This wasn’t just an evening demonstration or a day long tutorial I’d won, but a full on, all day, week long course run in the impressive purpose built kitchens of Cooks Academy, Dublin’s leading culinary school.
10am Monday morning, 10 of us rocked up to the ‘Essential Winter Cookery‘ course with little knowledge of what lay ahead. Immediately put at ease with a table laid with tea / coffee and freshly made cookies we were allocated our ‘station’ with apron, incredibly sharp knife, and a folder stuffed with recipes. The setting is imposing, counters lined with Siemens Equipment, banks of ovens, rows of mixers, shelves laden with pots pans, chopping boards and pretty much every kitchen utensil imaginable.
Introduced to our tutors for the day, Chef Jack (yes, thats how they were to be addressed) listed off an impressive CV while Chef Damian regaled us with stories of time spent in restaurants in New York and around the world (he had an impressive CV too!).
Trays lay in front of us with ingredients for the first dish, while in the background, other staff prepared ingredients for dishes we would cook later in the day.
Perfect Mash Potato
Start the day with some knife skills, (TIP: bend the fingers if you want to
keep them!) Learn the different cuts, chops and dices. Julienne, Brunoise, Small Dice, Batons and Chiffonade – there are a lot of things you can do with a knife!
Then we move on to the main event, just my thing, comfort food, home made tasty fare that the family will eat. Chicken Kiev with perfect mash. Immediately concerned about deep frying, I was told there was no problem in using an oven with a couple of subtle changes.
This was where the course really came into its own, the tips – not things you can read in a book or learn off a tv show but real tips that can only be learned from years in a professional kitchen.
We were learning about depth of flavour and how to create it. When you taste something, don’t just get the main flavour but learn about different levels and how to use a wealth of readily available herbs, spices ingredients to create those layers. (TIP: While the Kiev has garlic butter in it, swap out the garlic for different flavours to experiment, chilli, herb or other ingredients could make excellent alternatives)
Thai Green Curry Paste
Thai Green Prawn Curry
Salmon Tray Bake
A new Chef to accompany Chef Damian today, Nicola (Chef Nicola!) immediately took us on to the streets and a trip to the Dublin’s Asian Supermarket started off the day. An Aladdins cave of fruit, vegetables, fish and equipment lay in front of us with shelves stuffed full of familiar and not so familiar products stretched out through the store. One interesting thing was to see the two professionals interacting, both encountering products new to them, both bouncing ideas off each other, constantly learning.
Two revelations today, firstly – a soufflé is dead easy, chocolate or not. just run through the steps and it just ‘happens’! (TIP: some chefs like a pinch of salt in the egg whites when beating, it stabilises them apparently) Secondly: We’re making things that really are ‘bases’ for other dishes – adding different ingredients of flavours to the same base can make two completly different meals.
Irish Apple Pie
White Soda Bread
Crispy Goujons of Sole
Spicy Chicken Thighs w/cucumber and cashew salad
Aioli (Garlic Mayonnaise)
Chef Darina with Chef Damian today and given that she makes wedding cakes for a living we’re looking forward to a day of sweet treats and baking. But its not all sugar and cream as we learn whats ahead.
They clearly think were getting better as
the day is loaded with seemingly complicated dishes. As with previous days we gather at the demo table for the basics to be explained, our questions are answered and stories are told. Its a very relaxed atmosphere and one that lends itself to comfortable learning. There is no pressure, no tense atmosphere. If you have a problem things are explained clearly so everyone can understand.
I gutted and filleted a fish, my very own flat fish. How cool is that! and then I used the very same fish to make my goujons for lunch, that I dipped in my very own freshly made tartare sauce! you’re getting the drift of how things are going – I’m really enjoying today. Making mayonnaise that with different additions (such as sweet chilli sauce, curry powder, garlic, cornichons, capers) mades a completely different sauce. Flavours, layers, tastes.
I bring home most of what we made today, on the LUAS. I certainly felt some hungry eyes staring at me wondering what I had in my bag!
(TIP: Don’t bring home a warm apple pie and leave it unattended for 2 minutes… This happens!)
Pasta – All day!
