Cooking Classes: Lessons Learned

By Karen

I’m a proud new graduate of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Basics classes at Sur La Table with all 10 fingers intact. What did I learn? Let’s see…

I’m sure Bourdain’s curriculum adhered to whatever specifications Sur La Table provided. Its dubious value for beginner cooks was not entirely his fault, but a byproduct of the SLT kitchen/classroom setup. (I’m not picking on SLT here; I understand they are typical.)

Tony has been concerned about the notion of “selling out” for quite a while. If he ever sees these posts, I hope I give him a little food for thought on how far he’s willing to go in putting his name on things that don’t really do him proud.

My misgivings about the classes began when I saw Sur La Table touting them online as being “based on” Medium Raw. I assumed it was a typo until our instructor, Sue, repeated it on the last night of class, adding that MR was Bourdain’s “latest novel.”

If you know anything about Medium Raw (a 2010 New York Times bestseller — not some obscure, hard-to-find book) you know how absurd/inaccurate those statements are. And you have to wonder about the functional illiterates at Sur La Table who hired Bourdain to devise cooking classes based on rants about the food industry rather than on his freaking COOKBOOK. (Bourdain, no dummy, actually used his cookbook in developing the classes, and most of SLT’s class handouts were excerpted verbatim from it.)

But let it serve as a warning to any future students to take course descriptions with a grain of salt and set your expectations low.

We were told Bobby Flay is about to join SLT’s stable of celebrity chefs endorsing classes with a Flay book giveaway, which could be knitting patterns for all it seems to matter to SLT.

The 3 Bourdain classes had broad themes: starches, liquids, and proteins. However, what was never established was any common thread between the dishes we made each night. They had virtually nothing to do with each other (except that chicken stock from week 2 ended up in steak peppercorn sauce in week 3). It seemed a hodge-podge of recipes.

Where I do fault Bourdain is in selecting dishes we couldn’t possibly complete during class time. Many were from his Les Halles Cookbook, but why? We were there to learn basics, not French bistro cooking.

This was my first experience with commercial cooking classes, and it was disappointing. For $175, the only dish I really “made” was an omelet. I contributed minimally to 3 others, and either watched bits of preparation or completely missed the rest until they ended up on a plate. Partly my fault for being in the wrong place at the wrong time every week.

But I could have learned more spending an evening watching Julia Child DVDs.

I don’t think the classes will win Bourdain any new fans, but they drove a bit of traffic through Sur La Table.

This weekend, I’m going to try making chicken stock, and bits of technique I heard in class will undoubtedly bubble up if I’m ever fixing similar dishes (but fish stew, fuggeddaboudit!).

Maybe that’s all Kitchen Basics was meant to deliver.


22 Responses to Cooking Classes: Lessons Learned

  1. Nina Leto Mayleas says:

    Sounds like it was really a lukewarm experience and that many of the techniques taught could really have been accomplished at home, non e vera?

  2. adele says:

    Karen, you’ve saved me $175. Every so often the Sur La Table in Chicago (I think there’s only 1 and maybe a couple in the suburbs) offers classes, and I’ve been tempted. Not so much any more. I really thought that the class would be much more about technique and not so much about producing food the class could eat.

    For non professional cooks, (at least this one), knife skills are the most intimidating thing about cooking. I guess I pictured the initial class to be more like the cooking class in Sabrina or Julie and Julia — everyone working on one thing, with piles of chopped onions or something. With only one burner available, an entire class could have been devoted to chopping, julienning, etc., and if there were people who were beyond the need for that, they could have been the ones assigned to the burner to make a dish.

    In fact, wasn’t the Techniques show that AB did more about techniques than recipes? Well, at least you’ll have some homemade stock in the house.And you confronted a fish skeleton, head and all, and lived to tell about it. I really don’t mind fish heads, but I’ve never been tempted to plunk an eyeball in my mouth.

    Thanks to being housebound due to our blizzard, I made a huge pot of stock last night and have several containers in the freezer and a very nice pot of chicken soup.

  3. zappa says:

    While I have enjoyed the classes I’ve taken at SLT (and I love the store)the only concrete thing I have walked away with is a fondness for ceramic knives
    Zappa’s mom

  4. MorganLF says:

    My envy at not being able to attend has evaporated. At least you picked up a few tips and didn’t lose any.

  5. catsworking says:

    Nina, yesterday one of my girlfriends called me and said, “You know what we should do? Take a cooking class!” (We’ve taken jewelry-making classes together before.)

    I agreed to it only if we could find one that isn’t just a recipe free-for-all. Or if it is, one that has recipes I want to cook and will possibly actually cook.

    Live and learn.

