The 3 Essential Recipes I Learned in Culinary School

May 22, 2018

We've partnered with Le Cordon Bleu to share recipes, stories, and videos that celebrate the journey of becoming a cook. Here, our co-founder, Merrill Stubbs, shares her own story—plus 3 culinary school recipes that she still returns to all the time.

One of the questions I get asked most often by young people hankering after a career in food or food media is this: "Should I go to culinary school?" My answer is always the same: "It depends." It's not quite at the level of choosing to have a child or moving to another country, but the decision to invest a year or more in any kind of professional training is a personal one.

What I also tell anyone who asks me this question is that going to culinary school was one of the best decisions I ever made. At 23, I was working as an elementary school teacher in New York, finding every possible way to wedge food or cooking into the second grade curriculum. I'd even come up with a week-long project for my class that was essentially a classroom pop-up restaurant: we planned a menu, cooked all the food together, and then served an entire meal to their families. It was a bright spot in an otherwise dreary first year out of college.

Photo by James Ransom

Over dinner one night, in response to my teary confession that I wasn't sure I had it in me to commit to teaching as a long term career move, one of my best friends delivered his version of Cher's "Snap out of it!" line from Moonstruck: "Merrill, you need to get out of New York and go to cooking school."

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It was a moment of tough love. After a moment of shock, all the puzzle pieces suddenly came together in my mind and I realized he was right. I researched a handful of schools the next day, applied to Le Cordon Bleu by the end of the week, and showed up on the doorstep of the school, hidden away in a cul-de-sac in the pretty Marylebone section of London, just a few months later.

LCB taught me commitment and focus, and gave me a sense of pride in being able to create something good with my own hands. It lit a fire in me that was unfamiliar and exciting—one that could only be fed by constant improvement—and gave me the building blocks to become a confident cook.

Photo by James Ransom

By building blocks, I mean a couple of things. First, I mean the skills and techniques that formed the foundation of my training and paved the way for me to spend the better part of a decade working as a recipe developer and a food writer and editor: how to slice an onion or a carrot quickly and with precision; how to tell when a sauce has just the right amount of salt; how to gauge the temperature of a steak by sliding in a metal skewer and then placing it against my lip.

Then there are the building block dishes we made during countless cooking practicals at school—enough times that we no longer needed a recipe. Many of these have stayed with me as I’ve expanded my repertoire. Sometimes I make them as written, but the best of these cornerstone recipes are the ones that have allowed me to poke and prod at them over the years, to coax them into new versions of themselves.

I'm sharing three of my favorites from this group—a trio that could happily live together as a meal, along with a big green salad. They're all classics (one from the British canon of cookery, two from the French), embedded with vital skills that will allow you to branch out in a thousand different directions.

Pommes Dauphinoise

Before I actually learned how to cook, I mentally lumped together all dishes of this ilk (potatoes layered with cheese, etc. and then baked) as "potatoes au gratin." I may have been technically correct, but since then I've come to view pommes dauphinoise as the purest form of this sort of dish—a barometer against which I measure all gratins.

There are a few important details that, if you get them right, will see you most of the way to a successful pommes dauphinoise. The first is the type of potato you use—always a waxy variety like Yukon Gold or Red Bliss, never a starchy russet, which will turn to mush and spoil your efforts. The second is how thinly you slice the potatoes; you can get away with 1/8th of an inch, but 1/16th is ideal for even cooking and a delicate texture (unless you have insane knife skills, your best bet here is a mandolin). And the third is the generous swipe of garlic in the buttered dish. Five seconds of effort yields a spicy, virtually unidentifiable depth to the dish that rescues it from predictability.

Once you've mastered the technique of slicing and layering vegetables and aromatics into a baking dish, adding cheese if you like, and just enough liquid to cook everything through without resulting in a soggy mess, you can freestyle to your heart's content. At Thanksgiving, I love the combination of sweet potatoes and parsnips with sage and cream. Alongside lamb or beef stew, try potatoes and onions with stock or water and a little rosemary (also known as pommes boulangère). For something lighter that doesn't need to wait for winter, layer potatoes and carrots with parmesan and lots of fresh thyme, and use chicken stock as your liquid. This last one is just as good at room temperature as it is hot, which makes it an unlikely but excellent picnic candidate.

Steak au Poivre

I think one of my most useful accomplishments from cooking school was learning how to cook a steak to the right temperature nine times out of ten. It was also there that I learned that a good steak, properly seasoned, doesn't need sauce. And it's still an exception for me to serve steak doused in anything.

Photo by James Ransom

But the steak au poivre I learned at LCB, served a perfect medium rare with a creamy, pepper-infused pan sauce, will always hold a place in my heart. True to my Anglican roots, I have a fondness for sherry and cream, which make up nearly half the ingredient list of a proper au poivre. To me, this is about as good as a pan sauce gets: a silky reduction of stock with a swirl of spirits and fat to soften the sting of the pepper and shallots.

Here are some of the ways I recommend playing around with this dish: try a similar approach, substite sautéed mushrooms for the green peppercorns and toss in a fistful of thyme leaves; or lean into the booze and use half stock and half red wine for your sauce, leaving out or reducing the cream by half. Or keep things simple and call your sauce done once the stock has reduced to a syrupy consistency, forgoing the pepper and cream.

Blackberry and Apple Fool

I've always wondered how fool got its name but never bothered to look it up. Perhaps it's because it's so simple a fool could make it? Of course, simplicity and sloppiness should never be confused—the fewer the elements a dish has, the more execution matters. In the case of fool, fruit compote and softly whipped cream are the sole components.

As long as you have access to fresh fruit you can make fool year round—I've made many a berry fool, as well as peach, plum, pear, and even pineapple. There are but two cardinal rules: you must taste the cooked fruit and make sure it's properly sweetened (as Goldilocks might say, it should be neither too sweet nor too sour), and you must never over-whip your cream (remember you'll be mixing it a second time when you fold in the fruit). Heed these, and the world of fool is yours.

The first time I made fool at LCB, it was with blackberries and apples. In this recipe, I'm including four variations for you to play around with.

Whether food is your career, passion, or just a hobby, there's always something new to learn in the kitchen. In partnership with Le Cordon Bleu, an international network of cooking and hospitality schools, we're excited to bring you techniques and skills to help elevate every meal you make.

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I'm a native New Yorker, Le Cordon Bleu graduate, former food writer/editor turned entrepreneur, mother of two, and unapologetic lover of cheese.