Le Cordon Bleu, established in 1895, is a Parisian institute. No, I don’t mean an institute as in “culinary institute,” but an icon, and a fixture. Today, as a culinary school, it is an international institute.
Why the name “cordon bleu?”
Today, we use the term “blue ribbon” to denote the pinnacle of skill or service, or simply the best. Your grandmother may have baked blue ribbon apple pies, but surely the name of such a renowned school goes deeper than first prize at the county fair?
In fact, the term has a much richer history than most people know, as does Le Cordon Bleu Cooking School itself.
The origin of the blue ribbon, or in French, “le cordon bleu” goes back as far as the sixteenth century.
In French, le cordon bleu means “a blue cord, rope, or sash.” In 1578, King Henry III of France formed a special order of knights called l’Ordre des Chevaliers du Saint Esprit, or the “Order of the Holy Spirit.” This group was the most privileged of all the royal classes in France, up until the revolution of 1789. The top members of this order were awarded a silver medallion encrusted with diamonds, which hung from a thick blue sash, or cordon bleu.
Associated with this order were ceremonious banquets of great splendor and long tables laden with extravagant feasts prepared by dozens of cooks and cook’s assistants. Nothing was too good for these affairs, and the nobles went out of their way to display their wealth. If you think about it, the Order of the Holy Spirit, and these expensive parties make sense from a practical standpoint: Instead of having your rich noble folk figuring out how they can steal your throne, make them part of the court and have huge expensive parties so they can fret over who looks the richest.
The dinners at these banquets became more and more extravagant and refined. They became so legendary that slowly, by the 18th century, the term Cordon-bleu began to be applied to the best of cuisine, and the best of chefs. Eventually, it became associated with anyone who was top in their field.
There are a few stories about how the term came to be used in this way. One has to do with Madame de Maintenon, who was the governess to Louis the XIV’s children and later became his wife. Concerned with female education in France, she formed a girl’s school called Maison Royale de Saint Louis at Saint-Cyr, in 1686, which was meant to educate women from the lesser nobility, and to train primary school teachers. It is claimed that one of the skill the girls mastered was cooking, and that they wore a blue sash during their last year of attendance.
Another story claims that Louis XV told his mistress, Madame du Barry, that only men could make great chefs. To prove him wrong, she invited him to a meal made by her personal cook or curinere, which the king thoroughly enjoyed, asking “Who si the new man you have cooking for you? He is as good as any cook in the royal household.” It’s a woman cook, she informed him, “and I think you should honor her with no less than the Cordon-bleu.
In 1827, Horace Napoleon Raiison wrote a cookbook called Le cordon bleu, ou Nouvelle cuisinière bourgeoise, which remained in print for 50 years. The term was also used in other publications, such in Jourdain Lecointe’s 1833 book, Le Cuisiniers des Cuisiniers: 1000 reccettes de cordon Bleu usuelles, etc. and in La cuisinière des petits ménages contenant les véritables principes d’une cuisine économique, succulente & variée avec 1,000 recettes sur la confection des plats de ménage, etc. etc…par un petite cordon-bleu de Paris, by Louise-Augustine Friedel in 1842.
However the term evolved, what would become Le Cordon-Bleu cooking school began as a magazine. In 1895, a journalist named Marth Distel begain a weekly publication called La Cuisinière Cordon-bleu (The Cordon Bleu Cook). In it, famous chefs gave cooking course in the form of articles, and Distel and others discussed food, shared recipes, and gave cooking advice.
You may have noticed that the earlier cookbooks, ad Distel’s publication, used the feminine form of “cook,” cuisinière. The readership was, and was meant to be, primarily women.
Distel decided that an even better way would be to offer actual cooking classes to subscribers, taught by professional chefs. The subscribers were informed, in December 1895, “the ever-growing popularity of La Cuisinière Cordon-bleu makes the management feel that it has a duty to find new ways of satisfying those who have faithfully supported our enterprises; hence we have decided to offer free cooking classes to our subscribers and to publish the recipes taught in those classes in future issues of the magazine.”
Th first of these classes met in the kitchens of the Palais Royal, on January 14, 1895. About as modern as a cooking class could be, one of the kitchens even had electricity.
The classes were popular and at some point what started out as classes became a full-fledged cooking school. Just when and how this happened is not clear, even according to the school’s official histories. Most likely, it was a slow and steady evolution from free cooking classes offered as an adjunct to the magazine, to a fully-fledged cooking school. According to the school, by the 1930’s the school had become it’s own success, regardless of the magazine, which had about twenty-five thousand subscribers at the time. The magazine had, in truth, become dependent upon the school, rather than the other way around. It was now the official school publication. Slowly, the school became the focus the magazine was marginalized. By the 1960’s, it was discontinued. The school was now and had long been an international success.
If you would like to read more about the history of Le Cordon Blue School, as well have access to many recipes from the school itself, try Le Cordon Bleu at Home.
1. Dredge, Dianne, David Airey, and Michael J. Gross. Routledge Handbook of Tourism and Hospitality Education. N.p.: Routledge, 2015. Print.
2. Le Cordon Bleu. Le Cordon Bleu at Home. New York: Hearst, 1991. Print.
3. Flinn, Kathleen. The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry: Love, Learning and Tears at the World’s Most Famous Cooking School. New York: Viking, 2007. Print.