@foxmwoods bought me a French cooking class for Christmas. Why she continuously buys me Christmas and Birthday presents when I never manage to reciprocate (I'm the worst organiser of gifts on the planet) is beyond me. I put it down to breeding - she obviously has it.
Dish du jour
So on Saturday, I trammed down to Prahran, Melbourne to learn how to make a three course, French meal.
We'd been asked to arrive early as the class would start promptly at 11am. It was intended that the session would go until 3pm and would include preparing and cooking the meal, and then then sharing it as lunch.
The menu was to start with seared scallops served on a bed of julienne vegetables, with beurre blanc sauce; followed by a main of duck with plum sauce, gratin daupinois and vegetables; dessert was tarte tatin.
I really didn't know how a cooking class organised itself. I wondered if we'd have individual cooking stations, or would have to work in groups - I really hoped it wasn't just watching someone cook. As it turned out, it was a bit of a mixture.
We were warmly greated by Chef Sebastien Piel and his assistant (she did a wonderful job and I am unsure of her name) who offered a glass of champagne. While we were waiting for everyone to arrive, Chef tossed olives, rosemary and garlic in a pan for a few minutes, infusing their flavours and filling the room with their aroma. He explained about extra virgin olive oil and when to use it in cooking to avoid burning it's subtle flavours. Turning out the ingredients of his pan onto a lovely oval platter, drizzling oil over the top,he offered us the glistening kalamata olives to eat with our wine.
The room was lovely - it felt french but in an Australian/Austrian kind of way. Organised but full of ingredients and equipment. The large kitchen was purpose built for classes, with a large angled mirror above the cooking station. It was designed so we could see right into the pots and mixing bowls. The bench was extremely wide, and sported large chopping blocks and knives.
Chef wasted no time at all putting us all to work. It was an extremely interactive class, and we all worked together really well. No one appeared to be a complete beginner, nor were there any real experts - we seemed like a fairly well matched group.
Cracking the teatowel
With cooking, time management is everything. Chef said we needed to get things done that could either go into the fridge for reheating, or into the oven for long cooking. That meant first up was creating the entree, and getting the gratin dauphinois into the oven.
My task was to use the madelaine slicer on the carrots. This is a 45 degree razor sharp blade that chefs use when they're not using a noisy food processor for doing the same thing. Holding my hand very flat (such as one might when feeding a horse) I could feel how sharp the blade beheath it was, but the carrot and my excellent technique stopped any of me ending up in the meal. My sliced carrots went to the chopping ladies who turned them from thin slices into matchstick-sized carrots and leeks.
Meanwhile, other members of the group were preparing garlic butter, chopping rosemary and shallots.
Like a well-buttered machine
There were a number of comments, and at times gasps, at the amount of salt and butter used in the meal - so much so that at one stage Chef was sneaking butter into the sauce so no one else might comment. I suppose in a world were we are taught that saturated fat, such as butter, is bad - seeing great wads of it going into this sauce and that pot of vegetables seems strange. Not to me, of course - the more butter the better, I say - but these were all trim looking women who appear to exercise and look after themselves so they were a little more than appalled at times.
Chef explained that butter was about flavour. He showed us that you never reuse butter, washing his pan between scallop batches, for instance. He used it when cooking the julienned vegetables, and with the scallops - topping them in fact with garlic butter as well. Butter was the basis of the caramel for the apples and in the pastry for the tarte tartin. It was in the pan with the duck, and in the sauce that drizzled over it.
Salt was tossed here and there too. Our domesticated "pinch" and his educated "pinch" were quite different and he urged us " more.. more.. MORE!" at one stage taking the grains between his fingers and tossing them across the bench and into the underseasoned preparations going on out of his reach.
Dance while you cook
Chef Sebastien Piel is a lot of fun. He's charming, and chatty, and knowlegable - and French. He's delightful, but has an eagle's eye - making sure we all used the tools safely, and cooked the meal correctly so it was actually going to work, and be served on time.
He was generous with his time, his knowlege and his attention. I noticed several times during the day he seemed to have genuine and meaningful conversations with individuals. He seemed happy enough too that a couple of us wanted to photograph everything. He shared stories, jokes, warnings and dance moves in all the right measure of a really lovely man.
As we neared the end of the cooking phase, Chef asked some of us to sit at the long, shared table, while a couple remained to plate up the meal. Again, he gave good advice on how to get all the meals to the table in a timely warm manner.
We all sat down to our meal, as Chef cracked open a beer, then a bottle of champagne, as his day was almost over and it had been another success.
Our meal was delicious. It was noted by a number of our group that even though we'd seen how much butter and salt had been used with our food, it was neither rich, nor fatty. It was full of flavour and tastiness. Everyone ate everything - washed it down with lovely wine and great conversation.
And then it was time to go. A truly fun day, with a really good group of people. The food was delicious and the experience priceless.
I highly recommend checking out the Dish Du Jour website to get an idea of the different types of menus they teach. Also, Chef will do personalised menus for private groups - and will even come to your home for your own dinner party. It would certainly be something your guests will enjoy over a more conventional dinner party.
I learnt many things on Saturday - espeically about pastry and butter. I have come away confident I could cook this whole meal and it would be a success - and that's probably as far as I'll get :)