I am an unlikely candidate to be spending a month at a professional cooking school. Nobody in my family expected me to be much good in the kitchen (they similarly doubted that my powers of coordination would ever extend to keeping a car safely on the road. But that’s a story for a different day). In all fairness to them, I also never expected even culinary competence from myself. I was the one who used to phone my mother for exact instructions on how to cook green beans, down to the settings on the stove plate. Admittedly I was at school at the time, but you can see how I was not born with a feel for food.
Over the years my abilities developed and, unexpectedly, so did my interest in food. The fact that I have a husband who thinks my cooking is wonderful is a great motivator for which I’m truly grateful. But despite an expanding repertoire and skills set, I’ve always doubted myself in the kitchen. Unlike my older sister who cooks from instinct and with flair, I need a recipe when I try something new (and even when I return to old favourites). The desire to learn about and get more comfortable with tastes and combinations was part of what motivated me to enroll for the 4-week course. Another factor was that I knew there had to be an easier way to get jobs such as chopping herbs done. And then there was the question of how to deal with fresh fish and whole chickens, and let’s not even get started on the mysteries of baking.
So here I am, halfway through the course. Not quite a transformed woman, but certainly one who feels far more able. I have a sheaf of recipes, most of them covered in notes lest I forget the tips and tricks the tutors give us – and the mistakes I made and learned from. I am acquiring a new vocabulary. I’ve struck up a close relationship with the beautiful Würsthof chef’s knife I bought more than a year ago and only ever used to carefully cut up chicken breasts. In fact, in the 10 days I’ve been in the Dublin Cookery School’s kitchen I have not once used the trusted little utility knife that was my go-to tool at home. I’ve learned to sprinkle salt from a rather dramatic height, and the same with flour when dusting the counter top. In fact, the theatre of food is one of the most delicious discoveries.
Is it like Masterchef, people ask me. The answer is yes and no. No because one of the greatest gifts of the school is the completely noncompetitive environment in which we learn. The tutors never highlight a student’s success or failure. Their praise is lavish yet discreet, and when things go wrong they rush to the rescue without making a fuss. This allows the students to compare results with a sense of curiosity rather than competition.
Where it is like Masterchef is the exposure we get. The three senior tutors have all worked in fine-dining establishments, including Michelin-star restaurants. Tara, who is revealing to us the dark arts of choux pastry, jells, emulsions and foams, trained and worked in restaurants in France. Richard spent several years in the kitchen of Ottolenghi in London. Eric learned the art of Italian food in the kitchen of an American chef who would be flown to Italy to cook for guests at national cultural events.
Not only do we learn from some of the best in the business; we also get to eat gourmet food every day when these chefs demonstrate the dishes we get to recreate (or murder!) the following day. And then, while we cook, they are there all the time to guide, correct and encourage. Best of all, is the atmosphere they create. When Reggie turns on the music while we clean down the kitchen at the end of the day people sing along and do the odd little jig as they rush to and from the sinks. And it’s not all fun and games. The tutors instill in us the work ethic of a professional kitchen: work stations have to be clean; service has to be punctual; and each team is assigned a specific job for the day, such as setting the table for lunch or cleaning out the rubbish bins.
I could carry on and on, but let me conclude with a few thoughts on the other students on the course. Most of them are Irish, and their hospitality and friendliness add a huge amount to my experience here. I love listening to their accent, the quirky turn of phrase they bring to the English language, the skill and irreverence of their repartee. They take such an interest in each other, and in the five of us who have come from other corners of the globe: Mao from Taiwan; Merve from Turkey; Roberta from Brazil; Amy from America; and me. Two of them have invited me to their homes already, and they are quick with suggestions of places to visit and things to do. They represent an interesting cross section of society, which makes me think about people’s motivations and what they are willing to do in pursuit of their dreams. There is Vanessa who stopped working following the birth of her son a year ago, whose husband is hugely successful, and who can forget about the dough in her hands when she gets chatting. Donal is the executive director of a company that owns two restaurants at Dublin Airport; he’s doing the course because he loves cooking, wants to better understand the workings of a commercial kitchen, and has a bucket list to get through. Katie is a school teacher, as is Brenda. Caitríona (pronounced Katrina) is a professional waitress in one of Dublin’s top restaurants who wants to explore the option of opening her own place. Suzanne is a veterinarian and Alaidh (pronounced Alli) a vegan who brings her own lunch on most days.
I can’t yet say what the outcome of this experience will be, but I do know that I will carry its impact with me forever. A desire to share with others the food I’m learning to cook is unfolding within me and I’ll be fascinated to see where it leads. What is certain, is that the Dublin Cookery School is adding flavour to my life in the way a chunk of butter enriches a sauce.