  6. catsworking says:

    Adele, I can say with confidence that I learned more about cooking from Bourdain’s TV special on kitchen basics than I did in the live class (although I still think Jacques Pepin’s insistence that eggs be cracked on a flat surface is baloney).

    My vision of a cooking class was straight from the movies and Home Ec., with everyone working on the same thing. My mistake. I also didn’t envision that we’d all be expected to sit down and actually eat everything at the end. In the 3rd session, I sat with 2 married couples, and when we got to the eating portion, they acted like they were in a restaurant, swapping plates to get the steak cooked most to their liking, and cleaning their plates like it was a real meal. It was a plate of freaking MEAT samples. It was a wonder they didn’t throw down a tip for Sue when they left.

    Possibly the reason that knife skills were overlooked in class was that SLT has a 2-hour class dedicated to that. Why teach it in basics when you can get people to sign up for more classes?

    SLT has a class in Asian noodles that I was considering, but I decided my hit-or-miss method of buying and trying new noodles as I find them is just as good (and definitely cheaper).

  7. catsworking says:

    ZM, how ARE ceramic knives? I’ve seen them and wondered if they wouldn’t be/get as dull as butter knives.

    Morgan, I fault the class for being too much recipe-oriented and not enough basics. There was no common thread to anything we prepared, no dots connected. I’ll use onions as an example. It would have been interesting to learn when it’s best to let them sweat, soften, or carmelize, and how that would affect different dishes. To just throw them into a pot UNPEELED was not edifying.

    Every class, after Sue quickly threw too much information at us about all the dishes, it turned into a free-for-all where everyone was throwing ingredients (sometimes the same ones) into pots like we were in a relay race to get everything cooking so we could eat it and get out of there. I’d have been happier to see one or two dishes that somehow related to each other explained as we went and done well.

  8. C from FL says:

    I suppose I am behind the times because I first learned about the concept behind “branding” when I heard Snookie (from the Joisey Shore)answer the question “What do you hope is in your future?” She answered, “I want to be a BRAND.” Perhaps Mr. Bourdain is on the same path. He is such a fabulous writer and No Rez is an outstanding show but maybe the benchmark for the truly big bucks is being a “brand” and lending your name to such ventures as this very expensive cooking class. Making money is OK but I would wince a bit if I saw Hemingway Fishing Lures or Updike Bunny Slippers on the market! The true test of his selling out will be if we see Bourdain’s Canned Offal or Frozen Fish Cheeks start showing up on gourmet food shelves.

  9. catsworking says:

    Updike Bunny Slippers! I love it!

    Funny you should mention branding, C, because Adele (the cat) is working on a post for next week about that very topic, although not Bourdain-related.

    I was watching the Travel Channel for a couple of hours last night (Ghost Adventures), and at every break, they were pushing Zimmern, and a few times Adam Richman, and even Samantha Brown. But there wasn’t a single Bourdain commercial and he’s got a new season starting next month. In fact, one commercial was all about Zimmern taking his wife with him to Madagascar. That’s worth watching just to see how Zimmern handles it.

    I can’t say that I’m a Travel Channel regular, but I get this sense that Bourdain’s star there is on the wane and Zimmern is taking over. Think about it. He’s already on the outs with the new owners for continually slamming the Food Network. ALL the other TC stars I mentioned have branched out from their original series and done others, but Bourdain’s still doing the same old schtick, to the point that he’s even going back to the same places (OK, different regions of the same countries). His production company is no longer devoted solely to him, but helping that new guy who kills his own meat (I’ve already forgotten his name).

    It’s not a situation that I’m happy about because I think Bourdain raises the overall IQ of the Travel Channel, but I don’t think the answer is to have him start putting his name on the bottom of frying pans. I feel almost like I’m watching the beginning of a replay of what the Food Network did to Emeril after he put them on the map.

  10. adele says:

    Quelle Horreur, Karen! I’ve noticed as well that there are no promos for the new No Res season, but I didn’t carry that to its possibly logical extreme. Except for NR and the occasional Samantha Brown show, I basically don’t watch the Travel Channel; I mean Deep Fried Paradise — really. I love travelogues, and for that reason, I’ll still go almost anywhere NR wants to take us.

    C, I loved Updike Bunny Slippers (Updike’s Rabbit Triology being, in my opinion, perhaps the greatest American novel after Gatsby) and Bourdain canned offal. You two may be right, what with the SLT cooking classes, AB may be trying to build a brand. But Karen, if your experience at the cooking classes was typical, he’d be well-advised to not base a brand on things where he has so little control.

  11. zappa says:

    AB needs a Dos Equis Most Interesting Man sort of gig.I would buy any booze he sells.We have enough celebrity chef cookware.


  12. adele says:


    Once again a brilliant idea — think of the great commercials couple with AB’s ability to speak about booze with utter sincerity.

