I can be a total snob with it comes to home cooking. I’ve sauteed enough vegetables to know their wilting rates and sprouted enough grains/legumes to produce a lifetime of farts. Whenever my friends gloat over their puny stir fries and sweet potato hashes, I scoff with pretentious disdain while thinking in a British accent: Yes, but did you make truffled risotto and roasted bone marrow for dinner last night? Because III did.
Despite my occasional bouts of superiority, I’m not really a snob. I grew up eating and cooking with my parents, and food has always played an integral part of my family and culture. My wonderful childhood was a culinary kaleidoscope of pickling radishes, kneading dumpling wrappers, and butchering animal bits for stock and roasts. And I believe that when it comes to cooking, the best tool is one’s palette and sense of smell. No, I can’t afford a Robot Coupe, and my knife skills are dangerously amateur, but I can tell you when that omelet is motherfucking ready.
So why did I sign up for a seafood grilling class at The Chopping Block when clearly, my intentions were to deride my fellow peers on their lack of culinary skill and expertise? Because a) that’s not why I signed up; b) if there’s one protein that I can reliably screw up, it’s seafood. I don’t know how many scallops and tilapia filets I’ve turned into solid rubber, and I once cooked a red snapper into literal smithereens; c) I hadn’t grilled for years and forgotten the scent of accidentally-singed eyebrows
Located in Lincoln Square and Merchandise Mart, the Chopping Block is “Chicago’s largest recreational cooking school and gourmet retail store,” offering “demonstration and hands-on cooking classes, as well as wine classes, private cooking parties and corporate team building events.” They’re like a Chicago-based Williams-Sonoma, except 10 times cooler. When I arrive at the Lincoln Square location, I follow the scent of burning charcoal to the outdoor patio, where class participants are munching on pre-dinner popcorn and booze (because contrary to popular belief, booze helps one chop and slice more accurately).
It’s an intimate crowd, and with the setting sun casting glorious rays over the patio deck, I feel invigorated and inspired. As I don my apron, I fiercely judge my competitors–I mean, classmates. Some cute guy and his mom, a daughter-mother pair from Oklahoma, a few couples, some pairs of friends. Our main instructor was Trevor Moore, who was aided by Melissa Novak. Although there were some hitches getting started (is there enough shrimp?!) and the occasional confusion as to who-chops-what (wait, did you mince that garlic?), the 3-hour class zoomed by, and by the end of our prepping and cooking, I was ravenous. And luckily, our menu did not disappoint:
- Cedar-planked lemon salmon with bacon and watercress salad
- Thai marinated and grilled shrimp and pineapple skewers with spicy peanut sauce
- New Mexican grilled fish with grilled zucchini, red onion, and avocado salad
During the class, I learned that:
- Marinating is the key to life and love. Marinate everything.
- I love overly-charred vegetables. Something about the smoky taste rouses my cavewoman instincts.
- Although cedar planked salmon was delicious, the shrimp was the rockstar of the meal.
- Gas grills are nice and fancy, but they can’t replicate charcoal/wood-burning grills.
Needless to say, our meal was delicious, which surprised me given how many people didn’t know the fundamentals of cooking. Now, I’m not just saying that to be obnoxious, but some participants hadn’t stepped in the kitchen for years. Some couldn’t measure out a tablespoon of olive oil worth their life, and others were handling knives in ways that significantly elevated my blood pressure. Luckily, Chef Trevor and Melissa were incredibly helpful and knowledgeable about the ingredients and cooking products, and any mishaps were quickly resolved by their clever improvisations.
Which is more than I can say for me. It was admittedly frustrating for me to work in groups, as I impatiently watched people cut zucchini and onions into unwieldy, uneven chunks. But instead of walking away from the class like some egotistical bastard, I was filled with appreciation and humility. Not everyone knows how to cook, and even fewer know how to cook well. But that’s the whole point of these classes–to learn or refine basic techniques, to cook and converse with complete strangers, to drink five glasses of wine before dinner. For me in particular, I enjoyed talking to Trevor and Melissa about their burnout from the restaurant industry and their transition into a more instructor-like role. In other words, you get as much as you put in, regardless of your skill talent or interests.
I grew up eating home-cooked meals at The Dinner Table (aka Place Where Everything Happens), but others may have eaten crappy microwaveables in front of the TV. But like everything else in life, just because you may have something better doesn’t mean you should prance around with (genuine) superiority. Although clocks seem to operate 3x faster nowadays, there’s a wholesome quality about homemade cooking that’s people back into the kitchen. And classes at The Chopping Block are helping to build that momentum, which ultimately is a great thing.