I’ve always enjoyed doing cooking classes. Despite reading tons of books, there’s nothing to replace getting hands-on advice from a working chef (and usually a delightfully opinionated one too). There’s also the social aspect of cooking in a big group, which is why when I read this review on the Relax with Dax blog about the Sense of Taste course I was intrigued; not least of all by the fact that there’s draught beer on tap in the kitchen!
So I was super-excited when Debbie and Peter Ayub invited me and a friend to do the Sense of Taste course. My partner in culinary crime is my friend Nicola, a new mom and book editor who has the endearing quality of launching herself into any new experience with an open mind and cheerful determination. Not bad things to have when you’re starting a four-week course of (minimum) four-hour cooking lessons.
The first thing I noticed when we walked in (rather late – one really should pay attention to the directions Debbie sends) was that the crowd was quite young – mainly professionals in their 30s – and about half of them were men. People in our group are at different levels – some of us cook every day and some need to learn from scratch (Shaun, across the table from us, cooked his first ever meal that night, and took a photo of it as his new cellphone wallpaper). The next thing I noticed was that the condensation was thick on the brass spout of the Windhoek dispenser, so I got me one of those.
Chef Peter started with the most important cooking foundation: knife selection, care and skills. Soon we were chopping onions with our lovely Global knives, under the watchful, watering eyes of Peter and his assistants, Matthew and Mark. After we got the hang of that, we were thrown into julienning and dicing carrots. And with all the bits? We were shown how to make a stock, of course! (Or was it a jus? A bit of both, but there was much hilarity working our way through descriptions and methods of all the sauces and bases.)
For me, the most useful part was learning to cut a chicken into portions. I’d seen plenty of pictures in books and tried to follow them, but always ended up hacking through bones and generally making a mess of it. Chef Peter gave us all the tips about jointing, selecting where to cut and shaving meat off the bone. Pretty soon I had a relatively neatly dissected bird. Guess carving duty will be mine this Christmas!
The course is packed with tips and information, including some things I knew to do, but hadn’t quite worked out why, like why you boil potatoes starting with cold water (so that they cook evenly all the way through) and why you put salt in blanching water (to make the colours in veggies ‘pop’).
I also learned a neat little tip that will save acquiring another piece of equipment in the already over-subscribed little red kitchen: how to make a smoker in a normal pot with some foil and a foil tart tin (and to put rice in with the shavings to help them burn longer).
We ended off with a chicken dish (which we wrapped in spinach to steam in the oven – almost impossible to overcook!), smoked mash and fabulous asparagus (from the Epping market – another nice tip from Chef Peter). We needed it by then: the course is about four hours long, which actually goes by quite quickly with all the info coming at you. It also gives everyone lots of time to get the experience they need: I hate it when the assistants start coming around and finishing stuff for you because there’s a time limit on the class. This class is a lot more relaxed and fun.
What I really like about the Sense of Taste course so far is that it’s not about cooking one or two fancy dishes, but about getting hands-on experience of a range of kitchen skills that will simply help you cook better, whether you’re following a recipe or not. One of the most useful books on my cookery shelf is The Cook’s Book, a compendium of techniques and tips that I can refer to whenever a recipe book is too vague. This is the kind of knowledge that gives you confidence in the kitchen, making you the cook you hoped to be.
(Next week, we do fish: watch for an update!)