Friday, October 26, 2012

Cooking with Class



“Tell us about your most embarrassing moment with bacon,” she suggested, using a black oven mitt to one-hand a hot pan onto the counter. Two thick braids held the front strands of her long, dusty blonde hair off her face. Black yoga pants, black chef's coat, “Chef Carolyn” in pink letters on the left side.
Six men and six women sat on the stools at the long counter and watched closely as Carolyn cut the pecan-bacon brownies. No one responded to her icebreaker.

I was a kid – 10 or 11 – about to bite into a piece of crispy bacon at the breakfast table. “Do you remember Wilbur?” my dad asked, that smirk sneaking up the left side of his face. You mean the pig that I fed and cleaned and loved and talked to and named after the character in my favorite book, and cried over on the day I found out that he had disappeared ... THAT Wilbur?!

Carolyn was scooping crumbly brownies onto small paper plates. “I put in a little extra bourbon this time,” she said with a smile. “What happened to the rest of the bourbon?” several people asked at once, as the laughter rippled. Nope, only in the brownies. After all, this is state-funded education.

I really miss Julia Child.

Carolyn sliced tender pork roast, separated thick raw bacon slices, turned on the gas burners, preheated ovens and took stuff out of the fridge, but it wasn't long before we were off the stools, cutting salmon, peeling oven-baked eggs (325 degrees for 20 minutes) mashing hot sweet potatoes, chopping paprika, sage, onion and garlic, frying and crumbling pounds of pork.

And we were all hostages to that bacon smell.
Cooking requires patience, perseverance, flexibility, prayer, versatility, love, planning, teamwork, focus, discernment. It helps if you have some skills, but you can learn how to do anything: chop, de-bone, whip, mix, slice, grate, stir.
This was an industrial kitchen – think Cake Boss rather than Rachael Ray. Hanging silver pots, wooden cutting boards and sharpened knives. Four ovens, four sinks, a massive island counter. A Splatter Zone (been in Sea World?). Carolyn pushed a button and a splatter shield emerged from the counter behind the gas stove. Cool!
“Since this IS a bacon class, we will substitute grease for butter in every recipe,” Carolyn said without looking up.
No matter how closely you follow a recipe – measuring precisely and stirring with confidence – or how many times you use the same recipe – the Sunday pot roast, the Monday night meatloaf – it never turns out exactly the way you planned or exactly the same way every time. For the record, my bacon green beans have never tasted as good as my grandmother’s. This is a creative and unpredictable journey.
“I need some of you to de-vein and de-tail the shrimp,” Carolyn said. I joined several others, including a 20-something blonde, at the island.
“I can’t do it; I don’t like their legs,” said the blonde. She hid her hands in the front pockets of her red hoodie.
In my most professorial way, I peered over my gray-rimmed glasses. “They’re tails.”
“Are you sure?” she asked.

Pretty sure.

“How about if I take off the tails and you do the butterfly cut?” I said.

“Will I need a knife?” she asked.

Could use your teeth, I suppose.

“How about if you wipe off the counter after I’m done?” I said, smiling brightly.

We scorched one batch of bacon. The salmon – well, let’s just say it wouldn’t make the cover of a food magazine. Somebody (you know who you are) cut some of the bacon too short for wrapping the shrimp.
The timer alerted us that the bacon sweet potato soufflé was ready. Carolyn pulled it out of the oven. Then, she scooped bacon pecan ice cream out of the silver machine and plopped the sweet stuff into the white foam bowls in front of us.
“I don’t think I can eat ice cream at 10:30 in the morning,” the blonde said.
“You’ve got a lot to learn,” a tall, 50ish man said, reaching for her paper bowl.
While savoring the creamy souffĂ©, I became immersed in a 15-minute discussion of cheese with Sheila, sitting on the stool to my left. 
1. Put fresh parmesan or provolone inside a date. Wrap bacon around it. Bake at 350 degrees until the bacon is done. 
2. Use at least two kinds of cheese in every recipe.
3. NEVER run out of cheese.
Under “course suggestions” on the evaluation sheet, I wrote, “Cheese, Please.”
We cooked and consumed the brownies, salmon, ice cream, shrimp, candied bacon bites, fresh spinach salad with creamy bacon dressing, bacon nibbles. And lots of bacon crumbs.
Four hours later, I walked out the door and straight into a bright blue sky and a crisp fall breeze. And remembered what I had forgotten. Everything tastes better when you enjoy the journey.