Monday, September 28, 2009

Cause I'm a Ninja

I am a woefully untrained chef. I have always wanted to take a class or two--actually have an expert teach me some technique rather then just making it up and watching YouTube videos. Unfortunately the most visible cooking schools in NY involves words like "French Culinary" and "Institute" with the prices to match.

A few weeks ago while researching a butchering class I had read about, I learned of The Brooklyn Kitchen. A small store in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, they offer a rotating roster of classes every month at prices that even I can afford. Pretty much every month, it appears, they offer a few sections of a knife skills class for $25 a person. Two hours to improve my abilities and play with big knives? Sign me up! But what good would it do to improve my own skills if the sous chef, my beloved fiance Will, was still lagging behind? As I pick these crazy meals, he is usually in charge of most of the prep work. I usually have him chop my ingredients as I work on steps 6 through 32 of any given recipe. Neither of us is trained at cooking, making it up as we go along, so it can take quite a bit of time for him to get through the list of onions, tomatoes, peppers, and whatever else I line up for him. The 9pm dinners are somewhat common. Nope, it would not do to go to the class on my own. "Hey honey, guess what we're doing!" Okay, so the big knives helped sell him on the prospect as well.

The class was BYOK, or bring your own knife, specifically a chef's knife, 8" or better. To illustrate how woefully uneducated I can be in the area of cooking, I had to look up the definition of a "Chef's knife." I'm not kidding. Once we were certain of what it was, we realized we only owned one of them, and it was a kind of crappy one I had bought right out of college. It looked like we had a good use for the Bed, Bath and Beyond gift card I had received for my shower. Thanks Aunt Lorna! Once a decent knife had been acquired (and Will volunteered to use the crappier one in class) we were ready for our new lives as trained chefs. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't envisioning the chopping on Iron Chef and thinking, "That's totally going to be me." I also may or may not have been thinking about the scene in Kill Bill where Uma Thurman cuts a baseball in half in mid-air with a samurai sword. I'm pretty sure I could learn to do that in a two hour class in Brooklyn.

Last Wednesday, knives wrapped in paper towels and secured in my bag, we were off to Brooklyn. Luckily it was not one of the days they were searching bags on the subway so I was able to make it there without being wrestled to the ground by one of New York's finest. The store was cute; in addition to an impressive range of gourmet cooking tools, they buy and refurbish copper and cast iron pans and resell them. As a well seasoned cast iron pan is supposed to be the holy grail of cooking equipment, I looked on these with quiet envy. And by quiet I mean I poked Will repeatedly as I pointed them out.

Our teacher was a chef named Brendan McDermott, who was already extremely cute and his attractiveness was only increased by his deftness with sharp objects. What can I say, I like a man with steel. He started by teaching us how to reset the "teeth" of a knife with a honing steel. Apparently you have to go from an X to a triangle. Who knew. As he chatted about knife safety and tecnique, I listened attentively. Then my stomach started feeling a little funny. Then very funny. Then I broke into a sweat. Once my vision started to swim I became fairly convinced I was going to faint. I sat on the floor, which grabbed me a fair amount of attention. I've had a few fainting spells over the year, and there is just one thing about them I know for certain. Get on the floor, or fall on the floor, it's you choice, but you will end up on the floor. It's not always an easy call, because the first instinct is denial. "I'm fine, this will pass, I'm just having a dizzy spell, blurry vision is better, I like it this way." When you wake up on the floor, however, your ego's not the only thing that's bruised. And so I sat on the floor, and made my excuses from there. Will grabbed me water and helped me to the bathroom. He was very heroic, supporting me and promising not to pose me in funny positions if I lost consciousness. After slumping against the wall, breathing deeply, and splashing water on my face my constitution returned to normal.

