I am decidedly not a master chef. Not only do I lack verifiable culinary skills, but I also don't cook from the heart.
I cook out of desperation, when the rage of hunger in my gut has turned me into an impatient brute, and I start grabbing at whatever ingredients I can put together in five seconds flat. When left to my own devices I eat bowls of cereal and microwave popcorn, toast, spoonfuls of peanut butter, baked potatoes, and when I’m really feeling up to it, I’ll chop up a salad or heat up some Trader Joe’s fried rice.
Luckily for me, my boyfriend does cook from the heart. It’s a sweet deal we’ve got worked out: David’s the chef and I’m the dishwasher. He treats the preparation of food with a level of respect and love that I can appreciate but have never been able to internalize. He watches practically every cooking show and dreams of the day when we’ll finally have an expansive, fully outfitted gourmet kitchen. To put it in fancy terms, he’s a bon vivant, a gourmand, a gastronome – unfortunately, there are no fancy words for someone like me.
When Christmas came around, I decided to sign David and myself up for a cooking class. It was my gift to him, not because he needed it but because I did. My inability to inhabit the kitchen with ease and grace had always been a running joke in our household, and I wanted to be able to help him out a bit more. I thought it might be funny, too – worst case scenario, we’d have an I Love Lucy inspired experience, causing David and all the other participants to throw their arms up in exasperation. Buffoonery and folly are always a good time!
I contacted Jordan Schachter of Jordan's Kitchen. His preference for small class sizes and his philosophy that cooking should be educational and social put me at ease. On Christmas when I gave David his homemade card with a drawing of us cooking together and saw his mouth break open into a big smile, I knew I had done good.
Our cooking class was scheduled on a Saturday afternoon at 1 p.m. We spent a leisurely morning picking out bottles of wine at Bi-Rite to bring along. From there we walked to the Katherine Michiels School where the class was to be held. On our way, we both had a moment of Uh, oh… what are we getting ourselves into? We laughed about how for the next five or so hours we would be stuck in a kitchen with a bunch of strangers, and how wrong it could all go.
When we got to the school’s entrance, another couple had arrived and Colin, Jordan’s assistant, brought the four of us into the kitchen. Jordan greeted us with a hearty hello and told us to make ourselves at home. Exactly eleven bar stools, one for each student, were tucked under the long wooden counter and there were chef knives, tasting spoons, paring knives, aprons, towels, and menus set out for each of us as well. The day was particularly warm, and the kitchen was bright with the early afternoon sun. Everything seemed to gleam with readiness – the blades of the knives, the stainless steel pots and pans, and each student’s face as they entered into the kitchen.
Once everyone had arrived and introductions were completed, we got straight to cooking. We had a four-course menu, and instead of splitting us into smaller groups to complete separate tasks, Jordan led us through the menu as a team, collectively working to bring the meal together. This seemed to create a sense of camaraderie and comfort amongst us, and right away the initial awkwardness that seemed to hang in the air began to dissipate. At this point, many of us began to open our bottles of wine, sharing with other participants, exchanging toasts, eager to celebrate all that was to come.
Our first course was a cauliflower soup with toasted cumin seeds, chives, and lime oil. Jordan demonstrated how to perfectly chop chives. I made jokes about the rough and ragged state of my chives, but an unexpected need to get it right gripped me and pushed me to keep trying. I started to see how much craft was involved, how much care and attention needed, and how much room for individual expression existed in every little step. Images of David moving about in our kitchen kept flashing in my mind, and then my brain lit up with a sudden, electric thought: cooking, like any other artistic endeavor, is a way to inquire, explore, and connect. With this notion ringing in my head, I was awed that David had the energy to cook for us every night, and never put anything half-assed on our plates.
As Jordan guided us, we all practiced knife skills, chopped and blended cauliflower, and toasted whole cumin seeds, taking in the aroma the heat brought out in them. When the soup was ready, we poured it into bowls, topped each serving off with a drizzle of Sciabica’s lime oil, and bringing our glasses of wine, went out to the long table in the garden to eat together. We chatted about each other’s lives, our careers, our neighborhoods, our recent holidays, and where we grew up. We talked about what we were learning, how fun it was, and how good our soup tasted. In the warm still air our conversations hummed free and easy, full of enthusiasm and curiosity.
We returned to the kitchen to cook, and when we had finished the next course we again went out to the garden to eat together. This is how each course went, and how the whole afternoon continued to unfold. We made a Dungeness crab, avocado, beet, and orange salad for our second course, followed by a Moroccan fish stew with mahi-mahi, fennel, and chickpeas, and for dessert we made a delicious apple and pear crumble with fresh cream.
All of our ingredients came from an assortment of local purveyors who can often be found at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, including Brokaw Nursery, Hidden Star Orchards, Dirty Girl Produce, Monterey Fish, and Brooks and Daughters. We tasted slices of Bosc pears and Chioggia beets as we worked, savoring the bold natural flavors of organically grown produce. I couldn’t believe how beautiful the avocados were, how bright and rich they tasted, even without a pinch of salt or a spritz of lemon.
Throughout the day we continued to hone our practical skills, as well as develop our individual palates, utilizing all our senses to experience each ingredient as we prepared it. Jordan revealed brilliant little tricks of the trade: how to peel the skin off roasted beets with just your fingers, how to make homemade stock with the leftover crab shells, and how to cut beautifully symmetrical segments of orange.
My confidence slowly rose as the hours passed, not only was I getting some real hands-on experience, but I started to feel like maybe there was room for me to develop a different kind of relationship with cooking and food. Standing there at the counter, focused on coring my pear just right, I thought, Man, this is really happening to me… my heart’s getting into it.
I guess it took being outside my comfort zone to find out that I can profoundly connect to the art and act of cooking. It took spending an unseasonably warm day with strangers who turned out to be some of the smartest, most interesting people I’ve met in a long time to recognize how intimate and familiar people become with each other when making a meal together. It took trusting Jordan to guide us through an educational process that proved to be more about the power of discovery and community than about being able to handle a chef’s knife properly, though now I know how to.
It took that afternoon, and all the singular details of that experience to allow me to really understand what roasting a chicken or frying up eggs means to David, and every other bon vivant, gourmand, and gastronome out in the world. And though I still don’t think those terms apply to me, my heart is finally in it.
If you'd like to learn some cooking basics or just want to sharpen already adept culinary skills, book a class with Jordan's Kitchen! The classes have varied and seasonal menus and fill up quickly, so make sure to contact Jordan Schacter immediately if you are interested in a particular date or menu. You can check out the website at: jordanskitchensf.com or contact Jordan directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 415-710-0761.