A Day in a Le Cordon Bleu Malaysia Workshop

June 28, 2019

For generations of gastronomes across the globe, Le Cordon Bleu is renowned and revered for its culinary and hospitality schools that span Paris to Perth, London to Lima, Bangkok to Beirut, Seoul to Sao Paulo, Madrid to Mexico City. Its Grand Diplôme is a coveted hallmark of excellence, considered a passport to a prestigious culinary career for chefs and restaurateurs.

But even for the rest of us, Le Cordon Bleu has much to offer, in the form of practical workshops (which are their part-time courses) on a vast variety of tempting topics, from preparing the perfect beef to baking the most festive Christmas log cake to learning the social etiquette of enjoying afternoon tea with French delicacies. 

Whether you're a homemaker striving to improve your kitchen skills for your family, or a pastry enthusiast hoping to start a part-time business, or simply a food lover keen to deepen your knowledge and sample a slice of the institution that has trained everyone from Julia Child to David Burtka, these workshops will be a memorably valuable experience, filled with fun and flair.

We recently participated in Le Cordon Bleu Malaysia's latest workshop, held on a Saturday at its Sunway College campus. The six-hour session showcased Savoury Petit Fours with Puff Pastry, under the tutelage of Normandy-born Thierry Lerallu, the school's Pastry & Boulangerie Chef Instructor.

Le Cordon Bleu Malaysia's workshops are consistently helmed by seasoned talents with respected reputations. Chef Thierry's nearly four decades of experience have taken him from his native France to five-star hotels throughout multiple countries, from South Korea to the Seychelles, Mauritius to the Maldives and Malaysia.

The workshops are patiently and professionally run, kept to a relatively small number of registered participants to ensure everyone receives sufficient care and attention. Eight of us gathered first in a demo room for a fuss-free preliminary briefing before being brought to Le Cordon Bleu's high-tech kitchen to craft four puff pastry creations.

The practical kitchen, where Le Cordon Bleu students undergo their formal training, is where most workshops are staged, stacked from end to end with industry equipment relevant for professional training that many of us had never used or even noticed elsewhere before. If you're fascinated by Kolb ovens, kitchen scales and Ice-o-matics, or relish getting your hands on whisks, spatulas and zesters, this kitchen is pure paradise.

From the start, chef Thierry proves a tremendous facilitator, relying on step-by-step commentary that even novices can follow. The workshops are tailored for participants of various skills sets - if this is your first time baking, everything will be explained clearly; whether or not the oven is your best friend, you're still guaranteed to learn something here.

Chef Thierry was aided by three assistant chefs, responsible for preparing the tools and ingredients for participants and helping out with any issues. With four chefs catering to eight participants, we constantly had personal access to experts who could answer our questions and offer reminders and recommendations on what we should be doing. Stewards on site immediately clean the used utensils.

With a friendly smile, chef Thierry kicks off the workshop by weaving together the history of puff pastry's origins in the Middle East and how it's become commonplace in many cultures, with techniques evinced in everything from baklava to paratha.

Each part of the workshop began with a demonstration from chef Thierry himself, illustrating his techniques and describing why a procedure should be performed in a certain way. The chef also reveals what alternative produce can be utilised - not everyone has access to high-end ingredients, so chef Thierry informed us, for example, that while top-tier French butter is best, unsalted butter will still suffice - but never margarine, since that would not create the ideal 'detrempe' (puff pastry dough).

There's no pressure to perform here, though some participants took detailed notes, making sure not to miss a nugget of wisdom. Participants can feel free to ask anything, no matter how basic it might seem; chef Thierry kept technical terms to a minimum, so that everyone could understand him.

Workshop participants can learn more about how their favourite food is actually made. Our hands-on adventure launched with us preparing the detrempe with a spiral mixer, with the help of the assistant chefs who acquainted us with the machine's controls. Bakeries often rely on spiral mixers because its hook gently kneads a portion of the dough at each time, developing the gluten without overworking the dough and making it too tough.

We had fun shaping the dough, which had to be rested for 30 minutes before we folded it further, rested it again, and then folded and rested it a third time. Resting, chef Thierry explained, meant putting it in the chiller (found under our kitchen counters), to make it firm, while folding the dough gave it the suitable flakiness.

A participant asked what many of us were thinking, "Do we really need to rest the dough this much?" Chef Thierry informatively responded that if we skimped on the steps, we wouldn't get the desired flaky texture. You need to commit to the time, with no shortcuts.

Another lesson of the workshop is that it's OK to make mistakes - it even happened to chef Thierry. He showed us that even if we folded the dough imperfectly, the error could still be salvaged. He guided us with wit and humour, sometimes making the entire room burst into cheerful laughter.

