I recently went to what looked like one of those novelty classes: “Fall for Italy,” given by Sally Kofke at The Cookingstudio, a well-equipped teaching kitchen at King’s Supermarket in Short Hills, New Jersey.
- Kofke is one of many teachers around the country who have studied with famous cooksin situ (New York, France, Italy) and returned to spread the word in a more complete way than those stars passing through ever could.
- Kofke has taken several courses from the Hazans. Having recently spent a month going to classes in Florence, Venice, and Bologna, I didn’t expect to learn anything, but of course I did.
- Kofke has a cooking school in her house, in Montclair, New Jersey, where she teaches basic courses, and she knows how to pack a lot of techniques into one class. She ordered quail that hadn’t been cleaned, for instance, and made students learn what to snip off and what to leave on (it was a participation class).
Many had never seen a quail or used dried porcini mushrooms, and they came away wanting to experiment with both. I looked at The Cookingstudio’s list of classes, assembled by Joanna Pruess, the school’s director, with new interest. Even if a teacher is not a foreigner or classically trained, he or she can bring students far forward and pass on valuable advice.
Use a tall, narrow pot when poaching pears, so that you can use less liquid and make a more intensely flavored syrup. Enthusiasm, a modicum of ability, and a desire to help students improve are more important than cachet or diplomas.
A useful class is not one that gives you some good recipes-although it’s a pleasure to find them–but one that teaches techniques and introduces you to the unfamiliar. People who ask me about cooking courses want to learn the basics. The classes they seek are the most important and the hardest to find. Schools seem to start by offering one-shot classes, then series of classes with themes, and finally techniques classes if the others have made money.
Two schools that do offer an impressive variety of techniques classes for both beginners and aspiring professionals are Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School and the Academie de Cuisine, in Bethesda, Maryland. I went to a class in New York on poaching. The teacher, one of many at Kump’s school, was phlegmatic, and I got classroom fidgets. But I learned more about the science of cooking, about choosing ingredients and figuring out how to use them without consulting a recipe, than at almost any other class I have attended. By the end of the class the students knew what liquids to poach what foods in and for how long. They had learned all about butter sauces like hollandaise and bearnaise. They had boned several kinds of fish.
This sort of class helps you at the supermarket on the way home from work, and at the stove on a weeknight. It also helps you figure out which recipes are likely to work. Knowing what happens when butter and egg yolks are heated together makes me better able to read directions for sauces. I’ve become much better at spotting trouble in cookbooks than I used to be. But I’ve also begun to see that memorizing elementary principles and forcing myself to fly solo, no matter how uneven the results, is more valuable than reading the newest book of glamorous recipes.
At a demonstration in Boston to benefit the new American Institute of Wine and Food, based in San Francisco, I watched Julia Child make a brioche dough in a food processor. “Wouldn’t that be better in a mixer with a dough hook?” I asked Sheryl Julian, who was standing next to me. She shrugged and kept looking at the mirror. “You don’t understand,” I said. “That’s the kind of question that keeps me up nights.”
She turned to me. “Then you’ll never be a cook,” she said. “You can learn how to do anything else by studying harder and harder, but the only way to learn to cook is by doing it. You want to know which way is better? Make it both ways and feel the dough. I’m way behind where I should be because I spent too many years wondering whether to use the mixer or the processor.”
I realized how far I am from overcoming my craving for explicit directions. I still gravitate toward the cookbook section in any bookstore. But I know that short of having a group to collaborate with every night, classes are the best place to start learning how to be a cook.