When I worked at Gourmet, I made it my business to use every penny of my annual tuition money by taking hands on cooking classes throughout New York City. This involved working all day and then schlepping via subway to some small school in a remote corner of the city.
During the nearly six years I worked at the magazine, I learned recipes, tips, and techniques directly from such legendary cookbook authors as Jacques Pepin, Julie Sahni, Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, and Giuliano Bugialli.
I also attended dozens of hands on classes at Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School. Now called The Institute of Culinary Education, or ICE, the school gave me an amazing foundation. I clearly remember my first class there in 1989. It was taught by Peter Kump himself, and my first lesson remains one of my most memorable.
While sitting at the end of a long table, Peter lectured us at the end of class. It was nearly midnight, and he explained why it was more important to master knife skills and techniques more than specific recipes. He told us we would learn basic techniques, such as slicing, dicing and sauteing in his class entitled “The Techniques of French Cooking 1.” And, he assured us that culinary creativity and success would follow.
For example, he told us that once we learned how to sauté a chicken breast or a lamb chop, we could then apply that technique to a fillet of fish or a pork chop. He explained that once we mastered a technique, we would become more frugal shoppers because we could purchase what was on sale that week and apply that technique to the economical ingredients at hand. I glommed on to this approach because it seemed to unlock the mysteries of cooking for me.
As a mother, food writer, and home cook for more than 20 years now, I think the ability to master culinary techniques is more important than ever. As our national economy continues to slump and stall, it’s critical for home cooks, both seasoned and novice, to adapt and adjust menus and recipes according to what’s on sale, in season, and on hand. To me, it’s an intelligent approach that makes cents! I now intuitively use those techniques whether I’m harvesting tomatoes from my organic kitchen garden or I’m shopping at the grocery store, the farmers market, or the fishmonger. Having that foundation embedded in my knowledge bank gives me the freedom to experiment with confidence.
What’s your opinion? And, what are some of your favorite resources for learning culinary techniques at home? Admittedly, there are many now!
Note: This blog post originally appeared on Amazon’s Al Dente blog on February 28, 2010. I have edited and updated it slightly.