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Food Issue - On cooking and classes

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

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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The Saturday morning I attended, Bowers focused mostly on breaking down a whole goat and a whole lamb. The process begins with a tool that most people aren't used to using in a kitchen: a hacksaw. For those used to cutting apart a chicken with a pair of sharp kitchen shears, taking a hacksaw to a whole lamb might be a revelation in two parts. With the teeth of my blade sawing to split the lamb's hind legs apart, I was reminded of a very different task: cutting wood for furniture and trying to remember to let the teeth of the blade do the cutting, rather than the pressure of my hand. As the parts began to split off, it became familiar, that process of locating joints and separating them, like a chicken elongated by a rack of ribs.

With only a handful of people in the class, Bowers had plenty of time to answer questions and give hands-on advice, whether about properly trimming connective tissue from the rack of lamb or what the right thing to cook from a certain scrap would be. Much of what we cut up from the goat and lamb were ground into sausage, a quick recipe that is easily scaled down for a home cook with a tabletop grinder. At $375, the boot camp is an expensive class, but the cost is balanced by the preposterously large amount of meat students take home, including bacon, sausage, chops, even bones for stock. One woman gave a perfect reason for taking the class: She was a deer hunter and didn't want to pay a processor anymore. But most people weren't there because they expected to bring large animals home. The fundamental techniques of butchering — breaking down a large piece of meat into individual cuts, finding good use for trimmings or parts — can be translated to most kitchens.

The following weekend, I took the three-and-a-half-hour drive down to Thomasville, Ga., for a cheese making class at Sweet Grass Dairy. If you shop the cheese counter at Star Provisions or even most Whole Foods in Atlanta, you might be familiar with its Green Hill cheese, a distinct, mild Camembert-style wheel that bears a logo of a cow and goat touching noses as they graze through a pasture. That pastoral image matched what I saw on the long dirt driveway to the dairy: all manner of farm animals grazing in open pastures, hogs feeding on troughs of whey, chickens pecking through the trees.

The cheese making class is led by Jeremy Little, who owns the dairy with his wife Jessica. Her family, whose dairy farming roots reach back generations, founded Sweet Grass in 2000 and still provide the grass-fed cow's milk used in their cheeses. There were a dozen participants, most of whom were sweet, gray-haired women with stories of homemade mozzarella gone wrong. The class I took was centered on making a five-pound wheel of Thomasville Tomme, Sweet Grass's spin on the rustic, aged cheese from the French Pyrenees, that would be mailed to our homes after being properly aged.

Little's class is heavy on education and light on hands-on cheese making, a fact that is more or less true of cheese making in general. Handmade cheese wheels require maybe four or five hours of labor, most of which is waiting, and often require weeks or months of aging. Little uses the long stretches of bringing milk up to temperature or separating the curds and whey to talk with the class, touring everyone through the farm's aging rooms, some rich with humid, stinky aromas, others more dry and crisp.

This experience is less about preparing cooks for making a Tomme wheel at home — the logistics of home-aging are a bit impractical, though Little will advise you on that if you ask — and more about understanding cheese. At one point, he whipped up a batch of fresh ricotta in minutes, heating milk to 150 degrees, stirring in lemon juice, and then straining and salting the curd that had formed. It seemed almost like a magic trick, but it was actually a lesson in the basic formula for cheese:

MILK – LIQUID + SALT and/or ORGANISM = TASTY CHEESE

I hadn't previously thought of cheese as a preserved food in the same category as pickles and prosciutto. This revelation came into vivid focus during the class's final tasting, which carefully exhibits the spectrum of flavors and textures as it relates to the aging and techniques we had spent the previous hours learning about.

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The final class I signed up for in this spree of culinary education was sauce-making at Sur la Table based loosely on Martha Holmberg's recent book, Modern Sauces, which came free with the class. As it turned out, everyone else in attendance had already been to at least one Sur la Table class before. I'd found this at the cheese class, too, where a couple of the women in attendance told me they were regular cooking class students in Atlanta. One preferred the classes at the Viking Store, while the other was loyal to the Cook's Warehouse. In both cases, they explained that the regular visits helped them avoid boring ruts in their home kitchens. Here tonight, we were going to get a foundational lesson in sauces from resident chef Kyle Shankman, the kind of base knowledge that allows for plenty of experimentation.

The sauces we were set to cover that night, including variations on beurre blanc, hollandaise, and crème anglaise, are deeply entwined with French cuisine, which is probably the reason I've avoided them for so long. French cooking has always struck me as a losing proposition, the kind of classical, laborious cuisine that a fair-weather home cook like myself will always fail at, so why bother? Even Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which is supposed to be accessible for home cooks, has always struck me as more intimidating than inviting. Having a teacher like Shankman on hand, who can tell you when the caramelizing bubbles of vinegar look right or when a pan needs to be pulled from the heat, is the antithesis of cooking from one of those monolithic guides.

The trickiest sauce we navigated was hollandaise, that rich, yolky stuff that requires a double boiler and swift hand to thicken the sauce without letting the proteins curdle. Shankman is serious about food education — he sports a Le Cordon Bleu seal tattoo on the inside of his forearm — and he made sure we repeated the mantra of a good sauce, "Stir fast, pour slow." As the hollandaise thickened under the stirring hand of a student, he snatched the top bowl right out of the double boiler, announcing that it was ready.

"I don't want to inject too much drama here, but in 10 seconds that sauce would've been ruined," he said. "But that's OK. That's what I'm here for, to tell you when you've got it right."

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