THE term cordon bleu cookery originated more than 200 years ago but for more than a century it has been synonymous with Le cordon bleu cookery school. This Paris-based institution has 28 branches in 15 countries and has become renowned for top-class training of chefs (it now also offers other hospitality industry courses as well).
The expression 'cordon bleu' goes back to the Order of the Holy Spirit, the most senior order of knighthood under the ancien régime, which included members of the royal family. Holders wore insignia with a blue ribbon (cordon bleu) and the expression became associated with excellence.
According to cordon bleu president André Cointreau, there are several stories about why the term became associated with cooking.
“It is said it is due to the fine dinners the cordon bleu members would eat together. Another theory is it started with a school of domestic arts for women founded by Louis XVI's mistress Mme de Maintenon, where the students gained an award called a cordon bleu, or that it was Louis XV's mistress Mme du Barry who first called her - female - chef a cordon bleu.”
It was also a woman who founded the cordon bleu school - a journalist called Marthe Distel, who started a magazine, La Cuisinière cordon bleu (The cordon bleu Cook), in 1895, with cooking advice from chefs, and recipes. It proved so popular she organised classes for readers, which became more important than the magazine itself.
Professionalism was the key to the classes’ success, Mr Cointreau said.
“The chefs all came from the industry and we always used very good equipment - in 1896 we gave the first-ever cookery demonstration on an electric stove. It was important the training was very practical - the first students were often cooks to bourgeois or aristocratic households and they had to deliver day by day.”
An international element was present from early days. “We had our first Russian in 1897, our first Japanese student in 1905 - at a time when Japan was just opening itself to the world. In 1927 the Daily Mail wrote that it was not unusual for as many as eight different nationalities to be represented in the classes."
The school opened a London branch in 1933 - which created 'Coronation Chicken' when it was selected to prepare a coronation dinner for the queen. It has had a New York branch since 1942 and has since opened in far-flung areas like Korea, Japan and Peru. Its cookery books have been translated into 20 languages.
Mr Cointreau said the school was still proud of its international appeal. It was the first in the west to train students from communist China, he said, and was selected for catering at the Sydney Olympics. It is especially proud of its renown in the USA.
"We are very happy to have the number one position in the US in chefs' training, with 14 schools and 8,500 students.”
American TV chef Julia Child is among famous chefs who studied at the school and Audrey Hepburn visited the Paris branch for the launch of Sabrina - a 1954 film in which her character studies at a school inspired by Le cordon bleu.
Mr Cointreau said the teaching style was still highly practical. Students can study specific modules - often designed to match local demand - or work towards the prestigious Grand Diplôme, which rewards mastery of all aspects of classic French cuisine.
“We like to say that someone that goes out of Le cordon bleu has the 'full kit.' There is nothing faddy about our training,” he said.
However he added they were open to different influences and had published books on exotic cuisines like Korean or Peruvian food.
“We recently won BBC World's World Challenge award for a partnership with farmers in Peru. South America has given us some of our most important ingredients, like tomatoes, potatoes and maize, and now Quinoa - 20 years ago everyone was saying how good soya was for you, but quinoa is even better. Do you know they have 3,000 kinds of potato in Peru- while the EU only recognises about 20 over here? They say they are the real 'Inca gold'."
Photo: Le cordon bleu international 2008