No time was wasted in the workshop. While the dough was being rested, chef Thierry took us through the preparation for our pizza puff pastry, teaching us to efficiently slice tomatoes, to properly heat the stove, and to know how the tomato puree is ready, covering numerous useful tips for day-to-day cooking.

He told us to spice the puree to our preference, adding perhaps a pinch of curry powder for heat, cumin for an aromatic edge, or keep it simple with salt and pepper. "Agak-agak," he said in Bahasa, estimating how much spice would be needed - a sign that the Frenchman has adapted well to this country and understands how Malaysians cook.

Working on this helped us to better appreciate the meticulous, painstaking efforts by pastry chefs to produce the doughy delights that we take for granted. All in all, the process to create the pastry from scratch took five hours (though the time flew by, since we were constantly engaged by the process), before our dough was finally set to be moulded into puff pastry - well, almost. 

First, we had to run it through the Rondo dough sheeter, which chef Thierry referred to as the laminator, helping to flatten the dough with clinical precision (in our case, exactly 2.5 centimetres thick). At home, we'd have to perform the task manually with a rolling pin, smashing the dough till it reached the sought-after evenness - totally possible, but most probably less exact.

The crucial next steps might seem daunting, but chef Thierry untangled the complexities, demonstrating vividly how to shape the dough into mini croissants with smoked duck breast, sausage puffs, cheese puffs, and cheese olive mini pizzas. It inspired many of us with enough confidence to someday try doing this again at home and surprise our loved ones.

Working with the Le Cordon Bleu kitchen's equipment is a breeze, with the expandable, multi-wheel dough divider, nicknamed the "bicycle," as one shining example. To cut our 31-by-24-centimetre dough into three even layers, we set the bicycle's wheels eight centimetres apart, rolling it forward to accomplish the task effortlessly. Chef Thierry noted we could use knives or a pizza cutter at home, but we'd have to be more careful with our measurements and the slicing for an even distribution.

After the dough was stuffed with the appropriate fillings, we watched as the chefs took our handiwork into the Kolb deck ovens, a state-of-the-art staple at artisanal bakeries that churn out large volumes of bread, since you can stack the ovens on top of each other, each baking multiple trays. The oven's heat is transmitted directly through to the tray, into the dough, yielding crispier, crustier bread and pastries.

Our labour of love!

At the end of six hours, we finally saw, touched and tasted the puff pastry we had toiled on. We had cooked enough of these golden goodies for a small party, with most of us bringing home two full boxes for our family and friends. The sheer excitement and ecstasy on our faces showed that the experience was completely worthwhile - for one afternoon, we could certainly call ourselves bakers, constructing the types of tidbits that would be certain crowd-pleasers at cafes or smash hits at a potluck party. We stunned ourselves with how irresistibly delicious these warm-from-the-oven pastries proved to be.

The charming star of the workshop, chef Thierry, presented each of us a certificate of participation, as we exuberantly snapped photos of our food and our certificates to close the workshop. As an ambassador for Le Cordon Bleu Malaysia, chef Thierry succeeded in encouraging us to expand our horizons and explore a new culinary world that made us eager to return for more.

One participant revealed to us that she had only recently started cooking as a hobby, and this was not only her first time at a Le Cordon Bleu workshop but also her first time baking! She initially harboured some doubts about whether she could keep up, but by the end, she was glad she had taken part, as the class was easy and enlightening to follow. Le Cordon Bleu Malaysia has run countless workshops over the years, so everything proceeded like a well-oiled machine throughout our session.

Celebrity chef Sapna Anand (photo courtesy of Le Cordon Bleu Malaysia)

Le Cordon Bleu's next workshop will be on Saturday, 20 July, with chef Thierry showing participants how to make croissants, cronuts and chocolate chip cookies. Then on 27 July, Le Cordon Bleu alumnus and cookbook author Sapna Anand will take the spotlight to illuminate the use of spices, especially for Indian-inspired recipes. On the same day, Le Cordon Bleu's Pastry Chef Instructor Stephane Alexandre will spearhead a course on making nougat and toffee to satisfy the sweet tooth.

Other workshops slated for this year range from preparing fresh pasta to southern French dishes like ratatouille, as well as French cakes and crepes. There'll even be acclaimed Malaysian chef Debbie Teoh for one workshop in October on recreating traditional Peranakan classics.

Click here for the full workshop schedule.

Thanks to Le Cordon Bleu Malaysia for this invitation and for the insights into a pastry chef's work. This is the first in our series of glimpses into Le Cordon Bleu Malaysia's many offerings; keep an eye out for much more in the months to come!

Le Cordon Bleu Malaysia

Sunway College, 5, Jalan Universiti, Sunway City, Bandar Sunway, 47500 Petaling Jaya, Selangor. Tel: 03-5632-1188

Website: https://www.cordonbleu.edu/malaysia/home/en

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