I know what you're thinking. "And then Will hailed a cab and took you home?" Um, not exactly. See, I've had these spells before. And there's one thing that remains true about them, they never last more than fifteen minutes. Then I'm fine, like nothing ever happened. Had Will tried to drag me home, it would have been five minutes into the ride that my body would have righted itself and I would have been super pissed that we had lost out on all of the info and the $50 we paid to take the class. I splashed water on my face and headed back to class. Chef Brendan seemed surprised to see me, but with a wary look he let me pick up my knife.

The class was excellent; I got caught up chopping celery, as well as planing, julienning, and brunoising carrots. I awkwardly hacked out chunks of carrot, desperately trying to master the down and forward motion without cutting my thumb. I had a tendency to start hazardously high. Will was freakishly good at this, earning praise from the chef for his perfect tiny carrot pieces. I'm pretty sure he cheated. Cheater.

We then moved onto the fearful onion. With eight people chopping at the same time, statistically the chances were high that tears were imminent. Onions are cut by creating a grid that doesn't go through all the way, and then cutting downward to get perfect little squares. One girl lost her eyes almost immediately, but I've never been very sensitive to onions. Another girl nicked her finger, not seriously but enough to warrant a band-aid. She persevered for a few more minutes, and then in a warbaly voice she said "You're not going to believe this, but now I'm dizzy." She sank into a chair and sipped water of her own. I felt so relieved to not be the only one swooning that I put on my best Florence Nightengale and grabbed her a wet paper towel, assuring her that putting it on the back of her neck would help. Hey, I've been there. The chef shook his head at us, "Fainting, blood, you guys are a mess, we've never had this many casualties!" Well, at least we stood out.

The class concluded with a series of demos. Nimbly wielding his knife Chef Brendan took apart a pepper, a tomato, and a whole chicken with ease and speed. The chicken was pretty cool, and he explained how much more cost effective it is to butcher the chicken yourself then to pay for individual pieces. Culinary school makes for impressive skill. I tried to pay close attention, but I may have to look up an online video when I go to do these. Because I didn't have the hands-on practice, I'm sure I didn't retain as much as with the other veggies.

The store offers students 10% off purchases on the day of their class, so I bought a little salt dish that I am rather enamored with. I've heard of some other fantastic classes Brooklyn kitchen offers, including the butchering one I was initially researching. You don't get hands on experience in that one, but you watch an entire pig get butchered, and you get to take home four pounds of meat. I have a fantasy about hosting a "Pork Overload" party the next day, since there's no way Will and I can eat that much meat. Well maybe Will could...but he would probably spend the next week in the doctor's office while a skilled medical team scrapes the plaque out of his coronary arteries. I figure a class like this would be the best way to really learn about the cuts of meat you are getting from an animal, and give you a better understanding of what you are cooking. I've asked for the class for Christmas. I think Will's still wrapping his brain around the idea that his fiance wants to see a pig cut up for a present.

The only problem I had with the class is that it's actually held in the tiny store, with limited work space and people shopping around you. I've read that in November, Brooklyn Kitchen will be opening Brooklyn Kitchen Labs, a new facility with a butcher shop in the front and full teaching kitchens. As long as the prices don't skyrocket, they can count me as a loyal student. And I will do my best to stay on my feet.


CaptnRachel aka Tha Pizza Cutta said...

What a great story! I too want to learn more about classic butchery and just got my first chef's knife last Christmas. I'm glad you went for it ninja-style; holla!

Anne Keefe said...

AND this my friend, is why I want to move to NY- so I can do all this fun stuff with you!- and be your friend again and not your friend-of-a-million-miles-away.
I'm glad that you and Will got out of the class fairly unscathed. Now there's a scary image- you and Will practicing your knife skills in your little tiny NY Kitchen (a scene that reminds me of Julie and Julia). Just don't hurt yourself because ya know, we kinda need you both at your wedding!!
Miss Ya!

plumpdumpling said...

Yay!, both humorous and perfect for convincing me I have to take this class. Thanks for linking me here.

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