On cooking and classes 

How a few quick lessons from chefs taught me to embrace the cooking class

BREAK IT DOWN: Rusty Bowers teaches students the basics of whole animal butchery in the back room of Pine Street Market.

James Camp

BREAK IT DOWN: Rusty Bowers teaches students the basics of whole animal butchery in the back room of Pine Street Market.

Some years ago, I noticed a curious trend about my habits in the kitchen. When dining out, I was eager to seek out tastes unfamiliar and new to me and, yet, I was exceedingly conservative when cooking in my own kitchen. For a nice night, I'd grill steaks and bake potatoes. For the workweek's lunch, I'd cook the same combination of collard greens and black-eyed peas I'd been making for years. There isn't anything wrong with a pot of black-eyed peas or a steak with a good crust — I'm proud that I can do both well — but I knew I was lacking some adventure in my meals at home.

Then I fell into writing a regular column called $20 Dinners that featured home cooking advice from chefs. My editor's logic in assigning me had been shrewd: I knew enough about food to survive an interview with a chef but little enough for my perspective to be relevant to a novice reader. I'd visit a chef's house, take notes while they cooked a three-course meal on a reasonable budget, and turn that experience into a story that was equal parts chef profile and recipes for readers to try at home. I did this about once a month for a year.

It shouldn't surprise you that this changed the way that I cooked in my own kitchen. Just watching these chefs prep changed the way I held a knife or put heat on a sauté pan. I already knew the right way to hold a chef's knife — I'd read about it, heard it said — but apparently needed to see it done correctly before I could do it correctly myself. After learning Todd Ginsberg's (Bocado, the General Muir) tricks to a spicy, bright nam tok salad, I've had friends ask me to make it again and again. Shaun Doty's (Yeah! Burger, Bantam and Biddy) chicken liver mousse became my go-to move for a decadent dinner-party snack.

But what matters more than the dishes are the underlying techniques that make them possible. Now when I open up a cookbook and come across a mousse, the idea of making it is no longer bewilderingly foreign. When a recipe calls for a cup of brunoise tomato, I can at least remember exactly how Kevin Rathbun showed me how to cut it, even if my knife skills aren't precise enough to make it pretty.

All that said, it's not like I've become a great, encyclopedic cook. I mostly stick close to the food I've been shown and steer clear of the stuff that I haven't. Does a recipe call for sauce made in a double boiler? Forget it. Will I need to break down something larger than a chicken? I'll probably stick to something smaller. I'd venture to say that all home cooks have their safety zones.

Cooking is a physical act, to see it is to understand it. The vogue for molecular gastronomy has emphasized understanding the chemical reactions and scientific principles that we can't see. That's fine and occasionally helpful, but anyone who has watched a great cook at work knows that it is an act that has more in common with a dancer than an engineer. Cooking is as much about knowledge as it is about dexterity and rhythm; you'll fail if you don't stay on your toes. Few people learn to dance by reading books.

For those of us who don't plan to ever cook for a living, attending culinary school probably isn't an option. Thus, we have the cooking class. Atlanta is full of them. There are the chef-demonstration meals at the Atlanta Botanical Garden; the wide variety at Cook's Warehouse; the basics of everything from bread to barbecue at the Viking Store; the offerings at Sur la Table, to name a few. On any given night in this town, there's a cooking class happening somewhere, it's a just a question of finding the right one for you.

There is some suspicion about these classes from more experienced cooks — that they're for people who can barely boil a pot of water. That's true, in the sense that if you're a person who can barely boil a pot of water, you should get yourself to a cooking class right now. But even those who have been cooking for years should be able to find a class to teach them something new.

Last month, I decided to seek out a few classes that would push my boundaries, show me a few techniques that remained frustratingly mysterious. I wanted to try things that I never attempt for the first time by myself: breaking down a big animal into cuts of meat, making cheese, and whipping up classical French sauces.

I signed up for a whole hog class at Pine Street Market, a three-hour "interactive demonstration" during which owner Rusty Bowers would "break down a whole pig while explaining various cuts of meat and the nuances of butchery." Students would get to cut their own pork chops and learn to make bacon. As it turned out, the class's timing changed, creating a conflict with my schedule and I was allowed instead to sit in on the last day of Butcher Boot Camp, a three-day course with hands-on instruction that ranges from trimming a perfect tenderloin to making head cheese rillettes.

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