Fresh Homemade Pasta dough
Ravioli w/Sweet Potato filling
Ravioli w/Ricotta & spinnach filling
Tomato Sauce w/Pancetta & Chili Pepper
Sweet / Savoury / Fruit Scones
Different types of flour, using a pasta machine, different types of pasta. We eat a lot of pasta in our house and sometimes it can get boring. Well today sorted that. Kneading, rolling, flouring, rolling, cutting & filling. That really was the day in a nutshell. (Tip: Don’t fill your ravioli too full or they’ll burst when cooked)
Fresh pasta is one of those things that seems like a lot of hassle when the shop bought, dried version (or shop fresh) is cheap and readily available and to be honest fresh pasta is not something you rustle up in a hurry, but now I know I can make a batch of pasta, create my filling and make the ravioli. Then I freeze it. Now I have product that is vastly superior to anything in a shop and it really is ready in a jiffy. All I need is 15 minutes to create a really easy but incredibly tasty tomato sauce or cheese sauce. (Tip: prick a chilli a couple of times and add it to your tomato sauce when heating it, the chilli flavour will infuse into the sauce but won’t be too strong and because its still whole, you just fish it out before serving.)
One great thing from today was that when home, the kids made dinner, they kneaded, rolled and cut the pasta. They filled and sealed the ravioli and I put it in the pan. Involving the kids in making dinner is really important in our house, they learn so much from it.
Pavlova w/fresh fruit
Last day and the week has flown by. There was no doubt that the group could cook before we arrived but we’ve improved no end in these few short days. We’re moving around the kitchen with confidence, not afraid to add ingredients off plan and tasting everything as we go along. We’re working in groups and things really feel like we’re a real team.
A Pea Risotto is put together in no time and its great. Butter, rice, onion, stock. Flavour, flavour, flavour. Lunch is a plate of creamy, minty warmth, made with little fuss or fanfare. Thats how much we’ve learned, just get on and do it, no messing.
But then its the Daddy of the week, the big one. A Beef Bourguignon with Gratin Dauphinois. No recipe. Its all in Chef Jacks head, and we have to replicate it. Grand so, move on, nothing to see here.
Chop this, dice that, tear this don’t bruise those herbs. Cook the veg, each one separately, braise the beef, deglaze the pan with both sherry vinegar & wine. Herbs, each component in the pan adding flavour, depth, layers. Smash the garlic, don’t chop it, just a hint needed, then fish it out later. Tarragon and sage go in too. Everything back into the pot and add the stock, the smells are amazing. The kitchen is quiet as we all concentrate on our station, a couple of questions between us asking questions and passing on our own tips. Done.
A class full of tupperware boxes fill up with a dish we are all proud of and hopefully our families will be too – lets face it, we’re not the only ones that will benefit from the cooking this week.
Am I a better cook after the week? Most definitely. I’m more confident and much happier to experiment with flavours to make my dishes better. Would I recommend a Cooks Academy course? Absolutely, they run evening classes, one day courses, week long courses and more. Check them out. Is a Cooks Academy course worth it? At €450 the ‘Essential’ course is not cheap but you are there for a week, you get oodles of food, enough to feed a family and the day is very full. But the real benefit is what you want to take home yourself, the experts are available during demos, a break times and afterwards. They answered any question put to them honestly and in depth. They changed and adapted as necessary. Any participant could have just sat there and listened, the real value was in asking questions, trying ideas and making suggestions. For example: Our trip to the Asian Market wasn’t on the plan but a suggestion from a student lead to the impromptu field trip.
I won my place on this Cooks Academy course courtesy of Glenisk Yoghurts, I can’t thank them enough of the opportunity. Glenisk make a range of high protein strained greek yoghurts that are a staple part of the diet for Irish Rugby. If its good enough for those professional athletes, then its good enough for me. I find them great for post training nutrition to increase my protein intake.
Thanks again to everyone in Glenisk & Cooks Academy, now all I have to do is find the time and butter up Maureen to let me do the ‘Essential Cafe Course‘!!
* All food photos (the good ones anyway!) were of our dishes and were made fresh this week, photos taken by Cooks Academy.