Monday, June 15, 2009

Meet Our Students!

Local residents Melanie and Marty McKee were in a food rut when they discovered Cookology. The couple signed up for our first Date Night: Deconstructed Eggplant Parmigana, Mixed Greens with Homemade Balsamic and Dark Chocolate Covered Strawberries. They were hooked.

"I would've described our skills as somewhere between basic and poor," Marty said. "We had a couple things we knew how to make, but we were tired of them. We started going out to dinner to mix it up, but that became expensive and it still wasn't exactly what we wanted."

Melanie signed up for daytime culinary courses at a Maryland school, but because of their conflicting schedules, they wouldn't be able to take the classes together. It also cost more than she was looking to spend. As fate would have it, Marty came across a yet-to-open recreational cooking school in Dulles Town Center Mall while Christmas shopping later that week.

"I came home and told Mel about it. I said if she wanted to try out some classes there that I would go with her," he said.

Turns out Cookology had the recipe for success. The couple just attended their 25th class last weekend.

"We were really just blown away right from the start. We had so much fun, and then we got home the very first night we realized we had picked up all these tidbits," Mel said. "How to heat up the pan, when to put the food in, how to properly season with salt and pepper...stuff that is really pretty basic, but makes a world of difference when you learn to do it right."

Marty and Mel's previous success shortfall in the kitchen wasn't for lack of trying.

"It wasn't just laziness," Marty said. "We had the best intentions. We bought all the books, we bought the specialized gadgets, tried all kinds of recipes, but we always seemed to come up short. It gets frustrating because you see pictures of a great looking dish and then you spend money and a lot of effort trying to make it, and in the end it just isn't up to par."

The couple says getting hands-on in the kitchen and getting personal attention from our chefs has made all the difference.

"Learning hands-on with such personal feedback is different than watching a chef demo on TV or even in person," Melanie said. "For example, Cookology's chef will tell you what to watch for or how something in a pan should feel. Then you'll be constantly stirring something with the consistency of water and all of a sudden, you'll draw the whisk or spatula through it then with the next pass you'll FEEL the consistency change or you'll SEE the color change. You can't get that type of learning by reading a cookbook or watching a chef do it; it's just not the same. As a teacher myself I know the value of 'learning by doing'."

The couple tries to recreate every recipe at home at least twice, sometimes even three or four times. After they'd taken a handful of classes they hosted their own dinner party, with rave reviews. Soon they were churning out homemade creme brulees and improvised sauces, a far cry from their routine of the same boring chicken dishes, each not-so-affectionately dubbed "suck chicken."

"Our kitchen has changed a lot in just the few months we've been going to classes," Marty said. "We haven't bought salad dressing in months; we make our own. We've gotten rid of a lot of processed foods from the pantry. Now we have fresh herbs, more fruits and veggies, more multicultural ingredients."

And, Marty says, they've actually saved a lot of money on food and dining. He believes Cookology's focus on how to cook, rather than recipe recreation, promotes a more targeted shopping experience.

"We've learned what staples we're constantly using, so we've stocked our pantry with those things," Marty said. "We also know more about how to get the most out of the ingredients we buy. Chicken 101 was amazing. Before I would've walked by a whole chicken in the grocery store and thought to myself 'I have no idea what I would do with that.' Now I know now how to make something easy with every part of the chicken. Ian even showed us how to make a simple broth from the leftover bones. You just learn how to get so much more for your money."

After 25 classes, they are still getting something out of each session.

"No matter how basic or advanced your skills are, I really believe you can walk into any class and get something out of it," Marty said. "Ian is such an accomplished chef that he is able to tailor classes for any skill level."

In a recent Sushi 101 class, beginners like Marty and Melanie focused on basic rolling techniques, while those who had worked with sushi before worked with Chef Ian on more advanced skills like rolls with rice on the outside, and making more complex dipping sauces.

"Ian and Tabi really put the emphasis on how to cook," Melanie said. "They're always reminding us that it is our food, and that we should make it how we like it, not necessarily follow the rules of a recipe."

That laid back attitude and personalized approach are what keep Marty and Mel coming back.

"Everything about it is just right on the mark," Marty said. "The classes are fun and entertaining, you meet new people, get a great meal and walk away with a lot of useful skills."

The couple urges others to give it a try.

"You really can't fail. I think some people get this image of Hell's Kitchen and they get intimidated, but that couldn't be farther from reality," Marty said. "Everyone is so friendly, and there's a real carefree, cheerful and collaborative environment. It doesn't matter what class you're taking; you're going to learn a lot and you're going to have a great time doing it."

Shared Wisdom from Marty & Mel

Each class starts from scratch, so anyone can take any class at any time, regardless of skill level or amount of experience, and not feel like they're behind. There are no prerequisites to any class, so no matter how many classes a person has taken, they're basically at the same level as someone who has never taken any classes at all.

Doing the cooking yourself is a totally different ballgame than watching a chef demonstrate it on tv or even in person. During the week after a given class we make the meals we've learned from class. It usually takes us two attempts at it to get it down. The great thing is that if we've messed up something on our first attempt at home, we can come back in and tell the chef what we did and he'll tell us what we did wrong and how to fix it.

Chef Ian and Tabi both want everyone to have a good time and enjoy what they're doing. They don't expect anyone to do anything perfectly. If you did, you wouldn't be there, right? You learn by practicing and by trial and error. The more classes you take and the more you practice at home, the better you'll get.

Here are just a few of the things they've learned so far that both chefs preach in every session:

•If you're using a recipe, read it all the way through before you start.

•Get all your ingredients out before you start cooking.

•Estimate how long each thing will take to cook and start making the thing that will take the longest.

•If you can make something well beforehand, do so (such as the dessert).

•Hold the knife right. And don't try to grab it if it falls!

•TASTE EVERYTHING AS YOU GO. Don't dump the whole amount of anything a recipe calls for into the mix. You can always add, but you can't get it out once it's in there.

•PLAY with your ingredients. On a day when you've got time, mix them up this way or that, and see what you come up with—THAT'S cooking!

•Always read the foreword if you're using a cookbook.

•Your food is only as good as your ingredients, so choose wisely and buy fresh.

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