Bourdain’s Kitchen Basics: Session 1

By Karen

A dozen of us donned aprons in Sur La Table’s kitchen to learn about cooking, Anthony-Bourdain-style. To my relief, there didn’t seem to be any finicky foodies.

To my surprise, there didn’t seem to be any Bourdain fans. When our instructor (I’ll call Sue, in case I inadvertently embarrass her) asked if we had read Kitchen Confidential, I think I was the only one who raised my hand. It was required reading in Sue’s culinary school, but she found the salty language kind of offensive.

Our recipes were:

  • French Omelet
  • Pommes Purée (Mashed Potatoes)*
  • Rice Pilaf
  • Fennel and Haricots Verts (Green Bean) Salad with segmented orange
  • Spaghetti in Tomato Sauce

* From Les Halles Cookbook, page 245

Sue showed us how to easily peel and seed raw tomatoes and laboriously segment an orange, and introduced us to truffle oil and truffle salt.

She also explained where we’d deviate from Bourdain’s methods. We would not clarify butter, but use Ghee (100% same thing in a jar). We would not peel hot tomatoes or potatoes. She also increased the Pommes recipe to 9 potatoes instead of 6 because the recipe’s 2 cups of cream makes them soupy.

The dishes didn’t suffer.

Next, Sue demonstrated an omelet, and I don’t get what Bourdain finds so magical about that, although the fresh rosemary and basil were tasty touches. Folding it into thirds instead of halves seems a tossup, and Sue cracked her eggs on the side of a bowl, not on the table à la Jacques Pepin.

Then it became sort of a controlled free-for-all. After washing our hands, we paired off to make omelets, one at a time because there was one burner, and to help prep the other dishes.

My partner and I tackled the omelet first — a strategic blunder I’ll not repeat because it took us completely out of the action.

After eating the omelet, we joined the rice pilaf group, which had gotten bogged down chopping onions.

This dish was the night’s disappointment, thanks to not multiplying all the ingredients by 1.5, a curveball I missed while noodling with the omelet. It tasted OK, but too much broth and not enough rice resulted in mush.

Next, I watched someone toss blanched green beans with raw chopped fennel. Thrilling.

I never touched a knife myself, so no “Knife Basics” for me. Nor did I see anyone look like they were executing any new moves.

In the blink of an eye, there was nothing left to do but wander around the store while the dishes cooked.

When we returned, the food was plated and served to us. I’d have been just as happy if they’d shown us how pretty everything looked, thrown it down the disposal, and called it a night.

Instead, we ate mushy rice, chunky mashed potatoes, and spaghetti with a side of ice-cold green beans and fennel. Wine was an option. Bourdain’s right about one thing — alcohol helps.

So what did I learn, if not knife skills?

That raw fennel is as tasty and attractive as cauliflower. It needs more than Bourdain’s simple lemon juice and olive oil dressing to make it worth lifting a fork for. Much more.

That tomato sauce needs much longer cooking time than class allowed. I’d have pronounced that watery stuff an utter failure if I’d made it.

That I will never segment an orange. Fiber is good for you.

My actual participation: 1) cracking 2 eggs into a bowl and whisking them with milk, 2) swishing raw egg around a pan, then folding it into thirds, and 3) melting Ghee.

The recipes were “useless screwhead” level, and Sue circumvented Bourdain’s most pigheadedly old-school and time-consuming methods.

Did I add any new dishes or techniques to my culinary repertoire? No. But I’ll probably buy a peeling utensil.

I’m still optimistic. Next week is soups and stocks, which I’m most eager to learn about.

When I got home from class, I flipped on the Travel Channel and there was Bourdain, in Dubai, eating mush with his fingers. He probably would have loved our Rice Pilaf.

