“When the light goes on, the show starts,” said Francois Dionot, founder and director of L’Academie de Cuisine, as he turned on a light under the range hood. “And this is the last show.”
It was 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, December 14, and Dionot was beginning his final recreational cooking class on French cuisine at the Bethesda location of the cooking school.
After 35 years of weekly classes (and no repeated menus!), Dionot, 67, is not retiring. He’ll continue to be actively involved and give lectures at the school’s Gaithersburg location, which runs programs for budding professional chefs.
And he may perhaps teach again at Bethesda, just not a demonstration class, and not French cuisine.
Dionot said that health issues have slowed him down, and the continual bending for equipment and ingredients was taking a toll on his back. Plus, the recent renovation of the Bethesda school has been both a blessing and a curse for him.
“It’s a beautiful kitchen, but it’s not me,” he says of the spanking new demonstration kitchen. “It’s been my kitchen for 35 years, and now I have to ask where everything is.”
And at this point in his life, he said he’s not up for getting used to a new space—especially one in which county safety regulations collided with culinary convenience (e.g., that huge hood over the range was required, but it not only gets into Dionot’s head space, but it replaced the slanted mirrors that enabled students to see what was cooking as it was cooking).
Remarkably, one of those students, Joan Burka, came to every one of Dionot’s French cooking classes—from the first lesson in June 1976, when he demonstrated shrimp quenelles, salade nicoise and a berry fruit tart, to the final class on Wednesday, where he prepared sautéed sea scallops with Belgian endive, roast chicken with potato gratin and a Buche de Noel. (They were divine.)
Burka, 79, who lives in Chevy Chase, has all of Dionot’s recipes in a three-ring notebook, and over the years, made every one of them at home (she prepared the sea scallops for dinner on Thursday night), as well as for dinner parties. “I was married to a judge, so I entertained morning, noon and night,” she said.
Burka, who also studied at the Cordon Bleu in Paris and taught cooking classes herself at the Williams-Sonoma in Mazza Gallerie, said Dionot is a wonderful teacher. “He’s very concise and clear,” she said. “I was never in a fog with him.”
In fact, as the last class was winding down on Wednesday, Dionot talked about how he is too serious of a teacher to be a TV food celebrity. Those cooking shows are “entertaining but they don’t teach you anything,” he said.
Wednesday’s class was loaded with Dionot’s tips and techniques. Among them:
- When beating egg whites for a meringue, it’s okay to slow the mixer down, but never stop beating
- When making a buttercream, be sure to use AA butter
- The best brand of vanilla is Nielsen-Massey; the best Dutch-processed cocoa is Droste
- Meats that call for roasting times under one hour should be seared first to brown the exterior
- Never use non-stick pans when searing or glazing
- When preparing sea scallops, always pull off and discard the small tough end that holds the scallop to the shell
- When opening a bottle of champagne, tilt it and remove the cork gently; it should not pop
- Slivered almonds can be used as candle wicks for the marzipan candles on a Buche de Noel, and they can even be lit (the oil in them will hold a fire)