La cuisine lessons for Japanese students with "untrained palates".

by AFP/Mie Kohiyama, Nov 11, 2002 | Destinations: Japan / Tokyo

LIERGUES, France - In the Chateau de l'Eclair in the heart of the Beaujolais vineyards, 18 Japanese students wearing white cooking caps and armed with digital cameras are busily shooting the head baker's each and every finger movement.

The chef is making chocolate at the chateau's high-tech kitchen laboratory.

"Watch him carefully!" says Chieko Setoyama in Japanese. She is a deputy professor at this French branch of the Tsuji hostelry technical school, where a year-long course costs more than 24,000 euros.

"Ladies and gentlemen," adds head patissier Nasserdine Mendi in French, "Don't forget the chocolate coating needs 50 degrees and has to be stabilised at 30."

No sooner has Mendi spoken than Setoyama translates into Japanese, sending the students frantically scribbling into their notebooks.

"Add a little cocoa butter, which is absolutely vital ("kanarazu") to produce a nice shine on the chocolate," says Mendi, a onetime professional footballer who in 1993 was named Best Worker of France in the baking category.

His attentive students, aged between 18 and 20, were the cream of the class in Japan and were selected after a first year of studies in the hotel business to do a final year at Liergues to learn the best about France's culinary arts.

The Tsuji school was set up in the 1960s by Shizuyo Tsuji, a journalist at Yomiuri Shimbun, with the help of French chef Paul Bocuse.

It takes in 50 trainees a year at the chateau and in all has 4,000 students learning the hotel business, some in Tokyo and Osaka, the remainder in the Rhone and Ain regions of France.

During their first six months at the chateau, the students learn patisserie and cuisine -- from the basics to accomplishing highly sophisticated dishes. French language classes are also included during busy work-days that start at 8:30 am and end at 7:30 pm.

Most spend their second semester training in prized restaurants across France.

"You have to start from zero with these students," said school director Pierre Beal, former manager of Le Doyen restaurant in Paris.

"It's like working with babies eating cheese for the first time because their palates are totally untrained."

Beal however denied suggestions that often crop up in French media reports saying Japanese students on foreign courses are often over-worked and pressurised. "This is not a school of torture," he said. "We merely train the students to be able to work."

Eriko Goto, a 19-year-old from Akita in northern Japan, nonetheless said despite embarrassed giggles and signs to keep quiet from her fellow-students that the teachers were "very strict" ("sugoi kibishii"), and that they "even check whether the rooms are clean".

But there were also many "good moments", Eriko said, such as being able to drink white wine every day, which is rare in Japan. Wine-tasting is part of the year's course.

"Some of the students find the going hard at first but end up taking good memories home," said deputy director Hiroyuki Nakano. "We often see former students drop by on their honeymoons to show the chateau to their spouses."

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