Croissants. Baguettes. Frog legs if you’re feeling adventurous. French food is an intimidating culinary landscape. But Mia Van der Meer (C'21) says it’s not as mysterious as you might think. This past spring she studied culinary arts at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. From January to March, she worked for 16 hours a day, six days a week learning how things are done the French way. Reflecting on her experiences, she cites the Pixar classic Ratatouille as an accurate portrayal of a French kitchen—a hodgepodge of orders demand one’s attention in every direction, with no time to waste.
Prior to working at Le Cordon Bleu (LCB), Mia studied abroad in Cape Town, South Africa. Already a lifelong foodie, she did what she’s always done: kept a log of every good restaurant she found and took home menus to try to recreate dishes, often proudly falling a bit short. A standout on that list was The Test Kitchen, where she had reserved a spot months in advance. Regardless of how great her meal there was, Mia had an insatiable appetite that couldn't be satisfied by simply sitting in a dining room. She wanted to try her hand in the kitchen. Applying to LCB while still in Cape Town, she resolved that her reunion with Philly could wait a little longer.
Mia admits that it wasn't always glamorous. Although she felt like she was in “one of those dreams where you’re on stage and forget all the words,” she stayed ever determined to keep learning. And it paid off.
“I didn’t always know what I was in for, but that was one of the beauties of the experience,” she says with conviction. Whether she’s successfully plating a roast chicken from scratch (feathers and all) or whipping up a Quiche Lorraine, Mia believes that the skills she learned will be life–long.
Out of the kitchen, Mia also took classes on culinary theory, fueling her passion to create more sustainable kitchens. “We’re so disconnected from our produce here in America,” Mia notes. “Over there, you’re very close with your food.” The program introduced her to techniques and theory from around the globe. Her cohort was quite the melting pot: Mia was the only student from North America, and her peers ranged in age from 19 to over 50.
The diversity of the group is precisely what she loves about food: “You’re tasting the same flavors, you’re smelling the same aromas—it’s so powerful when you’re actually feeling what another person is feeling,” says Mia.
Though Mia’s time in Paris was cut short by the onset of the pandemic, she chooses to look on the bright side. The day she arrived home in San Francisco, the city announced a shelter–in–place order, which propelled Mia to cook up something new. She and her sister Lida worked fast to curate an online cookbook, Stay In Cook Out, all the proceeds of which go to local restaurants impacted by the pandemic.
The collection features recipes from 24 San Francisco restaurants, giving readers the chance to recreate some of their favorite dishes or try new ones in the absence of normalcy. The sisters reached out to as many restaurants as they could, and within a couple of weeks the project was ready. Released in the first week of May, Stay In Cook Out quickly picked up some well–deserved media attention. Although some places have reopened by now, Mia hopes that the cookbook will continue to benefit the community as the Bay Area endures spreading wildfires. Still available online, the cookbook has already raised over $18,000.
“I don’t think I’ve done anything too novel,” she says modestly. “I was definitely lucky to go to cooking school in Paris, but in general there’s so much more we can all do every day. It’s just a matter of finding those opportunities to help people best.”
Mia hints that she has other ideas up her sleeve, which she'll get to as soon as she finishes her degree and Le Cordon Bleu courses in the coming months. At the very least, taking this leap of faith has helped her understand the take–home message of her beloved film Ratatouille: “Every second counts.”