Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Culinaerie, or why you should become a "Master" Chef

I'm very sad this week, as I don't have my cooking class to go to anymore.  For 24 weeks this year, I've been taking the greatest cooking class (called the "Master Series") at the greatest place - Culinaerie.  Indeed, I think that, having taken both 12-week sessions, I can now call myself a "Master" without choking.  (My mom would call me the "Master of Disaster", and she would not be entirely wrong, though I aim to show her otherwise on my next visit home in just a few weeks - hooray for cooking with/for my parental units (as I lovingly refer to them)!) 

I'm now going to gush about how Culinaerie has changed my life, and I feel like I should say, upfront, that I get nothing from this endorsement except the satisfaction of hopefully helping other people change their life for the better by really learning how to cook, as I did!  I thought about sending my chef-instructor a gushy letter as a testimonial, but this is so much better and more embarassing (as well as being slightly less stalker-like, hopefully).  Hmmm...

My Culinaerie adventure started almost 2 years ago, when I saw a Living Social deal on a knife-skills class at this place I had sort of heard about from my friend, Anne.  Anne's husband had bought her a gift certificate for a class at Culinaerie some time ago, and I was intrigued, but thought nothing more about it until taking part of a knife-skills class at the Washington Metropolitan Food and Wine Show (or something like that) with my friend Heather.  I'd always been horrible at cutting things (without a rotary cutter), despite being in other respects a decent cook.  (Indeed, in the eyes of many of my friends and colleagues I was already a great chef, having gone to baking school in Vermont for a week (hooray for King Arthur Flour) and taken a couple of one-time demo classes at the Cordon Bleu in Paris on vacations there, and more importantly, having grown up cooking with both of my parents - to the point that we even self-published a family cookbook when I was little.)  But, in reality, I was slow, not confident, and I preferred baking, as that didn't require the good knife skills that savory cooking did.  After seeing in that partial class that knife skills are the difference between cooking being a joy and a hassle, I decided that I needed to take an actual class, and my birthday was coming up, so I jumped on this Living Social deal and convinced 9 of my friends to do the same in just one day - it was a knife skills class for $40 and included dinner - ummm...yeah!  And yes, my friends love me - I'm extremely fortunate!

That said, scheduling 10 people became a nightmare, so we ended up having to split the group up, and thankfully, my friend Hanna gave me her slot when neither date worked for her so that I could be with both groups, since the point of this knife-stravaganza was to be my birthday celebration.  It was a blast both times, and getting to go twice really cemented things for me (I'm a slow learner, apparently!).  I immediately saw a huge improvement in my cooking (and enjoyment of cooking), so Anne and I decided to take a 3-week sauce class together over the summer.  It was a great introduction to sauces, and truly, being able to make proper sauces is the difference between being a cook and a chef.  I'm still working on it, but I've had some pretty great results.  That class, also, was a great introduction because sauces are covered in context throughout the Master series.  (I would have been fine to have not taken the sauce class, but again, it's the repetition and context that makes it come together to be part of my repertoire, and I think I might have been a little overwhelmed at times had I not had sauces first.) 

