Garden City, New York

November 2009

I’m not sure what it was that inspired me to register for a cooking course run by Viking.  Maybe it was because the class was only three hours so if I hated it, it wouldn’t kill me? Maybe it was because the one course I had been interested in a few months prior (making fresh mozzarella) had been canceled because no one signed up? Maybe it was because the Viking store selling upscale appliances and expensive cooking tools that I would never buy was a mere 20 minutes from my house? Maybe it was because someone in marketing at Viking had the brilliant idea to come up with a “Mastering French Cuisine” class inspired by the movie Julie & Julia? I was intrigued to say the least. With a limited number of participants (12 to be exact), I didn’t waste any time to enroll.  After all, the course was a mere $99.  How bad could it be? 

Saturday night, a cold November evening.  I arrived pronto at 5 p.m. to be told “they weren’t quite ready for us yet.”  Seeing no one else waiting for the class to begin, I wondered whether it was going to be a one-on-one with me and the “chef” but then remembered classes are canceled unless they get their quota. Around 5:15 p.m. more people started showing up and we were led into a striking kitchen complete with a large prep area, three Viking stoves, fridges, pans, cutlery, mixers, blenders and anything else Viking makes to help you put a meal on the table. Our chef’s name was Frank.  There were 11 women (including myself) plus one of the women brought her husband.  Of the 11, six were considerably older than I am, two were much younger (we’ll get to them later), the one closest to my age was by herself (a regular Saturday night class participant I learned) and then there was the couple.  (I’ll talk about the couple later, too.) We put on name tags and aprons. I was the only one who put her hair up.  Gulp.  But before we started working, we dug into a baked brie with walnuts and dried cranberries and herbs de provence that Frank had put out for us.  Frank also had an assistant named Jesse whose main function (besides giving him stuff he had forgotten to get or that we needed) was to be his comic side kick.  She did an admirable job keeping up with his quick and friendly banter.

After a quick introduction about what we were cooking tonight, the writer (and the reader) in me couldn’t resist asking if Frank had either seen the film or read the book(s).  No, he replied but he did read the recipes.  I was a bit put off by that but decided to go with the flow.  Since he seemed to be acutely aware of my disappointment, he did mention the only book he had ever read (I have to hope he was only talking “food-related books”) was Kitchen Confidential.  Since that was the only book my son ever admitted to reading when he was 16, I took this as a good sign.  (The son is now a German Language and Literature major but that’s a whole different story.)

When you sit down at the table at the Viking Cooking School, they give you a course outline and a list of the recipes you’ll be preparing that night. Having never done a cooking course, I was intrigued.  I read through the very simple recipes and thought “hah,” they’ve dumbed it down for the audience.  But then again they obviously knew their audience. There were 12 of us that evening for the class and so we divided into three groups. Cooking in groups of four meant that each person had a task or did something that someone else didn’t want to do.  I actually thought this was pretty cool but I also laid low because I didn’t want anyone to actually figure out that a) I was pretty knowledgeable about food and cooking and b) I was really more interested in watching everyone else prep and try to cook.   

Like all good things, we started making the dessert first.  Initial task: separating eggs for the chocolate soufflé.  Luckily, one of my team members rushed to the challenge and was quite eager to put egg whites in one dish and yolks in another.  When I watched her breathtakingly slow execution of this simple task (in fairness she didn’t break a yolk) it made me want  to:

1. Call up the aforementioned author of  Kitchen Confidential, Chef Tony Bourdain and have a cigarette with him, even though I don’t smoke and

2. Go across the street to a local bar and order a round of drinks to get through the agony of watching this simple act performed.

Eventually we moved on.  Egg whites were separated, yolks were beaten with sugar, how to extract vanilla from the bean was explained. Here’s what I found most interesting. From the beginning, the ingredients used in the course were pretty top notch.  Ok, so I am a bit of a snob but frankly I was surprised.  While I didn’t  actually see where the meat came from, we did have Irish butter, fresh vegetables and herbs, good quality chocolate, decent olive oil and baguette that was baked off-site.  (Why the baguette became the focus point of the meal with many a participant asking Frank if he baked it himself is a whole another story.)

We made the base for the soufflés as Frank patiently explained the science part of a soufflé (as in don’t open the oven or you will be left with a sunken mass in a ramekin) followed by the steps necessary to prepare a soufflé if you were ever so inclined.  At this point I heard at least four of the 12 participants whisper they had never eaten a soufflé before.  Um.

