With Monte Carlo's firmament of Michelin-starred restaurants, it's easy to find a great meal in this glamorous Riviera playground. But who would imagine a cooking lesson in a three-star Michelin kitchen?
It all began at dinner with friends at Le Grill, a dining aerie atop the iconic Hotel de Paris where a wall of windows looks out to the Mediterranean and the ceiling opens to a starry sky. I had just finished a creamy risotto and a succulent rack of lamb, and we were being served a trio of drop-dead souffles that have been a signature dessert there since 1898.
As great spoonfuls of chocolate, raspberry and Grand Marnier delectations were ladled out, I murmured, "Oh, boy, how I wish I could make this dinner."
"No problem," said Christiane, our dinner host and a Monegasque wise in the ways of her country. "I think the Celebration Concierge can arrange that."
The Celebration Concierge?
It turned out to be a perfect description for a new service of the Societe des Bains de Mer, commonly known as SBM, the major corporate player in Monaco's hospitality industry that owns and runs the famous casino, four leading hotels, dozens of restaurants, several spas and a host of other leisure activities.
Have a wish list? A black tie Casino Royale gaming party in a private room at the famous Monte Carlo Casino a la James Bond? A Grand Prix driving lesson? A dinner a deux catered by star chef Alain Ducasse? Poof, it's done. This is a concierge on steroids.
All I wanted was a cooking lesson.
By the following afternoon, the Celebration Concierge, whom I now think of as my Toothsome Fairy, had arranged for me and a friend to meet Luca Strobino, a sous chef in the Hotel de Paris restaurants, in a kitchen dedicated to cooking lessons next to Louis XV, Alain Ducasse's three-star flagship.
It was a kitchen with gravitas, stocked with heavy-duty cookware, large grills, stovetops where metal circles cover the gas flames, and well-worn copper pots were engraved with "XXXXX Hotel de Paris, S.B.M. Louis XV." The kind of kitchen where you can imagine Escoffier commanding his brigade.
Luca had a ready smile, short cropped gray hair and barely a word of English. Fortunately, Christiane was there to translate.
An oval white bowl on the counter held baby artichokes, a lemon, an onion, a small peppermill and butter; next to it were six large scallops in a plastic container and a bag of risotto rice. I had the feeling this wasn't just a clue to what Luca was making but our initial lesson: First set out all your ingredients.
Those ingredients were also a tipoff to the hotel's signature Mediterranean cuisine and the love that chef Frank Cerutti, who manages the Hotel de Paris kitchens with Alain Ducasse, has for the local seafood and the sun-drenched flavors of the fruits and vegetables of the French and Italian Riviera.
Local and seasonal is the hotel's mantra, plus a commitment to make everything — all the breads, rolls, pastries, chocolates — on site. We were in good hands.
Now to the Creamy Risotto With Artichokes and Pan-Sauteed Scallops.
Feeling a bit of a fraud in our Hotel de Paris aprons, those of us in the class practiced chopping that onion minutely; Chef showed us how to prepare the artichokes, cook the risotto and saute the scallops; and Christiane translated his running commentary.
He gave us a printed recipe with occasional charming translations, such as "Finish the risotto by liaising it with the butter."
Along the way, we picked up a number of tips and a few surprising shortcuts (for a three-star kitchen):
— Don't discard those tough outer artichoke leaves but simmer them in water to extract their flavor for the risotto liquid.