If an artichoke could press itself up against a window, like a five-year-old ogling a pastry shop, it would look like the artichoke I'm holding in my hand -- flattened on one side, bulging and misshapen on the other. For a moment, I'm flummoxed: How am I supposed to trim this stubborn hunk of spikes?
"Try to follow the shape of the artichoke," advises Susan Spicer, 46, chef at Bayona, a four-star restaurant in the French Quarter of New Orleans, and proprietor of Spice Inc., a one-stop cooking school, gourmet shop, and gathering place for local foodies in that city's Warehouse District. "In my first restaurant job, I had to prep a case of artichokes every morning. Somehow, artichokes know what shape they want to be. Pay attention, and you'll know too."
So I pay attention, in the same way that tens of thousands of other food-obsessed people are paying attention in similar classes at thousands of cooking schools across the country. Anyone who has watched the steady profusion of designer pizzas, techno-sushi, and neo-Thai and American-bistro cuisines won't be surprised to learn that cooking-school enrollment has skyrocketed by 500% in the past 10 years.
The reason for this boom in popularity, explains Dorothy Cann Hamilton, who launched the French Culinary Institute, is that people are eating out more: "They're trying new foods and flavors, and their palates are outgrowing their knowledge of food. So when they cook at home, they want to prepare something special."
"Cooking classes demystify the art of fine dining," adds Spicer. People don't want to learn to make every dish. What they really want is to see how a great dish is made -- to understand that it's not magic."
In fact, a bit of magic -- or at least a bit of alchemy -- does go into transforming a bag of groceries into a memorable meal. That's why eight of us apprentice sorcerers have gathered at Spice: to prepare a multicourse meal with a master chef, to pick up a few tips, and to find out what it takes to turn a series of recipes into a fluid progression of tastes and textures.
Spicer holds court in her high-ceilinged demo kitchen. Our group of four men and four women -- a Big Easy-style mix of on-the-go free agents and change agents -- gathers around a modern slate-topped work island. A large overhead mirror provides a bird's-eye view of Spicer's technique from any spot in the room.
The lesson unfolds: a four-course neo-Cajun meal whose ingredients include Spicer's multicultural repertoire of chefly secrets, along with the class's curiosity and instant camaraderie -- both of which are helped along by enough wine to keep us all moist. Total (learning) time: four hours. Serves: one master chef and eight acolytes.
Step #1 Don't create -- innovate.
"When putting together a meal, look for unusual combinations of ingredients -- dishes that bring together favorite flavors and textures in surprising ways," advises Spicer, who then guides us through the evening's menu.
First course: Crabmeat and Artichoke Gratin. This is a traditional New Orleans recipe, with an untraditional twist. "Crab gratin is a classic," says Spicer. "But I also want to show that you can do more with an artichoke than just steam it."
Second course: Bayona Crispy-Smoked-Quail Salad. Bobwhite quail -- a traditional southern game bird -- is treated to two traditional southern-cooking methods: smoking and frying. But instead of corseting the bird with an egg-batter armor, as is customary, Spicer opts to coat it with a light mixture containing finely milled white-rice flour.
Third course: Crayfish Curry. "We've all had your basic "Joy of Cooking" shrimp curry," says Spicer. "So I thought I'd mix things up by substituting crayfish and by tossing in pineapple juice and adorning the dish with lime pickle."
Dessert: Coffee Pots de Crème. This dessert is like crème brûlée, only without the burnt-sugar crust. Spicer thinks that a sweet pudding will smooth out the curry's jumble of textures and flavors. "This also lets us use coffee as an ingredient in the meal, instead of using it only as a beverage."
Four courses, four new ideas. All that remains is the execution.
Step #2 Practice your prepping.
Almost every chef I know has the same take on prep work: Do as much of it as possible before the cooking begins. To prep well, you've got to wield a knife skillfully. Cutting is important, Spicer explains, because the size and thickness of ingredients determine whether they are cooked uniformly. Size and thickness are among the few variables in cooking that you can fully control.
Before turning us loose with sharp blades, Spicer demonstrates some basic chopping and slicing techniques. For instance, to make slicing an onion easier, she cuts off one side of the onion so that it rests flat on the cutting surface. Then she deftly slices the onion with a rocking motion, keeping the point of the knife on the chopping board as she lifts the knife's handle to do the chopping. Used properly, the knife serves as a lever.
I pick up a paring knife and attempt to trim an artichoke so that all that remains are its edible innards. As I struggle to a finish, I realize that I need lots more practice.
Step #3 Don't make the last dish last.
When our platoon of preppers completes its chopping, Spicer puts some fire under the pans and begins caramelizing the vegetables. We take turns sautéing, stirring, and scraping up the brown bits on the bottom of each pan. All of us, except Ricky Lemann, work on the first three courses of the meal. Lemann, 39, who owns Loa, a hip new bar located in the International House hotel, is the designated dessert guy.
To make a dessert, you need separate knives and a separate work surface: Who wants to taste garlic in an apple pie? Of equal importance: Who wants to prepare dessert after eating a filling meal and downing a couple of bottles of Château Margaux? At that point, all you really want to do is serve the dessert. So the solution is to work on the dessert while you're working on all of the other dishes. Once the meal is served, all that should stand between you and your dinner's finale is a small finishing touch.