We moved on to making the pièce de résistance– Julia’s famous “Boeuf  Bourguignon.” At this point I have to segway a bit. I have many cookbooks in my house but Julia’s was not one of  them.  Since I am nearly always in a rush to get a meal on the table, her recipes seemed complicated and not particularly user-friendly.  Since the movie came out though, everytime I walked into a bookstore her book was prominantly displayed with a new wrap around sleeve with a photograph of Meryl Streep as Julia.  I really liked the movie and had read both of the books that the film was based on.  (After the course, I bought the cookbook online.) 

But let me get back to the class.  Chef Frank Fortunato (whose last name was only revealed when I made a follow-up phone call a few days later) was an instructor at  BOCES during the day, a Viking instructor at night and weekends as well as a private caterer.  He was patient (especially given most of the classes he teaches are composed of older women with a few odd balls throw in) and was sought after by the attendees. This had a strange effect on me when we got to doing prep for the main dish.  Since I’ve been cooking a really long time (over 30 years!), I suddenly felt insecure about how I was cutting the onions and mushrooms and carrots and even how I was stirring the meat.  It’s not that Chef Fortunato was a celebrity but somehow you, as the attendee, wanted to not only get his approval that you were doing it right (as in the way he showed you) but you wanted him to look into your pot and say, “that’s good.”  We delegated the tasks of chopping among the four of us (some were less thrilled than others by doing this task but so be it) and proceeded to make our way through a series of steps necessary to get all of our ingredients ready to cook. 

Chef Fortunato brought out a large package of beef that had been cubed for us and we were instructed to sear it with some bacon. Back to each of the three stoves our groups retreated and one of us took the task of cooking the bacon, then searing the meat, then carmelizing the onions and the carrots and finally adding the various stocks – wine, brandy and beef stock to the pot.  I also kept visiting each of the other three groups to see how they were doing.  I watched as one person in my group painstakingly plopped each piece of meat in the pan to sear, slowly rotating each piece.  Looking at her execution of this one task in the “to do” menu line-up I thought this Saturday night might turn into next Saturday night.

Another major annoyance was listening to the two women who were considerably younger than the rest of the group.  Even though they looked like they were slicing, dicing and stirring and seemingly involved in the task at hand, not once did they talk about what they were doing or anything cooking or food-related. They talked about friends they hadn’t seen in a while focusing in particular on those friends who were getting married or engaged.  This led to lengthy mind-numbing conversations about wedding dresses, catering halls and where to honeymoon. Every time I looked at them and tried very hard not to roll my eyes or scream “shut up!”, they would invariably temporarily halt their conversation and flash me a smile.  While I was tempted to ask them  “Why are you even here?” a little voice told me not to bother.

We finally finished cooking the meat, adding all the other ingredients and waited for the stock to reduce. Looking at the amount of liquid in the pan and noting the tuffness of the meat, I wondered if this dish would even be edible. We moved on to making the salad — a frisée with poached egg, bacon and bread.  (I’ve never had a frisée salad where the dish was composed with a single whole slice of bacon but whatever.)  We sliced shallots for the dressing.  We wisked mustard and vinegar and oil into a bowl.  One of the attendees wondered why we didn’t add sugar to the dressing.  I watched Chef Fortunato’s response thinking what he really wanted to say was “excuse me?” but he had probably been teaching courses like this one long enough to simply offer  “sweetness is a personal preference, if you think it needs extra sugar or salt, you should do so.”  Growing up with grandmothers who were born and raised in the midwest where adding sugar to a salad dressing was a given, what threw me is the fact that someone asked “why no sugar?” in this class on Long Island.

Although we were taught how to poach an egg exactly as was described in Julia’s cookbook, I heard a bit of grumbling from some of my other classmates. “I don’t know if I can eat a poached egg. I’ve never had one.”  Truth be told,  I’m not a big poached egg fan myself but was I complaining? The fear factor was prevalent among the attendees especially when the “Girls Who Only Talk about Weddings” broke the first two eggs they were trying to poach and Chef Fortunato had to go back into the storage area and rustle up some more.  Others were more adept at poaching.  Some however seemed to take up the space in front of the boiling water watching the eggs slowly rise to the surface.  They appeared to be deeply looking into the pot.  I couldn’t figure out if they were slowly being hypnotized watching the water boil or if they were just getting a desperately needed facial.

Chef Fortunato took it upon himself to mix the salad (wearing plastic gloves) and then stirred all three pots of the Boeuf Bourguignon into one big pot. Side dishes that he and the very friendly Jesse made were basic egg noodles with butter and fresh parsley as well as frozen peas with more butter and shallots. I felt that Jesse however was on to me.  She kept looking at me, reading my name tag and saying “you’re very quiet Julie.”  I told her I was big on “observing.”

