Thursday 23 January 2014

I Went to Cooking School

Yes, that even makes me want to exclaim, "What!?!" Considering that I hate cooking and have just about zip in the culinary department, a class about kitchen skills is the last place you'd expect to find me. After all, I was the laughing stock of family and friends for having admitted at the age of 45, I would occasionally eat Pizza Pockets. (Oh God, how I love a microwave.) But he who laughs last laughs best. While everybody derided me for this questionable choice in nourishment, it turned out that after everybody came back with the results of their annual physical, yours truly clocked in with the best cholesterol score. This is where I stick my tongue out and go, "Nah, nah." Obviously, people were measuring me based on my one peccadillo as opposed to looking at the entire picture of good eating and regular exercise. Excuse me while I stick my tongue out again and go, "Nah, nah."

This past Christmas, I received a gift certificate for a cooking class. Since I am now divorced and living on my own, this good Samaritan thought I could do with something inspirational in the hopes I would be motivated in the kitchen. While I can't say this one class is going to transform me into a part-time wunderkind with a spatula, it was an amusing couple of hours.

I had no idea of just what this cooking class was about. It was put on the local branch of a large grocery store chain under the brand President's Choice. I was imagining a bunch of people pairing off to work on producing their own dishes under the watchful eye of an expert and I told my Good Samaritan that my target for the evening was to "not set the place on fire." It turned out that this was a cooking demonstration: the audience sits and watches the chef prepare the meal.

Being something of a shy introvert, I hesitated even going. The irony of such an admission is that it turned out I was the most spirited participant there. The audience consisted of nine people. While everyone shuffled in and took their seat, I walked in and immediately went up to the front to shake hands with Chef Greg Willis and exchange a few friendly words. It turned out we came from the same area so had a few points in common. Twenty years ago he had his own restaurant and I was sure I had visited it at one time or another.

Throughout the demonstration, Chef Willis explained what he was doing and spoke about foods and cooking techniques interspersed with personal anecdotes of his professional and personal life. Out of the nine people, I seemed to be the only one interacting with him. Five people never uttered a single word during the entire two hour session. The other three made one or two comments. I suppose one could have asked me to shut up, but after a while it almost seemed as though Chef would look up directly at me while he was talking. It was at times as if the two of us were having a friendly conversation with eight witnesses. Okay, while in one way it may seem like I'm a talker, I've been on the other side of the lectern and I know anybody up front and centre does appreciate getting some feedback. Besides, in this small and more intimate setting, it seemed more conducive to having a conversation as opposed to just sitting there silently watching what chef was doing.

The title of this class was "A Wee Taste of Bonnie Old Scotland." This consisted of creamy leek-potato soup, braised greens with white beans and rosemary, roasted leg of lamb, followed by Scotch apple pudding. All in all, it was a good meal. Considering the class started at 7pm, it wasn't until 8:30pm that we started with the soup and I commented we were all eating in a European style, that is, later in the evening. Chef added, "Or as a New York theatre crowd" referring to those who eat after the early show. Whatever the case, I was glad I decided to have an early hors d'oeuvre to stave off my hunger pangs. That fancy-pants sounding hors d'oeuvre was a slice of pizza. In fact, I used that joke during the course. Chef was explaining how simple dishes can be "jazzed up" with various ingredients, spices, or even a sprig of parsley and I noted how giving a descriptive name in French seemed to make anything more exotic. Chuckles all around.

Afterwards, the business person in me thought about the money. My ticket was $30 so $30 times 9 people equals $270. The class was two hours long and everybody got a meal consisting of soup, an entrée, and dessert. Does the store look at this as a lost leader? Attract people in for the cooking class and hope they decide to shop at the store? According to the store's representative who also acted as the chef's assistant, the store hosts these cooking classes on a regular basis and there are people who show up as repeat customers. There's a lunchtime special for $10 which gets you a one hour class and a lunch. Not a bad deal, I guess.

Final Word
Would I do it again? Maybe. But it's not at the top of my list. I enjoyed the meal; I enjoyed an unusual, once-in-a-lifetime experience but it's a cup of tea I don't want to have on a regular basis. I have no intention of developing a skill to whip together a bouillabaisse or knock you out with an award winning apple crumble. Yes, I enjoy eating but I don't have the patience to spend the time necessary to perfect skills to go beyond the basics such as scrambled eggs and toast. I'm sure you're now chuckling about what I could possibly be eating then. Am I subsisting on Pizza Pockets? After my 2012 sports injury, I joined a gym, spent some time with a trainer, and researched diet to fight my way back to good health. I made up a spreadsheet and filled it with all sorts of foods broken down by calories, fat, protein, sodium content, carbs, etc. and mapped out a diet as per the recommendations of various experts on the Web. I know exactly what I'm eating and it is anything but fast-food or microwavable food. Last year, the government set a new guideline for our daily intake of salt consisting of 1500 mg. per day. Most of the time, I am not surpassing that amount. (FYI: Since then, they have raised it to 2000 mg. For a long time, it was 2400 mg per day and I would add here that ofttimes the average person is consuming 3500 mg. No wonder heart disease is up.)

I'll close with a funny story of me in the kitchen.

Thirty years ago, in another era, on another planet, girlfriend went off to work with me stating I would prepare that evening's dinner for the two of us. During the day, I consulted a few cookbooks to get some ideas. I settled on something not too fancy, pork chops, vegetables, potato, etc. but my introductory plate was to be a "cute salad." The "cute" part, as per the picture in the cookbook, was a hard-boiled egg in the middle of the plate surrounded by lettuce and such however, the egg was dressed up as a little figure: pepper seeds for eyes, the end of a tomato as a hat, a piece of carrot for the mouth, and something, toothpicks I think, for the arms. First on the agenda: hard boil the eggs. I decided to use what was then a relatively new addition to the kitchen, the microwave. Ah ha I hear you chuckle but yours truly wasn't a complete dunderhead; I had read the news stories of how you had to poke a hole in the shell to allow the pent up pressure to escape so as to avoid the egg exploding. I used a pin to create my relief value and got the microwave going. I went about doing other things.

At about the two minute and ten second mark, I heard, "Bang!" I opened the door of the microwave to discover that although an egg is relatively small, it does possess sufficient material to completely coat the inside of a microwave oven. This was where I slapped my forehead and exclaimed, "¡Ay caramba!" I got things cleaned up (Oh lord, what a mess!) then consulted a cookbook to discover that when you poke the egg, you must make sure you poke not just the shell but the yoke. It being self-contained, it can have pressure build up in it during the cooking process and can explode. Live and learn. Been there, blown up that.

Girlfriend came home from work that night to a beautifully set table with a "egg figure" smiling up at her from the place setting. She knew I didn't like cooking and knew I wasn't good at it, but she said she always appreciated my efforts. (She was a fabulous cook.) It turned out to be a delightful dinner and I had her chuckling away describing my run-in with the microwave oven and using hyperbole to further enhance the catastrophic description of my "egg-cellent" adventure. Who doesn't like to come home from work to a meal laid out and waiting? And I can use my incompetence to charm the panties off the object of my desire. Aren't we guys adorable when we're in over our heads?


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