Saucy Lydie Marshall Teaches French Cooking to New York with a Dash of Joie De Vivre

updated 12/20/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/20/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

A cloud of flour mushrooms incongruously in the air over the head of Lydie Marshall. Then a series of sharp slaps and thwacks rings out in the room. Gourmet guru James Beard chuckles at the remarkable sight: His friend Lydie is instructing two students in the fine art of making pâté brisée (shortcrust pastry). In fact, Beard, along with the class, is enjoying the invigorating experience of French cooking, Lydie-style. "Just slap it. You'll get rid of all your inhibitions," counsels Marshall, confidently pitching a ball of raw dough onto a marble slab.

"Lydie," observes Beard, "is one of the best teachers in New York. She does everything with the feeling that it is fun." But Marshall, 45, a Parisian transplant, is also a tough, if lovable, taskmaster. Her Greenwich Village school, A La Bonne Cocotte (At the Good Cooking Pot), has been judged "a no-nonsense place that is the best in town" by the New York Times. Students—Woody Allen is an alumnus—usually wait a year to be accepted for the $65-a-lesson classes. Marshall's specialty is down-to-earth French cooking, but her meals are not down-scale. "They can be elegant," she says. "They can be well presented."

For the past six years the petite (5'4", 112 pounds) instructor has been privately slaving over her tell-all book, Cooking With Lydie Marshall (Knopf, $18.95). Blocked into 22 lessons, it takes neophytes from simple basics like tossed green salad vinaigrette to dishes like poached fish mousse.

Lydie insists that students learn by doing as well as seeing. "You have to touch everything," she proclaims. "You want to feel; you want to taste. You cannot be a good cook if you just intellectualize. It's body contact." Marshall sometimes uses her medium to get across a more pointed message. "When a woman comes with long fingernails and diamonds and a little ruffled apron, I always love to make her do puff pastry," she says with a laugh, envisioning the scattered flour and dough under the nails that would ensue. "My school is not for showing off!"

Marshall herself springs from hardworking Gallic stock. Her father, Edward Pinoy, was an insurance adjuster who died of cancer when she was 6 months. With the income from three Seine river barges he bequeathed them, mother Eunice and daughter carried on during the Nazi occupation of Paris. "One German," remembers Lydie, "wanted to take me on his lap because I reminded him of his daughter. I wouldn't let him touch me!" Growing up, Lydie marveled how her mother always managed to whip up delectable soufflés without ever looking at a cookbook. "She taught me how to take a skillet," recalls Lydie, "and flip crepes when I was about 6. One time the crepe hit the ceiling and stuck."

In 1952, when Marshall's mother also died of cancer, Lydie, then 15, emigrated to Cleveland to live with her maternal aunt, Marthe Dunn. Lydie learned English by listening to baseball games and eventually earned an M.A. in Romance languages in 1962 from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. She picked up another M.A., in French literature, from the University of Pennsylvania a year later. But instead of finishing her doctorate, she began teaching French at St. John's University in Brooklyn. Two years later she married Wayne Marshall, now 52, who teaches business administration at C.W. Post College. That same year they bought their five-story Greenwich Village house. In 1966 Lydie took a year's sabbatical to study cooking at L'Ecole des Trois Gourmandes in Paris.

She decided to turn her hobby into her livelihood in 1971 when St. John's closed its Brooklyn campus. Inspired by advice she attributes to French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre—one should do what one is good at—she opened her own school. "I knew cooking was my life," says Marshall. "I am not an intellectual. I like physical things."

She extracts recipes each summer from peasant housewives in the Drôme department of France where she has a modest stone vacation house. "I take my tape recorder," says Lydie. "They don't know how to give a formal recipe so they talk it." Lydie's ability to understand both French and American points of view is her strength, says friend Julia Child: "My husband and I urged Lydie to write a book years ago, she is so good."

Students become so attached to Marshall's oversubscribed sessions that she has to ask longtime ones to drop out. Small wonder. As Lydie herself realizes, her classes are parties in themselves.

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