Editor's note: The News-Sentinel culinary columnist, Laura Wilson, graduated in December from famed cooking school Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.
It was a dream of a lifetime ... and occasionally a nightmare.
Her best work was criticized. She sometimes was driven to tears. At the end of long days she traipsed up five stories to get to her flat.
And yet she says it was "the biggest thing I've ever done besides giving birth."
Four years after beginning her adventure, Laura Wilson graduated from the famed cooking school Le Cordon Bleu in Paris in December. She took 15 weeks of classes, five weeks at a time, to accomplish her goal.
She earned a diplome de patisserie, passing a program that teaches students basic through advanced pastry techniques, boutique-style desserts and world delicacies.
Because she's married and runs a business, La Dolce Vita in Roanoke, Wilson signed up for three five-week intensive programs, which cram 12 weeks into five. She started in 2010, took the second set of classes in 2011 and then took off 2012 for knee surgery. She finished in December.
"I wanted a diploma from a culinary school," Wilson said. She didn't want one from just any school. "I wanted to be the best of the best," she said, adding she thought after graduating from Le Cordon Bleu "I'd take myself more seriously."
The chefs who teach there have "impossibly high" standards, Wilson said. "They yell a lot. They're very, very strict."
For example, one day she cleaned up her workspace with a paper towel and left it on the counter top. A chef spied it and reprimanded her, saying the paper towel was dirty. The chewing-out "went on for four minutes," she said.
During her first two sessions at Le Cordon Bleu she was reduced to tears at points, but the third time she didn't cry during the classes. She determined, "I'm not going there to get yelled at. I'm going there to learn."
At one point she almost made a chef/instructor laugh a little bit, she said.
She did cry after receiving her diploma. "It felt huge," she said. "I walked out and started bawling." Parts of the school experience were horrible, but in the end it was worth it, she said.
Despite the harshness of the chefs, Wilson says she's in awe of them. "They are such masters. The level of perfection and cleanliness, detail, etc. is like no other cooking school I have attended. I think that is why it is love/hate with so many students. We are learning from the best, but we are mere mortals and will most likely never be as great as they are."
This final five-week session the 39 students in her class learned how to make sugar sculptures — one instructor didn't like the ribbons Wilson made and flicked them off with his pen — chocolate boxes, macaron cookies and other elegant desserts.
At Le Cordon Bleu no power utensils are used — everything is mixed, blended beaten or stirred by hand.
If that isn't tiring, Wilson ended her sometimes 12 hour days by climbing five stories up to the flat she rented in Paris. At Le Cordon Bleu students get to eat their desserts and pastries, but Wilson said she lost six pounds from all the walking and stair-climbing.
Now that she's achieved her goal Wilson will continue to learn. She already plans to attend a class in Kansas on laminated dough, which is a term used for a process that creates flaky pastries such as croissants.
As for her business, she will continue to host private parties and monthly dinners open to the public, teach classes, sell cakes, pastries and savories, cater events and sell culinary items. "I plan on learning to do some really fine cuisine," she says.
She may open up La Dolce Vita to the public for lunches Wednesday through Friday. She's planning to host a culinary-inspired trip to Italy Sept. 20-27 for 12 people.
Wilson, a former epidemiologist who stayed at home to raise three now-grown boys, decided to pursue her passion for cooking when her boys grew up. Now that she's graduated from Le Cordon Bleu she says her standards are even higher. "My palate is finer," she said. "It made me a better chef."