I wish I knew how to cook.
I mean, I wish I could really cook. I have a few old standby dishes that I’ll trot out for special occasions, all 4 of which–remarkably–get solidly positive reviews. I am confident enough to (sometimes) cook without recipes, but I’m no where near creative enough (or adventurous enough) to face my pantry each night and whip up something unbelievable on a whim. Let’s face it: whimsy in the kitchen is for those with ample free time and no young children constantly underfoot and causing chaos.
Additionally, my methods are about as efficient as the Swedish Chef’s (though I haven’t resorted to using a tennis racket or bazooka. Yet.) By the time the meal hits the table, bowls line the countertops, every utensil we own is in the sink and multiple inhabitants of our house are covered in flour or splattered with sauce (more than once I’ve had to say to my husband, “no, dear, the dog’s not bleeding; that’s just marinara.”)
Nonetheless, I am in love with the art of food. I could spend as much time roaming around Sur La Table and The Cook’s Warehouse as I do roaming around a bookstore. The Food Network mesmerizes me. I can read a cookbook like a novel. The Swedish Chef’s unorthodox skills rock. So I have begun to take my cooking a little more seriously.
This past weekend I took my first cooking class. It. Was. AMAZING.
Renowned chef Kevin Rathbun owns a few restaurants here in Atlanta, and his cooking classes book up within minutes of going online. I signed up last October for a class that was scheduled to meet 11 months later. It was worth the wait.
The 16 of us arrived at 1:30, were divided into teams of 4, were given a quick safety lesson and then were let loose in Rathbun’s kitchen. Various assistant chefs coached us through the steps while Chef Rathbun came around yelling (for authenticity; he’s really a big old teddy bear). A mere 3 hours later our guests arrived, and we served them: a selection of 6 different passed appetizers, spinach salad with a warm bacon vinaigrette, scallops, steak au poivre with a peppercorn-cognac sauce, 4 vegetable sides, foccacia, and an unbelievable dessert that was worth the price of admission alone. All of this was paired with wines. All of it was also made from scratch. I bet we went through 500 eggs (we were cooking for 60 people total).
Plan ahead. Our menu was written out and taped all over the kitchen. If you ever got distracted or zoned out (and somehow evaded being busted just staring), there were your tasks flapping right in front of you. We even had diagrams of how we were to plate the finished products.
Chop it all up ahead of time. We knew what we were cooking from start to finish, so we knew ahead of time that we needed shallots for our appetizer, for our salad dressing and for one of our vegetable dishes. So I minced all the shallots we would need for the whole night at one sitting. That’s 10 minutes of mincing. Tedious? Yes. Worth it in the end? Oh, yeah. Remember that set of glass nesting bowls you got as a wedding gift? Prep all your ingredients before you start cooking and put those puppies to work. You’ll be shocked at how quickly the meal comes together in the end.
Keep it real and fresh. Just like DJ Jazzy Jeff. It goes without saying that the best restaurants don’t take short cuts. No processed garbage here. We made everything from scratch, and we used real ingredients the entire time. Real butter. Basil picked off the plant. Cane sugar. Whole milk. Vegetables in season and grown down the road in Chef’s garden. The difference is absolutely unbelievable. Also, fresh doesn’t necessarily cost more. A handful or two of green beans from the farmer’s market will set you back less than that can of mushiness and preservatives that the grocery store calls “beans”. It’s worth the effort.
Serving the meal is a big part of the experience. You don’t want to spend all afternoon putting together a fancy meal and then blow it by serving it on a paper plate. Our teachers kept going back to this over and over: plating the food is supremely important and makes a huge difference. If something is ugly on the plate, it doesn’t matter how good it tastes; it’s a fail. (Confession: one of Russ’s favorite meals is a black bean and chicken enchilada thing I make that looks like a pile of barf on a plate. It’ll knock your socks off, but we’ve never, ever served it to any guests, and we never will. It’s just too ugly.)
Clean as you go. At my house, this is a theory. In a chef’s kitchen, it’s law. Make yourself do it. In the end, you’ll find that cooking a great meal isn’t as tiring and debilitating as you once thought. It’s such a relief to just have to load the dishwasher at the end of the meal instead of also having to tackle every pot and pan in the house.
Taste every bite. Finally, take the time to enjoy your food. Too often we woof down our meals without thinking about it, chasing our suppers with Rolaids. We view food as a necessity, not as a delicacy. Even something as simple as a grilled cheese sandwich deserves to be eaten with respect. Slowing down and experiencing every bite not only helps you eat less, it also helps you concentrate on the gifts at hand.
These 6 little tips make up the backbone of conquering your kitchen. Master these, and it really can be as simple as “pootteng zee chee-kee in zee pot,” just as our friend the Swedish Chef says. So børk, børk, børk! (and bon appetit!)
Laura Bedingfield Herakovich highly recommends Chef Rathbun’s cooking class. She also highly recommends the Encheferizer, which translates anything into the Swedish Chef’s language.