If I'm not working on something for this Web site, I'm cooking for the missus, feeding friends, or helping other people learn to cook at the D.C. cooking school, CulinAerie.
All this is to say, I'd better know what I'm doing, especially if I'm going to take a two-day cooking class full of people who read this Web site.
A while back, Susan Watterson, who co-owns CulinAerie, mentioned that she was considering running a two-day advanced cooking class similar to the one she taught for years at L'Academie in Bethesda. I liked the idea and knew there were a lot of folks who'd be interested in that level of instruction as well. Although I write recipes and use others' from time to time, it's no replacement for knowing the fundamentals of cooking. Certainly, many people happily rely on recipes and cookbooks -- and there's nothing wrong with that -- but there's no replacing the feeling of accomplishment when you step into the kitchen and prepare a meal without someone else's instruction (feel free to keep using mine).
Being a pain in the ass, I pestered Susan into putting the class on the calendar. In turn, I wrote up a preview for this Web site. Hell, I used my little soap box to encourage people to show up, improve their cooking skills and learn to cook beyond the safe confines of recipes. I would show up, too, to go through the class as a student and chronicle the experience for a future post (this one).
So, on a recent weekend, me and 20 other students spent two days listening, questioning and cooking under Susan's direction. We chopped, diced, and julienned. We learned how to make stock and debone a chicken, oyster and all. We filleted whole fish and turned shrimp into mousse. We rolled pork, and cooked lamb korma.
Before setting the lot of us loose with knives and hot pans, Susan talked about the products we were dealing with and the importance of proper technique. The lectures were equal parts anatomy, chemistry and physics, all of which had a philosophical purpose: to transcend the recipe. Recipes should be treated like suggestions, not mandates. If an ingredient doesn't work, you should know how to replace it. If a sauce breaks, you need to be able to fix it.
"This is a class where you unclench your fist and let go of the recipe," she said. "You have to use your brain when you cook."
Being a proper cooking class, there was no escaping French techniques. The brunoise, the mirepoix, the court bouillon were all covered. But so too were stir frying, wontons, fish sauce and curries.
When the lectures ended, the cooking began. Each day we prepared and cooked four dishes in the morning and four dishes in the afternoon. That made for a lot of practice. It also made for a lot of food. And once we were done cooking, we could eat the results. So we ate ... and ate ... and ate. At one point it crossed my mind that if Bobby Flay ate everything he cooked on Iron Chef, he'd look like Mario Batali.
Not surprisingly, everyone who signed up for the two-day course had cooking experience. Some of it was years in a home kitchen, like Merrill Brown, who was visiting from Lakeland, Fla., and taking the class with her sister Helen Ryan. Other students, like Gene Moses, had a background in the food industry. Gene had catering and front-of-the-house restaurant experience, but wanted to learn more professional cooking techniques.
In my preview of the class, I wrote that I expected to know a little and learn a lot. That was about right. I can dice an onion and julienne a carrot (though I screwed it up the first time). I know how to debone a chicken (though I didn't know how to take the meat off the legs and thighs without my teeth). I can cook a scallop, and pan fry fish (though the sauces we made to accompany them were revelatory to me). We covered dry heat cooking, which I'm good at (I am the grilling guy), as well as moist heat cooking, which I have less experience with (I don't poach much).
For the most part, everyone seemed follow Susan's instructions pretty well. Sure, some of the deboned chicken meat looked more like paste than poultry, and we might've gone ape shit with the sherry (Susan's term, not mine), and a few sauces did go south somewhere between the pan and plate (I completely screwed up my stir fry, which is particularly pathetic if you consider I've written newspaper columns about how to stir fry). But there were clearly more successes than failures.
And like most everyone else who took the class, 14 hours of instruction wasn't enough for me.
Since CulinAerie opened last November, Susan and fellow co-owner Susan Holt have focused their classes on beginning cooks. With that base established, Chef Watterson is planning more advanced courses. The next two-day class is already scheduled for Sept. 26 and 27, and a 12 week course is in the works for the fall.
"The good thing about cooking is there's no ceiling," she said. "There's always more you can learn."
Want to see more photos from the class? Check them out here.