|Christophe Bellanca teaches his students|
I’m not much of a cook. I’ve always wanted to be the type of person who buys fresh produce from the Greenmarket and wakes up early every Sunday to make quinoa dishes for the week, but let’s face it: I live in a tiny studio in New York. I have about five inches of counter space in my “kitchen,” which is about six feet away from my bed. I order from Seamless way more often than I care to admit.
Even so, I was really excited to hear about the New York Culinary Experience, a two-day intensive program at the International Culinary Center in SoHo that offers people the chance to take master classes from some of the best chefs in the world. Surely this would inspire me to skip sleeping in and start chopping on those Sunday mornings. It’s not exactly a cheap venture – tickets for the whole weekend cost $1,395 – but where else can you learn how to make chocolates with Jacques Torres or fried chicken with Jean-Georges Vongerichten?
I signed up for two Sunday classes, but part of me was a little skeptical – I mean, how much can you really learn from just two cooking classes (or, for that matter, a whole weekend of cooking classes)? Is it really possible to pick up the skills of a master chef without spending 20 years working in a kitchen?
The short answer: no. As Corton chef/owner Paul Liebrandt put it when I talked to him in between classes, “It’s like asking someone who likes running to suddenly become a professional sprinter. They can’t do it – they have to train. The only way to really learn how to cook is to cook professionally in the kitchen.”
Still, I was surprised at much how I did learn, and how easy and straightforward the classes were. These guys were pros and they made me feel totally comfortable, even though I’ve barely ever handled raw meat or chopped an onion, much less fried langoustines or used gold leaf to garnish a mango mousse, like I did during my first class with L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon executive chef Christophe Bellanca. “Easy, no?” he kept saying as he showed us how to make the most perfect, jewel-green pesto I’ve ever seen, using some crazy Japanese straining method that, at the moment, did seem pretty easy. Will I ever do it at home? Probably not, but I might make the coriander soup recipe he showed us, which involved just three ingredients (cream cheese, cilantro and chicken stock) and looked like something that might draw lots of “oohs” and “ahhs” if I ever got ambitious enough to host a dinner party.
It was a crazy, exhausting two hours that made me feel like I’d just worked a shift at a restaurant, which is exactly what most people in the classroom had paid good money for: a real kitchen experience. Seamus taught us how to think beyond the recipe and use our sight, smell and taste to guide our decisions, which was a pretty cool lesson to learn – and the result was surprisingly delicious, considering that everyone in my group was a paella first-timer.
Did I come out of the day a master chef? Obviously not. But I did learn the difference between Spanish and Iranian saffron, where to buy feuille de brick, how to make a dessert interesting (“Add a little acidity,” according to L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon pastry chef Salvatore Martone) and two different chef’s chicken stock recipes (Seamus uses chicken wings and Christophe uses a whole Amish chicken, FYI). Thankfully, I did not slice into my hand while opening shellfish, but like I said, I’m not a pro - yet.