French cookery masterclass

A leading chef takes the fear out of haute cuisine for Zoë McIntyre during a cookery course at Leiths

If you are relaxed, enthusiastic and hungry, this is going to be good fun,” chef Henry Harris asserts with aplomb. Poised with whisk in hand, he is clearly at ease among the gleaming workbenches and shiny copper pans of our sun-filled kitchen. My rumbling stomach means I meet one criterion, but as I quickly glance through the sophisticated recipes set out for the day, I cannot help feeling a little nervous. I have come to Leiths, the famous school of food and wine in west London, for a crash course in culinary creativity à la française. Until now, I have indulged my love of French cuisine with the occasional dinner out, never considering it was possible to re-create the intricate dishes at home. My curiosity was tweaked by Leiths’ one-day Bourgeois Bistro masterclass that promised to demystify French cuisine. Having long-since worn out my one signature French dish of coq au vin, it was high time to find a new suppertime special.

Thankfully, I am in capable hands. Running the class is Henry Harris, chef patron of Racine, a French restaurant in Knightsbridge, west London. Having completed his chef’s training at Leiths, Harris went on to hone his skills under the tutelage of Simon Hopkinson at London restaurants Hilaire and Bibendum. After a five-year stint at Harvey Nichols’s Fifth Floor restaurant, Harris opened the awarding-wining Racine in 2002, but returns regularly to Leiths to share his culinary prowess with aspiring cooks.

“A good recipe is achievable by anyone,” he encourages our eager, apron-clad group of 11. But what does ‘bourgeois bistro’ cuisine mean? “Good, traditional French cooking that will comfort and restore you,” he explains. In other words, those timeless French classics distinguished by simple flavours, precision and quality produce that serve as “great entertaining dishes”. Harris assures us that the menu du jour we are about to attempt has been tried out in his own kitchen and will help us to master the fundamental French-based tastes and techniques that home cooks often shy away from. “They are easy to get right, but even easier to get wrong,” he warns.

Tuition begins at the end with dessert: a rich chocolate, prune and Armagnac mousse cake. Harris eases us in with a seamless demonstration, adding titbits of advice along the way; he explains that overheating the chocolate will cause it to turn grainy and that lifting rather than folding the cake mix is the best way to trap air so that it rises readily when baking.

The advice proves invaluable when we pair up to work on our own creations. With equipment and ingredients already laid out by Leiths’ diligent kitchen fairies (who also attend to the washing-up), my cooking partner Shelley and I quickly get down to melting chocolate and butter, and whisking eggs with sugar. When everything has been combined, we dot the base of a cake tin with brandy-soaked prunes and pour over our chocolate concoction, now smooth, dark and spiked with a heady shot of Armagnac. Ideally the cake needs to be refrigerated overnight, but ours had only a limited time to cool before a ten-minute blast in the oven. “I always thought it would be much more complicated, with more ingredients,” says Shelley as we marvel at our finished creation.

Next comes the starter – a seasonal dish known as Les Délices d’Argenteuil. Named after the famous asparagus-growing region on the outskirts of Paris, it consists of asparagus spears wrapped in cured ham and a paper-thin crèpe, topped with a rich, buttery hollandaise sauce. “Simon Hopkinson showed me this dish in 1984 and I follow his recipe religiously to this day,” Harris says. The dish’s pièce de resistance is a hollandaise sauce, which is left to the last minute. As befits the queen of sauces, its diva-like ups and downs are well-known – refusing to thicken, or scrambling, splitting or curdling. Harris guides us around such pitfalls, recommending whisking the egg yolks over a bain-marie off the heat, and adding extra water in the event of splitting.

Most Read

I was particularly looking forward to the accompanying celeriac remoulade – a flavour of summers in France that I often crave on returning to England, only to find shop-bought coleslaw a pale imitation. I’m clearly not its only admirer, as Harris says the remoulade has been on the menu at Racine for 11 years. His finely chopped celeriac strips are all identical in size and shape, unlike my haphazard chunks. “It’s just a question of practice,” says Harris reassuringly, before reminding me to tuck my fingertips inwards while chopping.

As we prepare the mayonnaise, we are encouraged to taste regularly – not that I need much encouragement to dip a spoon in at every opportunity. The tasting pays off – more mustard and pepper are needed. The choice of ingredients is also important – Harris recommends Amora Dijon mustard, but jokes: “the only thing white pepper is good for is the rubbish bin.” Having never considered making mayonnaise from scratch, I’m an instant convert; our creamy sauce enhanced by an underlying piquancy from the mustard, vinegar and anchovies, is much more refined than shop-bought mayonnaise and easier to make than I had imagined.

As time rushes by, the pace begins to quicken. “Good cooking is about having everything ready so it all comes together – it’s a magic that is actually a science,” urges Harris. For our main course, we prepare a sumptuous saffron-infused vinaigrette in which we douse baby tomatoes that have been blistered under a grill. Having put the potatoes on to boil, we turn to our final challenge – the fish. “If there is one thing that people over the past 30 years don’t understand how to cook, it is fish,” Harris maintains. Admittedly, I had never dared to cook either red mullet or sea bass at home but, emboldened by our chef, we set to with gusto. Having got the oil really hot before pan-frying the two scaled fillets, we push down on the fish with our fingers to brown the skin, which helps to achieve the balance of a crisp outer crust and succulent flesh.

After a hectic morning’s cooking, we are finally ready to feast on the fruits of our labours. Stepping out of the studio for a break, we return to find the room transformed into a makeshift banqueting hall, food laid out buffet style around workbenches pushed together to form a splendidly laden communal table. After raising a toast to the chef and our efforts, we sit down to a glorious four-course lunch.

An hour later, I am ready to leave, weighed down with bags of leftovers, but considerably lighter for relinquishing my cooking phobias. The train ride home is spent dreaming up opportunities to show off my newly acquired dinner party menu that I’m sure will be a favourite for years.

Henry Harris is holding another Bourgeois Bistro masterclass at Leiths from 10.15am to 2.30pm on 11 October, priced £140. Tel: 0208 749 6400, www.leiths.com