Beginners cooking classes offer culinary skills to serious amateurs

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      Chef David Robertson’s eyes are filled with possibility as he surveys the Dirty Apron, a new cooking school at 540 Beatty Street. He owns it with Karri and Nico Schuermans, whose sister restaurants, Chambar and Medina, are just steps away. In this gorgeous heritage space—complete with 11 gleaming ranges, an elegant dining area, and adjoining retail space—students learn everything from knife skills to the ins and outs of preparing seafood.

      Culinary education can be a serious undertaking, especially for those intent on entering the tough restaurant industry. Programs at local schools can last up to a year and a half, with tuition of about $30,000, so you’d better be sure before you sign up. That’s why short beginners’ programs can be the ideal way to try out cooking school.

      The Dirty Apron offers both hands-on ($135) and demo ($80) classes. A four-hour hands-on Italian class gets students whipping up goat cheese and arugula ravioli in a walnut-sage sauce, grilled lamb sirloin with ricotta herb gnocchi and chanterelle sauce, and lemon panna cotta. After plating, students sit down to feast on their creations.

      “It’s like going to a restaurant but you’re the chef, and you don’t have to tip in the end,” Robertson says.

      This class is a one-off, but Robertson is planning to develop a serious amateurs’ course that’s similar to what other cooking schools around town are offering. At Northwest Culinary Academy of Vancouver (2725 Main Street), chef Tony Minichiello empowers students with basic skills and cooking terminology in his Serious Foodie Culinary Basics course. (The next one runs eight Mondays starting September 21 from 6:15 to 9:45 p.m. and costs $695). “My job is to make the fundamentals sexy,” he says during a phone chat.

      With a background in theatre, Minichiello adds dramatic flair to his classroom demos, making even the most mundane techniques seem revelatory. Day 1 sees students learning knife skills and various cuts like a brunoise fine dice, plus the difference between simmering and boiling as they make a stock. On Day 2, they move on to poaching salmon, assembling salmon rillettes, and learning the role of roux (a thickening mixture of fat and flour) as they experiment with mac ’n’ cheese.

      The course is short, but it’s called serious for a reason. Minichiello makes a point of approaching it just like the 15-week professional program the school offers. It’s a condensed taste of what’s to come, an amuse-bouche, if you will. “I’ve had some students that have taken both and said they don’t see a difference. It’s just a microcosm of the professional course,” he explains.

      Former students agree wholeheartedly. Justin Morton, a banquet supervisor with the Vancouver Marriott Pinnacle Downtown Hotel, took Northwest’s Serious Foodie class and some Serious Foodie pastry courses. He found he had a knack for cooking and decided to enroll in the full-time culinary program at Northwest. “I was so shocked by how much material we covered in the Serious Foodie,” Morton says in a phone interview.

      Soo Wong, who owns Soo Singapore Jerky and Blackberry Bistro, both in Richmond, wanted to build on her cooking skills in order to broaden her menu offerings. She took a number of Northwest foodie classes that fit into her busy schedule before committing to the professional program. Then there are those like Dave Musselwhite, who got laid off from B.C. Rail and was considering taking the combined culinary and bread/pastry program. “I was hesitant about signing up for the one-year program so I did one of the foodie classes,” he tells the Straight by phone. After completing it, he signed up for more and now happily works as a cook for the Sea to Sky Grill at the Furry Creek Golf and Country Club, south of Squamish.

      In some cases, students decide that they’re content to cook recreationally. Chef Andrea Jefferson of Quince (1780 West 3rd Avenue) recalls teaching a man who was a lawyer and chartered accountant who eventually decided he didn’t want to make the big career leap to the restaurant industry after taking one of Quince’s courses. She chats with the Straight in the kitchen as cooks speedily prepare items for retail sale out front. At night, the kitchen becomes a teaching space where Jefferson leads a Nine Day Basics course (starts September 15, $850) that begins with an introduction to kitchen equipment and ends with roasted Thomas Reid organic chicken and frangipane tarts.

      Jefferson approaches her craft with a passion and focus she feels is essential if students want to succeed in a highly demanding industry. “Cooking is very extreme, so they have to be attracted to extreme things,” she says. A cooking career is a long and arduous journey, but it can only begin once you take that brave first step.