French Master Chef, Alain Ducasse
Alain Ducasse is ‘opening the door’ for 15 of Paris’s poorest women to train as chefs in his restaurants Photograph: Bertrand Langlois/AFP/Getty Images
In a gleaming kitchen at a technical college on the northern outskirts of Paris, Kébire is chopping bacon for the dish she is preparing: tarte savoyarde au reblochon. This is as Gallic as gastronomy gets – a hearty pastry containing potatoes, bacon, onions and cream, topped with crusted raw cow’s milk cheese from the Alps.
It is not something Kébire, a 38-year-old Turkish-born single mother, has cooked before, or thought of cooking. As a Muslim, pork is not on the menu.
Alongside her, Kadidiatou, a mother of three from Mali, is rustling up chicken with onions in cider vinegar. When presented with a live lobster for the first time, Kadidiatou screamed with fright. But this has not stopped her landing work experience at one of Paris’s most exclusive restaurants: the Michelin-starred Jules Verne, high up the Eiffel Tower.
The two are among 15 women from Sarcelles, a gritty banlieue, on a training programme overseen by the distinguished French chef Alain Ducasse. He is putting them through a professional cooking course, giving them work experience in his restaurants and has promised everyone who passes the professional diploma a permanent job in one of his kitchens. His aim? To change their lives for ever.
Called 15 Femmes en Avenir (15 Women with a Future), the project was prompted by President Bill Clinton’s 2005 global initiative that urged business to find ways of helping those at the bottom of the pile. Any similarity with Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen scheme is pure coincidence; 15 women were chosen because that’s the number of kitchens available to employ them. All the women are immigrants, or born to immigrant parents, who were previously unemployed or in a series of low-paid jobs – usually cleaning or waitressing. Most were struggling to make ends meet. Several are single mothers and some have fled abusive relationships. None of them had even heard of Ducasse. Today he is spoken of with reverence as the man who has offered them a “chance of a lifetime”, a phrase – or variations of it – they all repeat at least once.
“It’s a fairytale,” says Kébire, still chopping furiously. “And it’s such an enormous chance, it’s hard to believe. It’s the only chance we have.” She adds, unprompted: “I don’t eat pork, but I don’t have a problem preparing it. After all, if M Ducasse has made allowances for us, we have to make allowances for him.” Naima, 35, a mother of three, agrees: “For me, it’s a dream come true. When I heard about this programme, I knew I had to get on and I knew I would. I am passionate about cooking,” she says, spooning fluffy mountains of whipped egg white into boiling water to make îles flottantes.
Despite President Nicolas Sarkozy’s promises, little has changed in the troubled banlieues since the rioting and car burning by frustrated, disaffected youth in 2005. Jobs are still hard to come by and crime is still well above the national average.
Sarcelles, 15km north of central Paris – the first of the hopeful “new town” suburbs built in the 1950s – is now made up of crumbling housing estates. Unemployment among the population, many of them immigrants, tops 20%. Sarcelles hit the headlines last week as home to France’s largest Roma encampment, a squalid shantytown of 1,000 inhabitants, a quarter of them children.
The blue posters that appeared last spring in local community associations, urging women between 25 and 45 “Saisissez votre CHANCE!” (Seize your chance) and offering the paid-for cooking course and apprenticeship, offered a rare shard of hope. More than 100 women applied and a panel of local politicians and social workers selected those who showed most enthusiasm.
In the beginning, the women spent three days a week in the college and two in one of Ducasse’s restaurants. This pattern has been reversed. In June, they will take exams and be expected to know how to quarter a chicken, make a perfect soufflé and turn out moules marinières and sautéed hare. This being France, the home of haute cuisine, they are also having to learn about 200 recipes by rote and, for good measure, some maths, history and geography too.
The course, normally spread over two years, is being crammed into one, but everything is being done to give them the best chance of succeeding. This includes organising childcare, supplying a toolbox of kitchen utensils, and pairing students with a Ducasse chef who is a personal tutor.
Ducasse is France’s most celebrated practitioner of haute gastronomy. He boasts 27 restaurants at home and abroad, with a total of 19 Michelin stars. He has his own cookery school and writes cookery books. Learning gastronomic skills, he tells the women, is like learning to ride a bike: “You do the same basic thing over and over again and in the end you can do it well.”
He believes it is his – and others’ – duty to help those less well off. “It’s not charity and it’s not a cheque… it’s giving these women in very difficult situations the key to improving their lives… It’s not an open door, it’s a door that is ajar and we are saying, ‘come in, come in, perhaps we can help you’,” he told the Observer. “The message is: together we can do it. And that’s an important message to the banlieues too.” Ducasse hopes other chefs will follow his example.
Today, the college kitchen is more frantic than usual; the women in personalised “whites”, with their names embroidered on the front, must produce two dishes each from start to finish, in two hours, as part of a mock exam. Halima, 40, a mother of four, trained as a secretary in her native Algeria and was a qualified childminder before she came to France in 2000, where she worked cleaning aircraft at Charles de Gaulle airport and then was made redundant. Standing in the kitchen, she appears concerned about the state of her fried onions.
“I never wanted to cook, but it was my husband who said ‘go for it’ and he has kept encouraging me,” she says. “It’s tiring and hard work, but it’s a great opportunity and I feel very lucky.” She admits she could hardly speak the first time she found herself in the typically male-dominated kitchen at the Jules Verne. “At first I was terrified, so very nervous. Now it’s fine. I enjoy it.”
Patrick Margery, a master chef and member of the French Culinary Academy who teaches the course, darts about answering increasingly plaintive calls of “chef, chef…” He doles out brisk advice and the occasional terse chivvy. “Many of these women could cook already; they have the technique, they just lack speed and organisation,” he says. “But they are fantastic to teach and very motivated; they understand this is their one chance and they aren’t going to waste it.”
As I leave the college, Kébire, a small, delicate woman with an elf-like face, is putting the finishing touches to her tarte savoyarde. “Before it was hard to make ends meet every month and hard to buy things for my two boys,” she says. “Often I’d tell them they’d have to wait for something like new trainers or toys. Now I can now afford to give them little treats. And I do my homework at the same time as they do theirs.”
She moves away from her sizzling pans, takes my arm and confides that she has health problems and may even need a kidney transplant.
“But this has made me forget being ill,” she says, adding that if forced to have regular dialysis she will insist on having it at night so she can attend college or work mornings. “It’s doing this work that gives me strength. This is what I want to do, and I will do it,” she says.
The women asked for their surnames not to be used to protect their identities.