19 Responses to Bourdain’s Kitchen Basics: Session 1

  1. zappa says:

    Congratulations!! If you typed this post,you must have 10 fingers!
    I have done both Knife Skills classes at SLT and when it was time to segment grapefruit(there is a fancy French word)I made grapefruit juice.Their classes are fun but,I think I like the shopping discount the best


  2. catsworking says:

    ZM, yes, I still have 10 fingers because I only used a silicone spatula and a big spoon. I was kind of bummed that I completely missed getting any knife basics, but maybe I’ll get a chance over the next 2 weeks. On the other hand, watching Bourdain use a knife in that special he did last season, or even Julia Child, I know what to do. It’s a just a matter of having a good sharp knife and practicing.

    Funny coincidence today. I have a Joy of Cooking calendar with a daily tip or recipe, and today’s was about segmenting citrus fruit. I get the principle, but it looks like too much trouble for too little payoff.

  3. Imabear says:

    Wow. Or not, I guess. Fennel is something I’ve seen in recipes for ages but never tried because I can’t imagine a dish I’d want to add licorice flavor to. Watery tomato sauce and mushy rice don’t sound too appetizing either. I have eaten lumpy mashed potatoes though – depending on what’s in them, taste alone can sometimes make up for the lumps.

  4. adele says:

    I once saw them “supreming” an orange in a Top Chef quickfire challenge. I attempted it and was a woeful failure. Karen, you have confirmed something for me,though; I figured ghee and clarified butter were interchangeable, but now I know for sure.( not that I ever have ghee on hand) Otherwise you’ve confirmed some of my worst fears about group cooking classes, but the Sur La Table discount will be a nice thing — and I couldn’t live without a vegetable peeler.

    I actually like raw fennel (it also makes a good gratin), but I find it needs something more than green beans in a salad — it’s good with thinly sliced apple and pear and some greens with a sherry or red wine vinaigrette.

    Disappointed to hear that the spaghetti pomodoro was such a bust, since AB is very particular about his. I think it’s possible to make a quick sauce that’s good. Maybe “Sue” isn’t the best instructor. And I’m surprised there weren’t more Bourdain fans.

  5. catsworking says:

    Imabear, fennel and ginger are 2 tastes I usually try to avoid. But it must be fennel SEED that’s strong. This was actual fennel. It looked like a giant leek with feathery leaves on top. The white bottom part was sliced for the salad, and it had no flavor whatsoever. And a lemon juice/olive oil dressing (plus whatever juice they got out of the orange while slicing it) wasn’t enough to jazz up either the green beans or the fennel.

    My mashed potatoes are always lumpy because I leave the skins on and use a wisk. 😉 The ones in class were peeled and mashed with a hand masher. Not a problem for me (except they sat between rice and spaghetti, for a plate with a monochromatic look). But I don’t think they achieved the “puree” Bourdain probably had in mind.

    Adele, I read the label on the Ghee jar and the only ingredient was “100% clarified butter.” The instructor said it’s Indian, I think. I’ve never seen it in the grocery store, but I bet it’s expensive.

    I totally missed the making of the tomato sauce, and that was the one dish I was really interested in, so I don’t know what happened. I know it turns out the same for me if I don’t throw in a jar of prepared sauce as a base. Then I let the fresh or canned tomatoes stay chunky and don’t try to cook them down to nothing.

    I think about a third of the class hadn’t signed up for the whole series, so it will be interesting to see how many come back. The dishes in Session 2 and 3 are more challenging, so maybe they’ll attract a few new faces.

    We were given a certificate for 10% in the store that’s good until next Monday. Nice, but not a great incentive. The sharpening steel was still cheaper in Bed, Bath & Beyond.

    I’m going to reserve judgment on cooking classes until I’ve finished these. I thought Sue knew her stuff, and she worked within the limits of Sur La Table’s facilities, but I don’t think anybody in the class, beyond the omelet, got anything but a brush with one dish. It wasn’t what I was expecting.

  6. catsworking says:

    PS on the participants being Bourdain fans:

    The first thing Sue asked us was if we expected Anthony Bourdain to be there and didn’t get much of a reaction. Then she launched into his books. If I hadn’t read KC and given her a little back and forth, that would have fallen flat, too. They’ll probably wonder what Medium Raw has to do with anything when they receive a copy at the end of the series.

  7. Hmmm, sorry to hear this first class was such a disappointment. But I’ll look forward to reading about more of your adventures.