We were told to line up and we did.  Salad plates in hand, we served ourselves some frisée, grabbed a poached egg, a slice of baguette and a piece of bacon.  Chef Fortunato started to coat the ramekins with butter for our soufflé dessert as we all went back to sit at the table. The “Wedding Girls” of course were still at it and a few of my other classmates started to ruminate about their food issues.  The husband and wife team (the only ones not drinking wine by the way) started to fuss that they wouldn’t be able to eat the soufflé because it would keep them up all night.  What?  I was inclined to tell them if maybe they had a glass or two of vin rouge, they’d both be sleeping like babies, no problem.  

Salad down, we were instructed to line up again to get bowls of stew and bring them back to our plates where the buttered noodles and peas were served family style.  Here’s the thing.  Growing up in Europe, I’ve shared many a restaurant table with people I don’t know.  You eat, you talk to each other at least briefly, you find out where people are from, what people do, what other restaurants they like in the area, and how many relatives they have in the U.S. (and what cities in particular).  Here, each man or should I say woman, was on her own.  The women who came together stayed together, the “Wedding Girls” kept up the wedding jabber and no one else really talked.  Suddenly, the whole communal thing seemed very awkward especially after spending nearly THREE HOURS COOKING THE DAMN MEAL.  One of the older women sitting next to me (who had confessed halfway through the cooking process that she would never be able to make this meal at home because even though her husband was a meat and potatoes kind of guy, his idea of meat was a hamburger) thought the beef needed to be cooked more.  I looked at her and thought, well, that’s a bit of an understatement.  In fact, the beef was barely edible.  I choked down a few mouthfuls of the stew, shoveled in more than my share of buttered noodles and some peas then got up from the table and went  to talk to Frank.

“What do you think?” he asked me.

“Um well, it’s good enough for them,” I said nodding my head back to the table I had just left but I realized my remark sounded well, rude, so I quickly continued. 

“You can’t really expect the dish to come close to what it’s supposed to taste like after only cooking it an hour an half.  Better yet, maybe this should have been a three day course?”  I ventured.  “Cook it Day 1 and come back on Day 3 to eat it because that’s when it will actually be edible.”

“I know,” he admitted.  “But how could we do that?”

As we talked about his background  and the other course offerings at Viking, I noticed quite a bit of soufflé filling left over in a bowl. 

“You could do a Jean-Georges chocolate molten cake with the leftovers,”  I ventured.  By virtue of that  comment I thought he had me, but he didn’t skip a beat.  He simply asked Jesse to conjure up some small aluminum ramekins, spoon the leftover batter into the pans and they’d have another dessert for another class session.

Dinner was nearly over.  Chef Fortunato sat at the table with us talking about his love of cooking and the fact that he even surprised himself in that he really liked teaching. The classmates were still intrigued about the baguette.  “Where did you get the bread from?” one of them asked.  He didn’t reveal the source but did mention that while breadmaking is easy (and a recipe was included in the packet), it was time-consuming.  I didn’t want to ask for a show of hands to see how many had even attempted breadmaking since I already knew the answer.  

Jesse brought out the chocolate soufflés with a dab of crème anglais on top.  As the group ate their dessert (many of whom were smacking their lips and oohing and aahing), some of them again reiterated they had never had a soufflé before.  I looked at my dish.

The dessert placed in front of us was definitely a chocolate molten cake.

After the course, I bought the cookbook and looked at the recipe for Boeuf Bourguignon.  I opened the xeroxed Viking packet and looked at the recipe.  Then I compared the two.  They were nearly identical except the cooking school added brandy (which Julia did not) to the stock and Julia used small white onions while Viking used frozen pearl onions.  Both recipes noted that the beef should be cooked in the oven anywhere from 1.5 to 2.5 hours.  Sigh.  Bottom line?  Viking has interesting course offerings even though they may not be exactly what you expected.  If you are a foodie or a really decent home cook, the other participants (as in their lack of knowledge) may make you crazy.  That said, it’s a good way to spend an evening and not spend a lot of cash.  Most people do take the courses in pairs so if you’re single, you may feel left out. Best selling point: the instructors are very personable and knowledgeable and don’t dumb you down in how to hold a knife or if you’re lacking in basic prep terminology.  Down side: you could spent four hours with people who don’t know anything about cooking whatsoever.  Considering that most of the people in the group were a good ten years older than I am, I wondered how they survived this long without cooking a “real” meal at home.  That’s when it came to me.  Their idea of a “real” meal and mine are two vastly different schools of thought.

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