  13. catsworking says:

    Funny you guys should mention Bourdain lending his name to booze. I saw an ad (I think it was on Travel Channel) about this guy who travels around the world sampling the indigenous beverages. That’s all I remember about it, but I think they said it’s on the Logo channel. I thought, “Too bad, that would have been a perfect gig for Tony.” Well, maybe in his younger days.

    It’s going to be interesting to see what Bourdain’s next chapter is. As much as his buddies in the restaurant industry love him and keep him in the fold, he’s been in the public eye long enough (10 years) for a new generation of fans to be forming who were too young to read Kitchen Confidential, and they’ve got to be going, “Why is this old dude claiming to be a food expert when he hasn’t cooked in (insert #) years?”

    He runs the risk of becoming the on-the-fringe type of food critic he detests.

    Of course, if all else fails, he always has the fall-back position of the 3rd piece of his book contract — My Year in Vietnam.

  14. adele says:

    Karen, I think you mean The Thirsty Traveler. I thought it was now on the Cooking Channel, but I wouldn’t swear to it. I watched it a couple of times, and didn’t find it as interesting as expected. But I’m old, and the guy seemed very young.

    I still think AB has some really good fiction writing lurking in him, but I imagine it’s hard to do with all the traveling.

  15. Nina Leto Mayleas says:

    Hey, if Spike Lee can put his name on Absolut Brooklyn (red apple & ginger scented)……Tony’s a natural. And why shouldn’t he….wouldn’t we love it if we could be a brand???? Snooki wisdom (cought yakkkk)!!!

  16. catsworking says:

    Nina, I saw Snooki do an interview recently and she said she doesn’t want to be called Snooki anymore, but her real name (is it Nicole?) because she’s trying to promote her “brand.”

    Adele, a show about drinking would hold my interest about as long as Sandra Lee does, which is to say, not long.

    This afternoon I scrolled through the whole Verizon TV guide on Travel Channel just to see what’s up (and to see if I could catch any of the NR episodes my LG recorder destroyed when it ate a DVD). Zimmern was everywhere, but they’re rerunning the same few NR episodes into the ground like they’re TRYING to drive viewers away. WHY DO THEY DO THAT? Is it THAT much trouble to reach into the vault and pull out something we haven’t seen lately?

  17. I thought Sandra Lee *was* a show about drinking.

  18. Nina Leto Mayleas says:

    Sandra Lee is a joke, cottage cheese and tomato soup lasagne, pleeeze!!! Matilda Cuomo was, as I, disgusted.
    Zimmern is getting so tiresome, same ole, same ole. No wonder he’s hauling his wife around in the new season, at least the viewers will have eye candy. I, for one, don’t want to see his belly being spit on, beaten with special herbs, candled, massaged ad nauseum!!

  19. catsworking says:

    Nina, maybe the people who rub Zimmern’s belly think it will bring good luck. 😉

    I never watch him myself anymore. Seeing him eat a few nasty things was enough for me. But I’ll be tuning in tonight to check out his beautiful wife.

    A few weeks ago I was in Barnes & Noble and saw that Zimmern also has a book out, The Bizarre Truth. And checking that on Amazon just now, I saw that he has a NEW book coming out in May called Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre World of Food: Brains, Bugs, and Blood Sausage. I may see if I can download a sample chapter on the Nook to check it out, just to get a feel for his style, but I can’t see myself reading a whole book on gross-out eating.

  20. Nina Leto Mayleas says:

    Zimmern has a long way to go to write and describe foods, locations, people as well as Tony does. It’s obvious that although Tony may have had a misspent youth, his mind absorbed good literature and certainly bootstrapped himself to his current level. I say bravo to any success he has, he’s earned it. And, I’d like to believe his first marriage was over before he met number two. The “I’m Dancing”chapter in his new book feels so honest and loving. There’s my 2 cents for now!!

  21. catsworking says:

    Nina, Tony’s marriage had been over for quite a while before he met Ottavia, although he wasn’t legally divorced yet. He kicked around for about a year (?) after the split and had a few girlfriends before he met Ottavia on a blind date suggested by Eric Ripert’s wife. Ottavia used to work for Ripert. She told me she had seen Tony a bit on NR, but he didn’t make much of an impression, and she had read Kitchen Confidential because everyone in the NYC restaurant biz did, but that was it.

  22. Nina Leto Mayleas says:

    Well, since the marriage to Nancy was over except for the formalities, and he had a few other girlfriends, I’m glad for him that he found Ottavia who obviously adores him. As they say, every pot has its cover and sometimes an old pot needs a newer cover. Age difference is not important at all, love is. Being a father takes Tony into territories no jet could, I am glad for him and Ottavia and lucky Ariane, has a great Dad!!!

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