Then, I guess it was about this time last year, Anne and Cillian were out to dinner with Bryan and me, and we decided that Anne and I should take the "Master series", even though it was part II.  It was a big decision - at $975, it was a major investment, and I definitely gulped at the price.  However, I can now say, it was SOOOO worth it!  Each session is 12 classes, and each class is 3 hours.  Most classes had about 1.5 hours of instruction and demoing by Chef Susan Watterson.  She covered an insane amount of material in that time, as well as handing out tastes of the things she discussed, and then we had the opportunity to use her wonderful kitchen, ingredients, and equipment to practice the techniques that she had just taught us.  We made our dinner for that night (though I often took what I'd make home for leftovers for at least lunch the next day).  Being able to try different spices and flavor profiles without investing in each new spice - that's huge!  And most importantly, the techniques I learned will serve me well for my entire life, plus many of them will save me money.  Between the series last winter/spring and the series that just ended, I learned how to debone chickens, cornish game hens, fish, and lots of other bony things and then cook them perfectly!  That means I can buy whole organic chickens, which cost much less than just buying organic chicken breasts, and I can use every bit of what I've purchased to make a huge variety of meals.  We talked about eggs for an entire class, and that didn't seem like long enough - I'm an even bigger fan of the Incredible Edible Egg now!  We covered vegetables, fruits, greens (which was really a class all about salads, which, I must say, are a lot more varied than I ever would have realized!), and grains.  We had classes on pastry, bread, and chocolate.  I learned how to cook shellfish and have since made wonderful clam chowder and an asian-inspired clam soup with soba noodles.  In our crustacean class, I cooked a lobster perfectly, and wow - let me tell you how much Bryan liked it when I came home that night!  I had lobster for our appetizer the next night, as well as jambalaya, shrimp bisque, and a bit of a ginger, lime, scallion compound butter that was meant to be served with crawfish over a piece of fish, but which I ended up using to reheat roasted sweet potatoes, and let me tell you, wow!  I've made boeuf bourginon multiple times.  I've braised short ribs, made chicken stock, and I'm now the rice pilaf queen.  I would have to write a book to describe how much I've learned, and the best part is, I'm only going to get better as I use what I've learned to continue to experiment in a way that promises to have more success than failure.  I love cooking now - it's an adventure every time I step into the kitchen if I want it to be (though I'm sure there will still be days when I eat plain cheerios with a banana).  Susan really focuses on both mental and physical mis en place - a French term meaning roughly "everything in its place".  When I stop and think about what I'm making and prepare accordingly, I can do some pretty wonderful things!

Here's Susan, my culinary hero:

And she is standing behind part of the spread from our final class - a class on hors d'oeuvres.  We watched her make pate a choux, work with phyllo dough, make crepes, and shape puff pastry, and then we had the closest thing we've had to a "Top Chef" style competition.  We had one hour to make enough pieces to feed the whole class, and the sky was the limit.  We had all learned so much, as was evident as we celebrated over a lovely collection of hors d'oeuvres, sipped wine, and talked food.

It was a great end to the class, except that I don't want it to end!  It's been one of the things that I've looked forward to every week for the last 12 weeks - I'm happy to say I never missed a single class all year, and I always tried to make the best possible use of my time in class to try as many of the techniques that she had demonstrated as possible.  At the end of the class, Susan gives us a recipe packet - as we went along, we took notes, but the whole point of the class is to learn how to cook intuitively without needing recipes.  I like looking at the recipes to jog my memory, but I've already had fun coming up with my own variations.  This is the ultimate skill set for looking in your pantry/freezer/refrigerator and being able to answer the question "what's for dinner" in a way that makes use of what you have and allows you to make something delicious!

So, this is my pitch - I think everyone with an interest in food or who plans to feed their family should take a class like this!  Being a better cook makes it possible to eat better/cheaper/healthier and probably faster, which, of course, leaves more time for quilting!  I wish that these skills were taught to kids in home ec in schools, because I can't believe I've survived into my 30s without knowing what I know now.  I truly believe that if people knew how to cook better for themselves, without needing processed and "convenience" foods, we'd have a healthier, happier country.  And we'd all consume a lot more cream sauces.  YUM!


  1. How fun! Taking cooking classes is definitely on my bucket list. I've taken a cake decorating class, but that's about it. That's seriously so cool that you did this.

  2. Wow, this sounds amazing! How awesome that you were able to take a class that really freed your passions! Woot!

  3. Thanks, ladies! It really is one of the best things I've ever done for myself (and Bryan is pretty happy about it, too). Rebekah, I actually want to take a cake decorating class - I have a great set of Wilton tips and an instruction book from my mom (since she kept the better set from my grandma), and I remember my mom trying to explain icing roses when I was young! I'm planning to make cupcakes for a colleague's retirement party on Friday, and I thought it would be fun to spend some time attempting some simple piping...might have to take an hour or two off work so I'm not starting to frost at midnight! There is a 4-week pastry class at Culinaerie in January, and though much of the material has already been covered in the master series, I'm really tempted to take it just for the fun/practice! I keep telling myself "carpe diem"!

    Our cat is perhaps less thrilled about my desire to practice what I've learned...she wishes I would just get take-out and provide a warm lap now through spring! Instead, tonight I'm making stuffed shells and a really beautiful salad as soon as Bryan gets home to provide a lap! I made the spaghetti sauce over the weekend and threw it in the freezer, so it should be fast-ish, hopefully!


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