I wanted to give those who are interested a summary of what a French Cookery Diploma (the CAP Cuisine, similar to an NVQ in the UK) is all about – specifically for those English speaking people who love cooking and fancy knowing exactly what all French chefs learn when they first start cooking. Clearly this is just my own personal view of what the entry-level cookery diploma here in France is all about.

When, 2 years ago, I was thinking about doing the CAP Cuisine as a means of preparing me for changing career, many people told me that it was out of date, useless, unneccessary, out of touch…. Despite this advice, I was convinced that the CAP would give me a very good base from which I would then be able to discover & develop my own cookery technique. Up until now (7 weeks into the 30+ weeks of training) I haven’t changed my mind. However, take note that I am talking about a CAP which has a placement in a restaurant……half of the time at school and the other half in a restaurant (well, 2 in my case, but usually it’s just one). In my opinion, this outplacement period is absolutely critical. There are schools which only propose the “theoretical” part, that is, just the school without the time in a restaurant…..OK, it’s quicker, but a hell of a lot less interesting….in my opinion.

In any case, I would like to explain why the CAP Cuisine is important and why it’s not simply a diploma which allows us to get onto a “fast track” (which is not necessarily true anyway).

For starters, I am doing my CAP in Further Education (basically, education for adults) which, strictly speaking, is for those who left school at least over 1 year ago, up to adults who are 40+ years old (and with experience in many other sectors). Furthermore, my school proposes a 14 week period in a restaurant in Paris, with the time in the restaurant split evenly with the 16 wks or so spent at school (4 weeks school, 4 weeks restaurant…..perfect !!).

So, who’s in our group ? There are 12 of us – 4 men and 8 women, aged between 21 and 48. We were all in school up until, at the very least, 18 years of age, so academically, we have a decent level (which is pretty rare for a CAP cookery diploma, seemingly). What backgrounds are we from ? IT Consultant (me), IT Department head, Dietician, Consultant at the Job Centre (for executives / managerial staff), waitress, accountant, Supermarket Cash Till operator, student, amongst other things. We’re all very motivated with differing goals for where we want to go once qualified – restaurant (of course), B&B, Cookery Training, Take Away, Chefs.

First of all, without a CAP you cannot have a apprentice if you are the chef in your own restaurant. In my case, I couldn’t accept that restriction. It’s true, I could open a restaurant and cook, but I would not be able to use an apprentice (much cheaper) and would thus have to hire qualified staff. The other point is that here in France, if you don’t have a nationally recognised diploma, banks are not interested in funding your ventures. Unless you’ve got loads of cash, this is usually a huge sticking point !

Secondly, the CAP teaches you all of the basics of traditional French recipies and technique. Furthermore (and in my opinion more important) you learn how to organise yourself in the kitchen and how to plan your cooking (2 or 3 dishes to prepare, at the same time, what order to do them so that all is ready for service ?)

3rd point is that the discussions that you have with the people that you encounter – the other students, the teachers, the chefs / sous-chefs / commis with whom you work. These discussions are very important for developing our personal projects for when we finish the training.

There are 5 (note : the documents attached are in French – takes me too long to translate everything, and I’ve got school work to do !!!),

1) Practical Classes (Travaux Pratiques), 15 per week with 3*5 hour sessions.
2) Organisation & Provisions / Stock
3) Science applied (Sciences Appliquées) to Cookery, Hygiene and Equipment
4) Cookery Technology (Techno Culinaire)
5) Understanding of the Economy and Environment (Connaissance de l’Economie et de l’Env)

In general, all topics in the CAP are useful. There’s no doubt that the academic level is basic, which is sometimes frustrating. Especially in the Economy and Environment classes (which treats all legal, management, cost control, profit issues, and so on) which skim the surface of a topic which interests all those who want to create their own business within 2 years.

However, that said, even if the academic level is basic, the teachers (or at least, ours) are top quality. They’ve all been in the business (that is, the restaurant trade) for many years before becoming teachers (in search of a calmer life, generally !) and thus we can talk with them of many, many interesting topics outside of what is covered by the syllabus. This is one of the main reasons for doing the CAP in Further Education. Once you put motivated adults together with professional teachers with good experience, a special energy is created (I referred to this in my post « The Exponential Curve Effect…. ».

If I had to list the classes by order of importance, I’d say

  • Practical Classes and Cooking Technology – the practical classes are of course v. important (run by 2 teachers who are complimentary and very professional), but the density and relevance of the Cooking Technology classes is quite impressive (without forgetting that the teacher is top – 15+years of experience in Parisian kitchens, including the Ritz, serious, happy to share his knowledge with those who are motivated and interested).
  • Applied Science – very important for knowing about the different regulations and controls which exist, as well as understanding the importance of hygiene
  • Organisation and Stock / Provisions – a very important part of the CAP (and of the Chef’s job in general) is being able to organise our work…..I remember that before the CAP I often heard talk of “production culinaire” and it meant nothing to me. However, it’s true that we are really in the “production” rather than “creation”. In my opinion, at the start of our careers we have to spend all of our time developing the basic reflexes that all chefs have (cleaning the work surface after every different action, dealing with all peeling before moving onto preparation of several dishes at the same time, always close the mini-fridges under the work surfaces, wash hands for several minutes…..). To manage to do that we need one hell of a knack of organising….2 or 3 dishes at the same time ???…..how to mix the tasks together so that all 3 dishes go out at the same time. So, in a word – essential. Technical sheets and Work Progression Sheets (Technical Progression Sheet – Russian Salad and Blanquette de Veau) become essential work documents.
  • Economy and the Environment
  • – potentially crucial, but at the CAP level it’s very, very basic. However, we’re now starting to talk about things that are more interesting and useful for later lives and projects, but this is on an informal basis.

    I would simply like to say that a training course without a placement, split evenly with time at school over the length of the training, would most likely not be very good (though obviously, for those who don’t have 8 months spare, then an intensive 4 month cookery training – even though purely academic – would be better than nothing). Before choosing my school, I looked into a number of other schools in and around Paris. There were those with the CAP in 3 or 4 months but no placement. There were those with a placement, but with the number of hours in Practical Classes (very important since, even though the placement is a critical part of the training, being able to practice the basic techniques in the “protected” academic environment, under the guidance of a teacher, is also vital) reduced to the bear minimum.

    I had made my mind up – I wanted a course which had one half placement and one half school…..and I am well and truely happy with my choice.

    In our group we have people placed in the Public Service (Hospital, School, …), hotel restaurant, traditional restaurants (2 Michelin stars, gastro, brasserie, trendy & chic….) and we had the choice of restaurant at the very start of the course.

    So, I hope that this brief summary gives you an idea of what a basic cookery course here in France involves. I’d be interested to know what the equivalent is like in other countries. Seemingly, from what I hear from people within the school, other countries are taking the lead in the cookery school domain.

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