Kitchen Detention

Can you really learn to cook at a cooking class?

Chefs and restaurant owners often whine about those paid to critique their establishments, contending that reviewers should have some kitchen experience before they ever start writing.

Of course, we suspect very few chefs stun-gunned cattle at a slaughterhouse prior to a career grilling steak.

Fortunately, the Burning Question crew can cook. We whip up a wicked rum cake (flourless, no less), truly wonderful beer bread (also flourless) and a very satisfying Booker's bourbon--served neat (which we believe is the traditional presentation). Hard to believe we've never followed a recipe or prepared food for a crowd. Indeed, no crew member ever learned cooking skills from a professional chef.

Until now, that is.

This week's Burning Question required our presence at a couple of programs, at least. There's no shortage of options in Dallas. Central Market, Viking Culinary Arts Center, Cookworks and a number of other locations schedule courses on a regular basis, ranging from simple demonstrations by a local chef to hands-on affairs where participants actually peel and chop and burn things beyond recognition. We selected a demonstration by chef Jim Severson of Sevy's Grill, hosted by Sur La Table; our second choice was one of the renowned "Dirty Dozen" events put on by Abacus, which offer 12 students the opportunity to work alongside a team of chefs and prepare a four-course dinner worthy of the restaurant.

A big cooking spree the night before our first class kicked off the research. We created dishes consisting of vodka and citrus peel. Simple peasant fare, really.

Like we said, we enjoy our time in the kitchen. Unfortunately, the classroom at Sur La Table features one of those angled mirrors over the chef's station that allows guests to view all the food prep action--not a really good thing when your blood-alcohol content remains at Boris Yeltsin levels.

Severson walked the class through a menu of upscale tailgate dishes. He emphasized preparation, quality ingredients and creativity. "It's education and entertainment," he says of demonstration classes.

Other chefs tend to agree. "You can learn to make a dish or two, but you're not going to learn the full range of skills," explains Doug Brown of Beyond the Box, the catering, delivery and pick-up venture downtown. "But I love teaching them, and people have a good time." The format resembles a high school science lecture, except they serve a tremendous meal afterward.

"This is the lazy person's cooking class," says Mattie Roberts of TXCN, whom we invited along because one, we're guys, and two, her purse could conceal a flask or two. "You sit back, are entertained and get lunch."

Everyone we spoke with concerning demonstration classes used some form of the word "entertainment." Yet chefs concede that such events provide participants with valuable tips and a greater understanding of certain dishes. Severson's discussion of failed recipes and twists on the original was clearly intended to encourage creativity.

"But," warns Kent Rathbun, executive chef at Abacus, "hands-on classes can't be replaced."

We ended up on the team supervised by Aaron Staudenmaier, executive chef at Jasper's--in this case responsible for an appetizer (foie gras) and the entrée (duck breast over a puree of parsnip and foie gras).

Staudenmaier is adamant that hands-on programs contribute more to an amateur cook's basic knowledge than demonstration courses. "If I wanted to give you recipes, I could do that," he says. "But until you understand the mechanics of what you're doing, you'll never be able to finesse the rest."

Each task assigned comes with some instruction in proper technique. Apply seasoning in an incorrect manner, slice your thumb, overfill a pan or whatever, and a chef steps in quickly.

Don't ask how we know.

"If I see someone not using a knife right, I'll stop things," Rathbun explains. "I think it's important to stress the discipline." But none of this really addresses the question.

"Will one class, two classes, three, teach you everything you need to know? No," says April Vignone, one of the Dirty Dozen. "But each class will further your skill and your interest."

While depleting your bank account: Rathbun's events run upward of $300--although they include a meal, plenty of wine, a chef's jacket and, for us, the necessary bandages.

So our answer to this week's Burning Question is yes, to a point. Demonstrations provide a sense of perspective and fun. Participatory classes teach fundamental techniques and inspire confidence. It's a stretch, however, to expect more.

Or, as Joel Harloff, executive chef at Landmark Restaurant in the Melrose Hotel, explains, "You can learn how to cook dinner for friends or family at one of my classes, but it does not make you a chef."

 
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