  8. Gonzo's mom says:

    my significant other and I took a class here in Seattle that sounds very similar…not touted as anything to do with Bourdain, but taught by a chef from a local French bistro…and it pretty well sucked. Group cooking itself sucks….you don’t get any real feedback from the instructor, too many different dishes all going on at once and you miss most of everything. And, like your class, most of the food….not so great. I will be interested to hear whether things improve…

  9. catsworking says:

    Gonzo’s mom, I think you nailed it. Group cooking does suck. But I don’t remember it that way from 8th grade Home Ec. Digging into the memory bank to think how it was different…

    1. We were in little groups (maybe 3 or 4) for the whole class period and worked on one recipe.
    2. Each group had its own mini-kitchen setup, with oven, so it was like cooking at home “for real.” Sur La Table basically had us all working on the kitchen table, with the appliances somewhere else, and we left the room during the actual cooking. I never saw the sauce until it landed on my plate.
    3. Everyone was making the same recipe (chocolate chip cookies) — after watching the teacher do it — so we could compare our results to see which groups’ came out better, and maybe learn why.
    4. The teacher would circulate and provide feedback. Sue was doing that at Sur La Table. She liked that our omelet wasn’t browned. I thought it was undercooked when I ate it.

    I guess the point of the first Kitchen Basics class was starches, but we didn’t do anything to them that makes me feel like I have any new insights into rice, potatoes or spaghetti. We had nothing to do with cooking the spaghetti at all. It was just done by Sur La Table to put under the sauce. The green bean/fennel salad seemed gratuitous because nothing that was done to it related to any of the other dishes.

    The more I think about it, that class was just weird, and I’m wondering how many of the people who didn’t buy the whole series will be back.

    I’m hoping the next one (stocks, soups, and sauces) will have a point. There seems to be a common thread unless we somehow manage to lose it.

  10. MorganLF says:

    What no photos? Thank you for NOT assuming the world is waiting, for visual evidence of your every activity; like a certain (now) abstaining manatee, that harbors the delusion he is photogenic.

    I am disappointed with your SLT experience and I am glad that the classes being held in my area are too far away for me to entertain. One burner? As for your discount if you happen to see a Le Creuset oval French oven on sale…I have a birthday coming up next week! 🙂

  11. adele says:

    Advance happy birthday, Morgan; if I win the lottery in the next week, that oval French oven is yours — what color? I’ve been coveting one as well.

    Karen, soups and stocks can only be better — except that stocks must cook for at least a couple of hours. I forgot to ask, did you have the courage of your convictions to flip your omelet, a la Julia?

  12. catsworking says:

    Morgan, our omelet wasn’t anything you’d want to hang in the Louvre. SLT had a bunch of Le Creuset stuff in the front window and I took a gander at the prices. I hope you have a Sugar Daddy lined up for your birthday cause my 10% discount wouldn’t make a dent.

    Sur La Table had a stove with 4 burners (I assume, I didn’t get a good look at it), but the omelets were cooked on one of the tables over a portable burner running on — what? Sterno? Is that still used?

    I don’t think this post will dampen the sale of Bourdain’s classes, since his name seemed to mean next to nothing to the people who signed up for it here, but so far, I haven’t seen anything that would make me recommend them. But I’m counting on it to get better as the dishes get more interesting.

  13. catsworking says:

    Adele, no omelets were flipped. Instead, we folded them into thirds, which is why I think it ended up runny inside. If left to my own devices, I would have flipped that sucker (with a spatula), thrown on all the extras, folded it in half, and dumped it out before it got chewy.

  14. I’ve taken several classes at SLT and at Mis en Place (in Shockoe Bottom). The recipes are typically divided among small groups that work on one recipe each, and we sit down to sample them all when they are all finished. In both schools, the chef basically gave us an overview; reviewed the recipes, explaining anything that might raise questions for novices (like me); then split us into groups and set us to work, circulating from dish to dish to try to keep us from utterly destroying any of them. Sometimes a dish got destroyed anyway: one chef versus 15 students is an unfair advantage to those of us who are at the very low end of the kitchen-skills scale.

