I recently attended a basic knife skills class at the San Francisco Cooking School, a new professional cooking school that also has an extensive recreational cooking program. I was invited to attend this slightly abridged class as a free food media event and was very impressed with the facilities and instructors. The curriculum was developed with a rock-star advisory board of local chefs from some of the most popular restaurants in the city – just take a look at the list! The main attraction of the school is that they have tossed out outmoded subjects like aspic and ice sculptures and students are given the opportunity to learn how the best chefs are cooking today. They believe that externships are an integral to learning at SFCS and that the practical learning experience of working in the kitchen of a restaurant is invaluable. They have secured externships working under award-winning chefs in San Francisco’s top restaurants, promising students will not be dispatched to a factory externship in a large hotel kitchen to cut carrots for two months. Sounds pretty awesome to me.
Our instructor was David Groff, Lead Recreational Cooking Instructor, who graduated from both the California Culinary Academy and Tante Marie’s Cooking School and worked as a line cook at Zuni Cafe and Gioia Pizzeria in San Francisco. Here he shows us the proper technique to dice an onion, which had most of us in tears.
Our state of the art workstations were shiny and efficient, and we were provided with nice and very sharp knives to work with.
This is the correct way to hold a chefs knife, fingers straddling around the bolster, the thick piece of metal where the end of the handle meets the end of the blade. The index finger and thumb grips the knife around the top of the blade, which is supposed to maximize control and increase leverage.
I was abashed to find that I have been holding knives incorrectly by using my index finger to stabilize the knife. The finger tips of the other hand should be curled under, reducing possible nicks, and I felt like I was trying to hold my hands in fists and and banging them on the cutting board… It’s hard to change the way you’ve been doing something for so long!
During class, we learned a variety of different knife cuts, with lots of repetition to get us cutting, slicing, and chopping comfortably. I was glad to be chopping next to my friend Christina who writes East Bay Dish, another blog dedicated to mostly eating. She demonstrates how the onion misbehaves by clinging together if you don’t cut enough of the root end off.
This is Jodi Liano who was an instructor at Tante Marie’s Cooking School for 14 years (I thought she looked familiar). She also worked in the kitchens of the Food Network, developed recipes for Bon Appetit and has written multiple cookbooks for Williams-Sonoma. She was the master of ceremonies, introducing us to the school and the various programs available. She cooked the results of our vegetable chopping efforts into a delicious minestrone soup.
David made a rustic pesto, chopping everything entirely by hand. It was beautiful to look at and I liked the loose texture of a non-food processed version, which I haven’t seen in a while.
We enjoyed a splendid lunch of mixed greens tossed with fragrant toasted nuts and fresh fruit, buttered bread, and bowls of minestrone soup topped with pesto and some very nice wines.
After we ate, Jodi introduced Nicole Plue who is the head of their new Pastry Program. She has quite an illustrious CV that includes an externship at Masa’s, pastry chef at Hawthorne Lane, opening pastry chef at Eleven Madison Park in NYC, executive pastry chef at Redd in Napa where she won the James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef, Cyrus in Healdsburg and an online store Sideshow by Nicole Plue, where you can purchase her famous saltine crackers topped with a salted butter toffee, bittersweet chocolate and roasted almonds.
We continued feasting on an assortment of rich, buttery and elegant cookies: almond, chocolate, candied ginger, and rosemary and cornmeal.
I loved this last dish, some gorgeous cheese thing infused with vanilla bean…
We enjoyed our meal at formally set tables, another nice touch. They have the hospitality thing down at SFCS.
At the end, we received printed instructions, take out containers for our chopped up vegetables so we could make the soup at home and plastic scrapers that have many uses in the kitchen. If I didn’t work in Contra Costa County and live in San Leandro, I would return for more classes. Maybe one day this will change… one can only hope!