2018-01-04 / Front Page

Cooking French, Speaking French

By James Merolla


Chef Alain Hugard, former chef of the Pell family will share his culinary knowledge with members of the community on Mondays in January. (Photo by James Merolla) Chef Alain Hugard, former chef of the Pell family will share his culinary knowledge with members of the community on Mondays in January. (Photo by James Merolla) Downstairs in the steel-enforced kitchen of the Knights of Columbus Hall each Monday evening, oven fires roar as students cook the simplest and best recipes, in order to learn a language.

Chef Alain Hugard of Paris and Newport, the former chef of the Pell family, renowned during his culinary career in France, California, and as chef for prominent hoteliers in Washington, D.C., shows several members of the French Club how to prepare, cook and balance cuisine. In the process, people also learn to speak or improve their French just a little (un petit peu).

“It is cooking and speaking,” says Hugard, now retired. “Speaking some French, yes, but healthy cooking, good recipes, not too complicated, that they will be able to do at home. And to eat good healthy food based on a French repertoire. This is what I do.”


Chef Hugard works down the line showing students techniques for a Frenchbased salmon potato dinner. (Photo by James Merolla) Chef Hugard works down the line showing students techniques for a Frenchbased salmon potato dinner. (Photo by James Merolla) No fan of heavy salt or vast quantities of butter, Hugard delightfully directs his class of four toward a diet that is essentially gluten free, avoiding processed sugar and limiting dairy.

“It can help you so much with your health,” he says. “People my age, over 60, eating this way, have no more migraines, their arthritis goes down, inflammation goes down, acid reflux, skin damage improves also. It improves their energy as well. You feel more like the way you feel when you are 30 or 40.”

Since adopting this new way of cooking without excessive fats, sugars and salts, his own damaged health has drastically improved. “Since using this diet, everything is gone. It’s real and I am just trying to share this,” he says.

The vocabulary lessons are fun, too, given through the soul and stomach of French culture, dish by dish.

His students don their aprons (tabliers) and Hugard spreads his bowls, knives, whisks, salt, butter, milk, flour, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon and all other ingredients on the table.

“Alors!” he says as he directs their next move.

He instructs one student to slice up ginger to make ginger tea. “You don’t grind it. You scratch it with a knife,” Hugard says. “Very good energy, also.”

They begin to cook.

Tonight is salad with endive and crushed walnuts. Two kinds of salmon, one poached with freshly made garlic mayonnaise (aioli), another covered in oil and cinnamon, spinach, and sliced potatoes with a touch of garlic. “No more jar mayonnaise,” he adds. “Some people struggle with this, but I will show you the right way.

“A metal bowl is best for mayonnaise. It stays cold. The mayo is done when you can turn the bowl upside down [without it falling out].

He removes the stem from inside the garlic with the point of a knife. “This will help digestion later tonight. We don’t use too much garlic in French cooking so we have time to do this,” he says.

For the garlic mayonnaise, he uses one egg yolk, spicy brown mustard or Dijon, canola or sunflower oil. “Olive oil won’t work for mayo,” he reminds them. He adds the ingredients and begins to whisk them slowly. The hot water has steeped. He drops the ginger slices into them. “A sante [to your health],” he says.

He shows them how to remove les yeux (the eyes) of the potatoes with the point of a knife before slicing the potatoes thinly. “It’s not complicated. A tablespoon of oil, sunflower or canola, medium heat in the warming frying pan,” he says.

Later, a second salad and crepes. You can make crepes at Christmas,” he said, “with a little bit of sugar and honey.”

Among his students in the French Club are Lars and Julie Erickson. Lars is a professor of French at URI who delights in the opportunity to converse.

The students slice the walnuts and remove the brown surface from the endive, which is then thoroughly washed and shaken. The endive is sliced in quarter-inch cuts. Hugard then puts a little oil over low heat, “As not to burn the butter for the spinach. When you cook, you can burn the butter and it is bad,” he says. He then adds a touch of milk.

The potatoes (les pomme de terre) crackle. “You can hear the potatoes singing,” says Hugard, as he flips them in the pan.

The baguette is covered with the garlic mayo spread, tangy and zesty.

Hugard shows Lars how to thinly slice the salmon. Half is poached. The other half is rolled in sea salt and cinnamon, so brown it resembles a mocha cookie. The pink fish is glazed golden brown in the pan.

“I am not a fan of salt, but I am not shy,” he says. “Cinnamon flavor is going to change. It is not going to be the classic cinnamon flavor.”

The fragrances of les pommes de terre, crackling in oil, and the salmon baking in cinnamon waft up through the hall.

After an hour of preparation, the cooked food in delightful combinations of tastes and rich colors is placed on each plate (l’assiette).

“If you are stuck on the recipe, you can text me or call me,” he offers.

“C’est bon, n’est-ce pas? (It’s good, is it not?)” he asks. “We want people to be able to eat well.”

The French Club meets Monday evenings at 6 p.m. through January and perhaps beyond at The Knights of Columbus Hall. There is a fee to cover food preparation. For information, call 401-841-5791.

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