    I have never cooked all the recipes in a given class, and never expected to do so. The class descriptions usually list 5 or 6 recipes, a class size of 10 to 20 (sometimes more at Mis en Place), and a run time of maybe 3 hours. Through logic I was was able to deduce that I would not be preparing, cooking, and eating the whole menu by myself.

    To avoid the sucky-ness of group cooking, the classes that are strictly demo classes at the Compleat Gourmet may be more what you are looking for. Or if it is one-on-one instruction you’d prefer, hiring a private chef to teach just you (and one or two of your closest friends) may be the answer. You could probably hire Tony himself if your pockets are deep enough.

    I believe the “extra burners” are fueled with propane at SLT, as sterno is not intended for things that have to be more than warmed up (e.g. a can of pork and beans on a “camping” trip), kept warm (in a chafing dish), or melted (e.g. fondue), and I have eaten things actually cooked using the SLT “extra burners.” I once managed to burn several pieces of sliced, marinated beef on one of the “extra burners” (though chef-intervention prevented me from ruining a whole recipe’s worth).

  15. catsworking says:

    Welcome, fullmoon! Your experience with cooking classes is VERY interesting! I’m a newbie at them and have just been sharing what’s been happening to me. Like you, I realized there was no way I’d be personally involved in making all the dishes listed for each class or we’d be there all night. At SLT, we’re in and out, including eating, in about 2 hours. I’m just sorry that because I was a bit slow in getting into the groove, I got involved with dishes I didn’t have any particular interest in.

    Sounds like you have taken quite a few classes around town. Do you consider yourself beyond novice at this point?

    The LAST person I would want personally teaching me how to cook is Anthony Bourdain. First, I’d be too nervous, and second, I don’t aspire to learn how to cook like I was working the line in a restaurant kitchen, which is his forte. Third, he’d probably rather die.

    And last week, the instructor did show us how the extra burner works after we couldn’t figure out if we needed to flip the release switch or not before turning it on. There’s an aerosol can of something inside, and I’ll take your word that it’s propane because that makes sense. I have no experience with it or sterno, so I have no idea.

  16. No, still a novice. I do not actually enjoy cooking, most of the time. I enjoy reading about it, watching other people do it, listening to other people talk about it, and eating the results. But, as a friend of mine has opined, the words “like” and “cooking” are difficult for me to put in a declarative sentence without a negative in there someplace. Both Sur la Table and Mise en Place have some really good chefs and instructors. I’ve never had a bad time at either, although things have not always gone as planned. Life hardly ever does, but I’m in my later 50’s now, and wasting time focusing on negatives is on my list of things to stop completely. Precious time should not be squandered.

    I don’t have much experience with sterno, either, but I can Google the poo out of anything.

  17. catsworking says:

    fullmoon, you have found a home away from home here.The crowd at Cats Working is in the “well-seasoned” age range as well. Weirdly enough, I don’t hate cooking (which is why I didn’t run screaming in the other direction when I saw the sign for Bourdain cooking class in SLT), but I LOATHE grocery shopping and, even worse, lugging everything into the house and putting it away.

    I appreciate your sunny take on life, and I try to be upbeat myself, but I find that in the blogosphere, sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows all the time doesn’t draw readers. That’s why I let the cats help out. They have claws.

  18. K says:

    So, you know, no cooking class anywhere teaches knife skills unless you take an actual knife skills class. There’s a reason why SLT offers a 2-hour class called Essential Knife Skills and all you do is cut vegetables with different knives for 2 hours. One can’t possibly learn how to use a knife properly and comfortably in 10 minutes before then trying to cook a number of recipes in a short amount of time.

  19. catsworking says:

    Welcome K, and you are so right. Learning knife skills does take practice. That mention of “knife basics” in Session 1 of the Bourdain classes must have been a misprint. I guess I’m just going to continue living in ignorance because I fear if I take a proper knife skills class and find out what all my knives are supposed to do, I’ll come home and find them so woefully inadequate, I’ll feel compelled to drop a bundle to replace them. 😉

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