Classes teach real-life kitchen skills
B.C. cooking schools offer delicious cruises through culinary styles and techniques
BY JANE MUNDY, VANCOUVER SUN SEPTEMBER 21, 2012
After cooking for a living and running a busy film catering company for a few decades, I figured I knew every tip and trick in the book — until I took my first cooking class.
I’m not talking about cooking classes where “culinebrities” lecture and demo a few recipes from their latest cookbook. Or where chefs intimidate and impress with recipes you’ll never replicate, let alone spell, like they do on some Food Network shows. I am referring to the hands-on cooking schools, where you don an apron, roll up your sleeves and do the work.
Well, not quite all the work. There are kitchen fairies. At every cooking class I attended, the ingredients were measured and laid out at your cooking station beforehand, and your hands never entered the dish pit. Regardless, it’s so rewarding when your next dinner guests are impressed by your culinary prowess. Learning in a hands-on class sticks to you.
Of course you need a certain amount of charisma to keep a group of people engaged for several hours and at the same time safe around sharp instruments and boiling cauldrons, and the following chefs have it — without any screaming and yelling or kitchen nightmares.]
Cooking class getaway: Mission Hill Winery
“Goddamn, we actually made this,” said Bob Mills from Kelowna, as 10 students and 10 guests tucked into the first course: Double baked cheese soufflé with poached pears and pistachios. The soufflés were made hours ago and re-heated (who would ever think that would work?) for dinner.
We had signed up for a workshop in the “Professional Series” — a day of learning in their state-of-the-art demonstration kitchen. Not only will we deftly prepare a three-course meal in stellar surroundings; we can each invite a guest to reap our culinary rewards. Naturally, each course will be paired with Mission Hill wines.
After the soufflé course comes crispy duck leg confit with Vichy carrots (blanched in sparkling water) and Pommes Macaire — a traditional French recipe for a large potato cake. For dessert, baked apple strudel and crème Anglaise.
First a few housekeeping rules: no open-toe shoes or mini-skirts. Check. Executive chef Matt Batey explained how we will cook for a few hours, take a short break then back to the kitchen until our significant others arrive and we have our first, well-deserved glass of wine.
“Our objective is to make sure you have a good time and at the same time experience every stage of cooking — from raw product to plate presentation — on your own so you can replicate it at home,” said Batey.
“This isn’t the Betty Crocker approach,” Batey quipped. “We use professional knives and equipment in a working kitchen.”
At each station you are under the watchful eyes of chefs Chris Stewart or Jan Dobbener.
They patiently demonstrate the right way to slice and dice an onion, how to gently drop duck legs into boiling fat without setting yourself on fire, and more.
Bob Mills said he was most impressed with the kitchen skills learned, such as slicing carrots with a mandolin. “I’ve always liked cooking and this class has allowed me to take on more challenges — it has bumped up my repertoire a notch,” he said.
“And kudos to Mission Hill’s chefs for making the day so much fun.”
Sharon Abrams has flown in from Edmonton — three times — to attend Mission Hill’s classes. “The chefs are so good about explaining everything and they answer any questions without any high falutin’ attitude and that is why I keep coming back,” she said.
Abrams has replicated all the recipes at home and often invites friends over for multiple-course meals. “They say it’s like dining in a high-end restaurant.”
The Professional Hands On Series is one of several workshops offered this fall. Don’t let the word “professional” scare you off. Mission Hill provides a professional level of cooking with tips and techniques that will broaden your culinary horizon suitable for both the novice cook and culinary connoisseur. (Mission Hill Winery, Kelowna, www.missionhillwinery.com)
Vancouver cooking schools If you can’t get out of town, here is what you can do without leaving Vancouver.
Pastry Training Centre of Vancouver
You don’t need to go to Europe to make (or eat) perfect fruit tarts or trendy macaroons, but you do need to book these wildly popular classes with chef and owner Marco Ropke well in advance.
Also filling up fast as tart pans with pate sucrée pastry are bread baking and chocolate-making classes.
Ropke’s classes fill with “serial students:” they collect and compare classes like badges of honour. Some have taken a few dozen courses, which is easy to do considering that almost 60 classes are offered at the Pastry school, including canning and beer making.
Over the next two evenings, eight of us will make six different European fruit tarts. Ropke makes everything seem so easy. He starts the class with a quick show and tell for each recipe, easily visible from table level or the large overhead mirror. Then it’s hands on for the next four hours, pausing only for delicious snacks.
We start with pistachio tart topped with fresh citrus segments and apricot jelly glaze. Ropke demonstrates knife skills. No one in the class — including me — knows how to properly segment a grapefruit until now.
“Everything is taught on a professional level but suitable for novices — you don’t need any previous experience,” said Ropke, who takes the time to answer everyone’s questions. Ropke makes the chemistry of cooking fun. He explains things that you likely won’t find on the Food Network or in a cookbook. Did you know that gluten makes pastry shrink? “Maybe your pie crusts shrink at home because you are using all-purpose — meaning no-purpose — flour instead of cake flour,” he explained. Good to know.
