Cooking Up Some Love
"Cooking is like love; it should be entered into with abandon or not at all."
-Harriet Van Horne
I consider myself to be sort of a MacGyver chef. Nearly every food I prepare requires some sort of last minute adjusting, covering up or reconstructing, but I'm pretty resourceful, and I'm not one to give up easily. Last year for my boyfriend's birthday, when I attempted Martha Stewart's 36-layer crepe with homemade hazelnut filling in between each layer, I barely cried when the whole thing toppled over. I simply stood it back up, dumped it in a bowl and froze it overnight. Voila! Hazelnut ice cream, anyone?
A few weeks ago, I was offered the opportunity to take a Casual Gourmet class at the Culinary Institute in Norfolk. Since I'd never had any formal training in the kitchen besides watching my mother cook (who will always be the top chef in my book), I jumped at the chance. The class was titled "Cooking for Singles," and although I'm not a single, I was eager to learn some new techniques to use in the kitchen while preparing a Valentine's dinner for my now fiancé, all by myself.
When I arrived at the institute and found my way to the class, I was able to score a spot right up front near Executive Chef Austin Wadsworth. He began by introducing himself, then having each student do the same. It was a small class, approximately nine students and at least four other chefs to assist. After we all told our names and occupations, Wadsworth noted the different stations set up around the room where we would all take turns learning to prepare potstickers, stir-fry, miso soup and my personal favorite: sushi.
For me, sushi is one of the most amazing foods created. First of all, it's an art. The way it's arranged on a platter, the various colors, shapes, textures and overall appearance is just as important as the way it tastes. And, oh, the taste! Theres the spongy consistency of the rice mixed with the smooth flavor of fish along with a crispy bite of cucumber that makes it a sensation for the senses.
As much as I love to indulge in sushi (and do so quite often), it's something I never would have attempted to make on my own. Sure, I've bought a step-by-step instructional DVD and bamboo mat along with a fancy set of chopsticks, but it's just one of those things I could imagine myself doing but never followed through with, much like joining roller derby or learning to speak French.
Since I was so enthusiastic to learn this seemingly unattainable skill, I began the class at the sushi station. Wadsworth instructed us how to make sushi rolled inside the nori as well as inside out sushi. All of the fillings had been cut and prepared, and there were many to choose from including tuna, salmon, avocado, carrot, cucumber, cream cheese, scallions and asparagus. Once we spread the rice on the nori and placed our favorite fillings on top, Wadsworth showed us the most important step: how to roll. Of course he made it look effortless. My roll didn't turn out so pretty, but I think it's because I got overly excited at all the choices of filling that I tried to put too much. However, the chefs were very helpful and patient, offering advice without making the students feel naive. My sushi roll was even salvaged with a bit of MacGyvering from one of the chefs who took some of the stuffing out and filled in some places where I'd forgotten to put rice.
After mastering (or at least attempting) the art of sushi, every other station seemed like a breeze, and the friendly chefs were eager to instruct and assist at each one. I had the assumption that since I was a novice, I might feel out of place or unworthy to be in a kitchen alongside these trained professionals, but it was quite the opposite. For them, cooking isn't just a career, it's a passion.
Chef Wadsworth explained that when we cook something, we cook it with love. What you love to eat is what you cook, he said. You cook with the people that you love. These words from the chef enticed me to ask my fiancé to join me in the kitchen so we could make our Valentine's meal together. We uncorked a bottle of wine, put on some music and prepared one of the best meals I've ever had. We didn't attempt the sushi, although now I'm not afraid to, thanks to the chefs at the Culinary Institute. I learned that cooking together is an intimate experience that's almost as much fun as eating. And just like love, you're bound to make mistakes but as long as the flame is still burning, there's a chance to create something wonderful.
For more information on Casual Gourmet classes at the Culinary Institute, visit www.chefva.com.