Chicken fricassee, Toulouse cassoulet, boeuf bourguignon. Let’s face it; unless you’re a self-proclaimed Francophile, authentic French cuisine in all its exquisite glory is appreciably foreign to most of us Southerners. Mere attempts to master the secrets of silky rich sauces, sublime soufflés, and light-as-air crêpes can be disastrous. But since Ma Belle France opened in Asheville in 2010, Parisian-born owner Ghislaine Mahler has been schooling locals in the ways of her home country’s cooking, and with delicious results.
A bright kitchen north of downtown, where a cobalt tile floor and post-and-beam ceiling lend a European ambience, Mahler’s classroom is a welcoming place to slip on an apron and roll up your sleeves. Here, she offers classes ranging from concentrated courses in sauces, pastries, and vegetables to half-day instruction on the preparation of an appetizer, entrée, and dessert, which the students enjoy at the end of the session. Those looking for total immersion can sign up for one of Mahler’s guided culinary tours through France. Her kids cooking classes for ages eight to 12 and 13 to 16 cater to budding chefs.
One afternoon, the menu, which changes with each class, featured a refreshing kiwi and shrimp tartare appetizer, crispy cod papillote with julienned vegetables, and lime and vanilla soufflé. Mahler, who perfected her culinary skills throwing elaborate dinner parties for friends before working as a private chef in the States, opens the session with tips on entertaining, timing, and tools, as well as a guiding rule. “Laughter is mandatory,” she says.
Mahler’s sense of humor keeps the classes light-hearted. Though her instruction is practical, it goes beyond the recipe card, including how to pick an appropriate cooking wine, prepare sprouting garlic, and properly clean leeks.
Perhaps the most important lesson lies in the realization that French cooking is all intuition and senses with one delectable exception: the macaroon. “Besides macaroons, everything else I know in cooking is an art,” she says. While these cookies require baking precision, the rest should be approached “au pif,” a French expression that means allowing your nose to guide. A few cues from Mahler, and you may feel inspired to meet your kitchen conquests au pif as well.
Ma Belle France
1457 Merrimon Ave.