked gorgeous, and the aroma was wonderful.
At the end of my lunch, the cooking brigade filed into the room and stood at attention while instructor Fenet quizzed them, in French, of course. I don't know what the result was, but I think I would have given them all A's.
Mr. Tsuji has written 29 books on cooking, travel, music, and medieval-French banquet fare. Despite his specialization in French cuisine, he is anxious for the rest of the world to enjoy traditional Japanese food. He shares this knowledge in his book, ''Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art'' (Kodansha International, $14.95).