Hayley McLarin falls in love with French cooking at home.
I could get used to this lifestyle: a private chef at my disposal, working through the menu, whatever my culinary desires. Don't mind if I do.
Charismatic Frenchman Arno Jullien and I were conjuring up possible dishes to include in my one-on-one French cooking class. He suggested the traditional classics – cheese souffle, duck a l'orange, perhaps creme brulee?
Googling French food didn't help make the choices any simpler. He hails from a country that could quite possibly have the best cuisine in all the world.
Unlike other cooking classes where you find a menu you most like the look of and then book in, this Signature Cooking Class was crafted purely by what I wanted to make. It was to be created in my home, using the implements I had, on the temperamental stove I cook on. No fancy-pants appliances here.
I am a competent cook, aware there is a fine line between confident and cocky. I am also someone who will go with safe options if I know they will please. So this class became an opportunity to get out of my comfort zone, what better time to experiment than when you have a trained chef by your side should it all go a bit pear-shaped?
From the historical, papal town of Avignon, in the southeast of France, Jullien moved to New Zealand after falling in love with a Kiwi and now he works as a private chef, based in Auckland. I found him through a large foodie group on Facebook and this delightful experience started by him coming to my home to work out what we would make together.
I have always wanted to try souffle so our entree was easily identified. I was keen to also master a bearnaise sauce as it reminded me of a trip to Paris where I had steak bearnaise at Montmartre. I swapped out creme brulee for mousse au chocolat – a visual contrast to the entrée.
This tutorial required a minimum of two people, and my good friend Clare had taken part in so many of the series' classes with me that it seemed only fair to share this experience with her.
Jullien arrived with a chilly bin laden with food, and immediately unloaded it into my pristine fridge, which I'd given a spring clean. Aware the mousse would need to set for two hours, he had made a batch already, the intense cafe cups full of dark, rich decadence were popped in the fridge.
He apologised that the bearnaise had to be swapped for a green peppercorn sauce at the last minute as he couldn't find fresh tarragon. But it would be a perfect accompaniment to the large fillet steaks he had wrapped in bacon to infuse the night before.
As Clare and I perused our recipes while sipping on French champagne I had been keeping for a special occasion, I heard a huge crash and looked up to find Jullien trying to reach into the depths of my corner cupboard to get to the right pot.
I had been so focused on making my fridge less of a health hazard that I didn't think to sort the cupboard. Plastic container lids were spilling out, along with old jars.
"No worries," Jullien said his rich accent, while he tried to put the proverbial jack back in the box.
This set the scene for what was a fantastic, informal class. It felt like having a friend around to help cook. There were no rules around how hands-on we should be, no expectation of how much Jullien would do, or get us to do.
He made himself home in my kitchen, cautiously opening more cupboards to look for the perfect vessel for the souffle and chocolate mousse while we did preparatory whisking.
He deftly found the utensils he needed, stirred, diced, whisked and answered our barrage of questions about other French dishes including how to make the bearnaise when tarragon was back in season.
When it came time to make the soufflé I was surprised just how easy it was.
My knowledge of making souffle had been limited to how sensitive they were when baking, how any sudden movement could make them collapse. Jullien showed me it was really just a dressed up bechamel, and I am pleased to report they were easy to make, thanks to eight simple steps. And they tasted delicious.
Jullien finished lightly frying the vegetables and cleaning my benchtop while we devoured them with a lovely white wine Clare brought. Serendipitously it had come from Jullien's home region, and he broke his own rule of not drinking while "on service".
As the steak rested, Jullien finished packing up, before attempting to teach us how to quenelle the pomme puree. We bid Jullien au revoir before sitting down to our main course. The green peppercorn sauce was rich with a bite from the Dijon mustard, the steaks so colossal we both had leftovers.
The chocolate mousse recipe had made enough for six people. Having tested the menu before our night, I wondered whether it was even profitable for such a reasonable price.
Jullien's food knowledge was extensive, and a perusal of his Instagram account is testament that he would be able to teach a wide variety of dishes. It was more watching than doing on our part.
Having a class at home feels decadent, a real treat. I thoroughly recommend it. Encore!
Arno Jullien - French cooking at home
Class duration: 2½ hours
Class type: hands on
Class cost: $125pp, minimum of two
Skill level: Tailored
To book: arnojullien.com