Step #4 Know when to improvise.
Any chef who gives you a recipe expects you to follow that recipe -- up to a point. A recipe is a good guide, but it is not Holy Writ. Ingredients will always be riper, sweeter, or sharper (or less so) than any recipe can anticipate. To get the right balance of flavors, master chefs adjust a recipe's seasonings accordingly, and that requires careful tasting and fine-tuning.
So the rule in general is this: Don't follow the rules exactly -- unless you're making a dessert. Lemann learned that lesson the hard way when the pots de crème came out a little runny. "I used two fewer egg yolks than the recipe called for," he admits. Cooking may be an art, but cooking desserts is an exact science.
Step #5 Too many cooks are good for the broth.
The room is full of cooking aromas. Spicer is shaking pans, adding ingredients, commenting on the food's progress. We drink wine and go about our assignments. Within a half hour, a group of strangers has become a gathering of chatting friends. "There's a natural camaraderie in cooking," says class member Linda Caporaletti, 39, who consults to such companies as Union Carbide and MCI WorldCom. "Cooking lets shy people feel included and gives extroverts a way to express themselves without dominating everyone else."
Our group provides living proof of Caporaletti's point. As sociability gains an upper hand, we drift away from the prep area, leaving the chef to complete the meal. "I'm used to that," says Spicer. "People learn a few things, and then they're ready to party. Hey, this is New Orleans."
Peter Kaminsky (email@example.com) is writing a book with Peggy Fleming titled "The Long Program" (to be published by Pocket Books in October).
Action Item: First Course
You don't have to look far to find a good cooking class. If you live in a town that has some good restaurants, chances are that the chefs at those restaurants serve up occasional courses or demos. But if you want one source that covers the whole smorgasbord of classes, then pick up the "Guide to Cooking Schools," published by ShawGuides.
The guide is updated annually and covers nearly every form of cooking instruction, from a full-blown professional course, to a one-night session with your favorite cookbook author, to a sensualist's tour of the vineyards of Burgundy (with some tips on foie gras thrown in). There are also lists of apprenticeships, wine courses, and food-and-wine organizations.
A great cyber assistant in your search is the ShawGuides Web site, which describes more than 1,000 schools, highlights upcoming programs, and provides a selection of "Quick Tips." The site is searchable by various criteria, such as cuisine, time of year, and location.
Coordinates: $22.95. ShawGuides Inc., www.shawguides.com
Sidebar: This Book Cooks!
Everyone has a bible for cooking, A book whose stuck-together, gravy-stained pages proclaim that this is the guide that you use when you're getting serious about cooking. When I learned to cook, "Joy of Cooking" and "Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking" were my bibles. They're still great. But now I have a new book in my kitchen that's becoming dog-eared and getting dripped on: Mark Bittman's "How to Cook Everything: Simple Recipes for Great Food."
Bittman, who writes a weekly column ("The Minimalist") for the New York Times, is conversant in all the multicultural cooking styles that have become popular since the heyday of Julia and Joy. His book, with more than 1,500 recipes, is both easy to follow and encyclopedic. Plus, the glossary will prove to be a lifesaver when you forget what "salsify" means, or if you don't know the difference between basting and braising.
Coordinates: $25. Macmillan General Reference, www.mgr.com
Sidebar: Cutting Edge
What a guitar or a saxophone is to a musician, a knife is to a chef. Without it, nothing happens. Choosing a knife is a personal decision, but you're likely to find the right fit at J.B. Prince Co., the cooking-equipment supplier to many of the country's top chefs. The company's most popular all-purpose blade is the 10-inch stainless-steel Wusthof knife ($80.50), commonly known as the "chef's knife." I've had the same Wusthof for nearly 15 years, and I've put more mileage on it than I have on my car. The knife holds an edge, it is well balanced, and, most important, it feels good in my hand.
A lighter, more modern-looking instrument is the Japanese Global Chef's Knife ($57.30). Its contoured metal handle is both beautiful and functional, and its thin-but-durable eight-inch blade takes an edge fairly easily. While you're buying a knife, be sure to get a sharpening steel and learn how to use it. Even the best knives are of little use if they aren't sharp. Use a steel before you chop, and you'll cut your food more easily -- and your fingers less frequently.
Coordinates: J.B. Prince Co., 36 East 31st Street, New York, NY 10016, 800-473-0577
Sidebar: Uncork This Book
You'll certainly enjoy the fruits of your culinary labor more if you choose the right wine for your meal. My favorite beginner's guide to good, moderately priced wines is Daniel Johnnes's "Top 200 Wines: An Expert's Guide to Maximum Enjoyment for Your Dollar."
Johnnes is wine director at Restaurant Montrachet, in New York City, which the Wine Spectator consistently places at or near the top of its restaurant wine-list ranking. In a field known for its florid descriptions, Johnnes speaks unambiguously. His explanations are clear, and his recommendations work. I know: I've sipped my way through most of them. Novices should note his "Hot Shots" list of wine producers to look for. "Don't buy on the basis of appellation or vintage," cautions Johnnes. "[Buy] on the standing of the winemaker. A good winemaker will make good wines year after year."
Coordinates: $14.95. Penguin Putnam Inc., www.penguinputnam.com