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A Stirring Experience

It was a little like a triple-bypass operation performed by third-graders using foot-long scissors.

But teaching a knife-skills class to a group of adults who'd obviously been using dull steak knives for slicing and dicing all their lives didn't faze chef Conni Gallo, not even when a blade slipped through an orange and into a student's hand. "Okay, that happens," Gallo said, deftly bandaging the injury. "But it would have been much worse if the knife hadn't been sharp. When the knife is dull and it cuts your skin, it shreds it rather than making a clean cut."

The mishap became just another part of the lesson at The Seasoned Chef, a cooking school for people who dream not of becoming professional chefs, but merely of cooking like them. Sarah Leffen opened the school in 1993; registered dietitian Susan Stevens bought it in May of this year. While Stevens has continued to offer many of the classes Leffen introduced, she's also trying to involve well-known local restaurant chefs as instructors. And she's introduced more classes with a healthy focus, in keeping with a background that includes a master's degree in nutrition, a stint as director of nutrition for HealthMark and several well-regarded cookbooks on eating healthfully.

"We always knew people should eat less fat, and people will say they know that," says Stevens, who also taught low-fat and health-oriented cooking classes at Emily Griffith Opportunity School for five years. "But if you can't tell them how to make it taste good, they won't eat that way. So that's what really got me interested in cooking at first--trying to put flavor in low-fat and fat-free food."

But "cooking light" classes make up only a small portion of the Seasoned Chef's repertoire because, as Stevens says, "people still want their fat." The school lists about forty classes each three-month "semester," and many of them revolve around the season and holidays, with a few quirky subjects such as making dog treats or pasta from scratch. Like most cooking schools, the Seasoned Chef offers hands-on workshop classes (here they're $45 per person, per class) and demonstration classes ($35), where the students simply watch the instructor make foods and then everyone eats them.

Conni Gallo's class was cooking in every sense of the word. She spent the first 45 minutes of the class demonstrating chopping, dicing, mincing, slicing, chiffonade and julienne techniques in front of fifteen people who wanted to talk and laugh and kept forgetting the weapons in their own hands. Then the group divided into teams and set about trying to make one or two of the eight recipes chosen for the class. My team attempted a creamy baked ziti that was eye-rollingly delicious (see Mouthing Off for the recipe) and duxelles-stuffed chicken, which is billed as a perfect company dish but is way more work than most of my friends are worth. As we cooked, Gallo, a Scottsdale Culinary Institute graduate, walked around critiquing knife technique, authoritatively answering questions and making comments such as, "One of my pet peeves is that people leave their spoons sitting around in the pan."

Well, one of my pet peeves is that I'm not Gallo. She not only makes fabulous food--the recipes we learned were either her creations or her adaptations of others' creations, which she credited--and lives on a boat in the Caribbean for part of the year, but judging from her efficient work in the Seasoned Chef's austere, almost clinical kitchen, she's the type of person whose house is always clean, too.

I also took a Seasoned Chef demonstration class called "The Vegetarian Gourmet," taught by Gigia Kolouch, who has worked as Alfalfa's cooking-school director and as a purveyor of natural foods. Kolouch has an easygoing, almost self-effacing manner, and as she made us such delectable items as cilantro-lime corn chowder and quinoa pilaf with mangoes and green chiles, she peppered her demo with tips on everything from tofu to how to determine when fruits and vegetables are ripe.

The facility backing up these capable, communicative instructors seemed just as proficient. In cooking, the mise en place--which literally means "everything in its place" but refers specifically to measuring and readying the ingredients for a recipe before you proceed--can be critical. At both of the classes I attended, the Seasoned Chef took a smart approach to mise en place: It had been done in advance only to the extent that the items were assembled and clearly labeled. At Gallo's hands-on lesson, we were required to deal with the cutting and measuring necessary to understand the subject at hand; during Kolouch's demo, we got extra technique tips as we watched her deal with unusual items, such as pomegranates, while she prepared the ingredients.

On a broader scale, everything at the Seasoned Chef was always in its place. We never had to go looking for a needed item--all of the knives, spoons, bowls and pans were ready and waiting. And those same dishes and utensils we used were whisked away for washing almost as soon as we put them down.

I had only one complaint--and it was a very minor one--with the Seasoned Chef: The plates on which we ate the finished products were Styrofoam. It didn't bother me during the daytime class, but in the evening, I missed sitting down to a spiffier setting after a hard day of work. Stevens has a good explanation for the plates, though. She chose them because of her knowledge of food-borne illnesses. And in fact, her understanding of all things having to do with nutrition is an incredible asset to the school. Not only were counters, dishes and cooking implements kept spotless and disinfected, but Stevens herself added depth to our discussions. For example, she stepped into Kolouch's demo to talk about amino acids, something the average chef doesn't always remember from her own school days.

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