Most cooks who do demonstrations know that their primary job is to keep an audience amused for however long it takes to get through the recipes. For instance, people come to watch Sheryl Julian, who gives demonstrations at the Hotel Meridien in Boston, not because she trained at the Cordon Bleu (she did) but because she gets a crowd going. “Make sure your butcher is afraid of you,” she’ll say in the middle of boning a leg of lamb. “You’ll get the best meat.” She interrupts with little quizzes–What two foods were always served on white napkins in Victorian England? Asparagus and ice cream–and gives almost as many tricks as Wolfert does. Put plates in the freezer so that ice cream will stick to them. She has an unerring sense of when her audience is restless or hungry. “I’m passing around these cookies now, even though I haven’t shown you how to make them yet,” she said at one demonstration. “You all look like you need a pick-me-up.”
As Much Fun as Watching a Showman Can Be
A participation class is where what you learn really takes, because it enters your sensory memory and not just your notebook. Being warned by a teacher at a demonstration not to incorporate flour into bread dough too fast is different from being shown how to turn a lumpy mess in front of you into satiny dough. At a participation class the teacher can rescue you by adding more liquid (which makes the dough look like it belongs in a cement mixer) and then pummeling it until it looks like something you’d consider eating once it was baked.
- That happened to me at Bugialli’s school in Florence. (Bugialli also teaches in New York City and gives demonstrations all over the United States.) I saw the first day why Bugialli is extremely popular: he takes away fear of cooking. After a forty-five-minute lecture the twenty or so students in a class divide into teams and start on the recipes.
- The idea is for each student, no matter how inexperienced, to get through them. Bugialli comes along and cuts half a rabbit the way he wants students to cut the rest, or shows how finely chopped the carrot and onion mixture for the beginning of a pasta sauce should be, or dresses a salad. Mix salt with vinegar first, because oil won’t dissolve salt. He acts as if there’s no trick at all to making fresh pasta or stuffing a breast of veal with a complicated forcemeat and weighting it overnight. Students take his cue.
- They run their handmade pasta dough through a machine and cut it into tagliatelle, tie the breast of veal the way he showed at the lecture, and beat mayonnaise by hand, as he insists. The students may not have his finesse, but the food gets made and tastes good.
I felt the same sense of relaxed collaboration in New York City, at the classes of Lydie Marshall, a teacher of French provincial cooking. Both teachers have outgoing, forgiving personalities that break down inhibitions. After Bugialli and Marshall set things in motion, they give most of their instructions from the other side of the room, while in the middle of something else, and each team gets the idea that it is responsible for the final dish. In retrospect I realized that no one at either school made a decision without the teacher’s approval. As I sat having coffee with Marshall after a class, she went down a list of the students, telling me who could work with whom and who needed the most help and at which points. I’d had no idea that she was aware of any of these things. Marshall and Bugialli are model teachers, but a participation class does not require such magnetic leadership for success, the way a demonstration does. Being able to use your hands and palate is instructive by itself.
An increasingly popular way to study cooking is to take a course abroad. Most food tours are really restaurant visits with an occasional demonstration by a professional chef, who may or may not be able to teach. A few schools in Europe, however, offer participation classes to enterprising tourists. Spending a vacation in another country taking a cooking course might seem like a waste of good sightseeing time, but you could find yourself agreeing with the theory that the ideal place to understand a culture is at the table.
- One of the oldest and best of these schools is Marcella Hazan’s, in Bologna, which I visited recently. Hazan’s books are written with American readers and the ingredients available to them in mind. In their week-long classes Hazan and her husband, Victor, who is an authority on Italian wine, give students an idea of the compromises involved in trying to duplicate Italian cuisine with what is available in American grocery stores.
- The Hazans conduct tours of markets and cheese factories and vineyards (Bugialli does this too) and have bread, cheese, and wine tastings at breaks in each class. Learning why foods are combined the way they are makes students understand the variants in Hazan’s books and what further substitutions they should make depending on what they can get. If you can’t find fresh rosemary and sage, buy only whole dried leaves and chop or crumble them to release their flavor.
- Hazan does most of the cooking in her classes, which frustrates students; she is by turns maternal and brusque, which intimidates them. Still, by the end of the course they know a great deal more about Italian food and wine than they did at the start.
Especially chefs who don’t have premises where they can hold participation classes, can be excused for slighting basic techniques-they have a whole set of attitudes and flavors to introduce, and not much time to do it in. You would think that cooking teachers in America would take the time to start at the beginning. Yet the majority of brochures for cooking classes advertise novelties like do-ahead Chinese appetizers and “hors d’oeuvres la microwave.” People seem to prefer learning exotic party recipes to mastering one or two important principles–or at least the organizers of the programs think they do.