The bread baking classes are unique to Vancouver because only local organic flours and grains are used. There are eight classes to choose from or join the ranks of serial student and learn to bake all the loaves, including healthy all-grain, traditional rye breads, sourdough and croissants.
Cake decorating classes attract pros and home cooks alike. “We start with simple rolled fondants, continue with gelatin sugar, royal icing pipings, gum paste and end with blown and pulled sugar,” said Ropke.
Some students record the four-hour sessions on their iPhones, but if you want the streamlined version Ropke offers all the pastry training courses for sale online — in the comfort of your home at your own pace, available at the end of 2012. (www.vancouverpastryschool.com)
The Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts (PICA)
Bob Foulkes is such a fan he even wrote a book, Adventures with Knives, about his six-month stint at PICA. He has nothing but praise — well, perhaps a few cuts and burns — for the program. “I wanted to learn from the ground up, starting with knife skills, stocks and sauces,” said Foulkes, adding that he didn’t know how to cook vegetables before taking PICA’s culinary program.
“The ultimate benefit is confidence to pull off dinner parties at home — it has added a new dimension to my life,” added Foulkes. “Although I’m saving money by not dining out so much, the course gave me a greater appreciation for restaurants and chefs. And I’m eating healthier — no more processed foods. I haven’t crossed the Golden Arches since graduation day.”
PICA offers a variety of classes for all ages, including teens and kids classes. (Foukes proudly graduated at 60 years young.) Round up a few friends for a kitchen party: a private, custom designed two-hour cooking class with a chef-instructor followed by lunch or dinner — that you created — in the Institute’s restaurant. (www.picachef.com)
The Dirty Apron Cooking School
Take a ripe avocado, mash and place in a large Zip-lock bag. Roll out paper thin and place in freezer. When frozen, cut the bag into strips and remove plastic. Place a strip of avocado “carpaccio” on each plate for the WOW effect.
You’ll learn plenty of tips and tricks at the Dirty Apron. These classes attract novice cooks who want to learn basic techniques, serious foodies wanting to hone their skills, and even professionals looking for inspiration — I’ll wager many chefs don’t know how to make the avocado thingy.
Chef David Robertson as even designed a sexy and decadent class for couples. In fact most of the classes are seductive. The French class is “flirty and fresh” and “shamelessly flavourful” with recipes promising to seduce your dinner guests’ tastebuds.
The Dirty Apron offers a well-equipped, immaculate facility. We split into pairs and each pair has their own mini kitchen, complete with Wolf range and vent, quality knives and all the cookware needed to prepare an exemplary three-course meal.
Throughout the class Robertson shares a wealth of culinary knowledge. For instance, why do we heat a pan before adding the fish or chicken? Robertson said that putting anything into a cold pan releases moisture and sticks to the surface. “I also get a lot of questions about salt so at the beginning of class I explain why it is better to use some salts with higher moisture content — it won’t dry out the product while cooking,” he added.
And the evening is perfectly orchestrated, starting with a glass of Prosecco upon arrival. After each course we decamp to the intimate dining room and toast ourselves with a glass of wine on our creations: goat cheese apricot cake with pear and prosciutto salad followed by roasted Cornish game hen with truffle risotto.
The a-ha moments abound throughout the class but especially with dessert: Chocolate sauce drizzled over sky-high chocolate soufflés and a sprinkle of sugar over Grand Marnier crème brûlé is caramelized with a blowtorch. Yes, you can do this at home. (www.dirtyapron.com)
North West Culinary Academy of Vancouver
If you’re going to make an effort to cook properly, you might as well bone up on enough of the basics to make that effort pay off. So what better way to spend a weekend than at the Academy’s Culinary Basics class?
Eight students — most of whom have been here before — grab coffee and pastries as Chef Christophe Kwiatkowsky discusses our itinerary. We’ll leave here Sunday evening armed with proper knife handling skills and containers filled with stocks and soups, stews and sauces, including demi-glace. (Apparently anyone worth their salt makes stock.)
Chefs and owners Tony Minichiello and Kwiatkowsky emphasize technique — the “what and why” of cooking — in all their classes. “We teach weekend students the same way as we teach professional students,” says Kwiatkowsky, referring to the four-month professional diploma programs.
“Once you learn how to make stock and these basic recipes you can make anything.”
We also absorb his culinary snippets. Did you know that the word restaurant stems from the word “restore” in French? Or that nouveau chefs want to eliminate flour altogether from their sauce repertoire, believing that reduction sauces could be achieved à la minute and were purer in flavour without the floury residue?
Deborah Chen is a returning student. “I’ve been to many demo classes but they are more about celebrity watching than learning how to cook,” she said. Last year Chen took the poultry butchery course and learned how to debone a chicken, a duck and a quail.
“We utilized all the bird to make several dishes,” she explained.
“I plan on taking the pork butchery class next. Everything I cook at home has evolved from these classes.” (www.nwcav.com)
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