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Top of the Class: Dish du Jour

Vivacious chef Sebastien Piel shares the secrets of rustic French home-style cooking with budding Gallic cooks in inner-city Melbourne

An edited version appeared in Feast Issue 2, September 2011

“I hope you all like butter. We are going to be doing a lot of cooking with butter! Also garlic, and onions, and wine!” declares Frenchman Sébastien Piel, smiling broadly at the people clustered around his open plan kitchen in a warehouse tucked down a cobbled alleyway in the Melbourne suburb of Prahran.

We’re here to learn how to cook a three-course meal Piel calls ‘Rustic Fantastic’. It's the kind of traditional, slow cooked repas de fête, or feast, a French family might prepare for a leisurely Sunday lunch at their weekend home in the countryside in Normandy in northern France, where Piel grew up.

“You!” he says melodramatically, pointing to one of the few men in the group. “You are going to prepare the mushrooms.”

“Yes you!” laughs Piel, when the man in question, Frank, steps hesitantly forward, a complimentary glass of champagne in hand. “Come in, come in. Don’t be shy. Here, put on this apron, and don’t worry. Everybody is going to cook. And everybody is going to watch!”

A quick demonstration later and Frank is chopping plump brown mushrooms with finesse, placing them sideways so that he is slicing through the cap’s diameter, rather than its radius. Another student is put on shallot duty, and good-naturedly shown once, twice, and three times the correct chopping technique. “Et voila!”

Cooking is in Piel’s blood. His father was a chef and restaurateur, and Piel grew up helping his father make the pâtes, terrines, and les saucissons, or sausages. It seemed only natural for him to follow in his footsteps and become a chef.

After studying at the renowned École Hôtelière in Normandy for five years, then went on to create traditional French fare and modern cuisine for some of the UK and France's most prestigious restaurants, including La Maison du Danemark in Paris, and Le Caprice in London.

When he immigrated to Australia in 2003, Piel wanted a change and worked as a florist. But he missed cooking, and he’d always wanted to teach, so in 2006 he and his wife Christine established Dish du Jour.

“I want people to be able to cook beautiful food at home,” says Piel, a natural performer whose fun, engaging manner puts everyone at ease. “French food can seem tres complique. But when you have the correct techniques, it’s easy.”

Before long there are multiple activities underway: onions are browning, spinach is sweating, potato is being sliced through a mandolin, and long, shiny fillets of trout are being deboned.

For Piel, cooking is a multisensory, almost instinctive engagement with the food and flavours of his homeland. “Please toss those onions,” he asks. “They're going to burn, I can feel it! People think you have to have to heat onions high all the time, mais non!”

Piel knows many culinary secrets, and he's happy to share. Take garlic: the pungent part of the clove is the central stem. By removing it before chopping, you'll retain the flavour, and your social decorum. Never add the garlic at the start cooking; it burns, you lose all the flavour. “Let your vegetables cook first, then put it in,” advises Piel.

Three hours, several bottles of champagne, and multiple hands-on cooking techniques and revelatory tips later, and we’re sitting down at a long wooden table to indulge in the fruits of our labours. Piel serves each dish on his eclectic collection of antique crockery, and watches with satisfaction as we ooh and ah over the dishes we have helped to create.

Our entrée is a puff pastry log of sea trout, mushroom and spinach, served with a sauce of steamed mussels. It is a light, melt-in-the-mouth masterpiece of texture and flavour, and whets our appetite for the next course: a confit of marinated lamb with baby carrots and beans with bacon and mushroom garniture, and pommes boulangeres, a dish of potatoes baked with garlic, thyme and white wine. The lamb has been marinated overnight and cooked in duck fat, and literally falls off the bone. Its herby oiliness is absorbed by the vegetables, and offset by a piquant Muscadet sauce.

For our final course, we have crafted individual raspberry crème brulées, which were surprisingly simple to make. They’re a decadent take on a quintessentially French dessert, the tangy bite of the raspberry reduction complementing the light and creamy body of the dessert.  Bravo monsieur!