Is it Julie and Julia … or Jack and Ennis at the C.I.A. in San Antonio?
david currier | Contributing Writer
Creative foods with delicious aromas, impressive international wine selections, distinguished table settings with starched linen napkins, romantic flickering candlelight — it’s so perfectly gay.
My partner Kevin and I have shared kitchen duties for 37 years. Times have changed since we started out — cooking space and knowledge have expanded.
We survived fights in the kitchen, and whether it was yesterday’s simple beef-stew-for-two served with a Russian River Lazy Bear Weekend souvenir bottle of
Hop Kiln Marty’s Big Red on a café table from a bazaar, or today’s braised rabbit in mustard sauce for eight guests accompanied by a William Fèvre Chablis, followed by Central Market tranches of gooey Brie and pungent Roquefort, we’ve surprise our guests and not clobbered one another with the cast iron skillet.
Like your partner, cooking can (and perhaps should) be approached with creative passion. However, like the passion for your loved one, occasionally the ardor needs a kick-start.
Call in the C.I.A. (Cue the James Bond theme.) Not that C.I.A. — the Culinary Institute of America, down I-35 at the former Pearl Brewery in San Antonio.
Our mission was simple: Enroll in a cooking class and expand our knowledge of global cuisines and impress guests with an unexpected cultural event.
Kevin and I enrolled in the one-day “Flavors of China” class, taught by Hinnerk von Bargen, a German-born former resident of China. His expertise on Chinese cuisine has earned him global recognition.
Until this point, Chinese cooking in our kitchen had been limited to microwaved spring rolls and bland sweet and sour soup picked up at Uncle Chen’s shop on the way home from work; perhaps a thawed stir-fry from Costco when we’re feeling racy. Nothing to brag to the boys about, that’s for sure.
But C.I.A. is committed to your success on this mission. Decked out in kitchen-drag — a C.I.A. apron (yours to keep), a cute toque or chef’s hat, a list of group mission assignments (plus a Lindt chocolate bar for K-Rations), and encouraging words from “Chef” — 18 recruits marched off to C.I.A. Indoctrination 101 at 9:30 sharp.
In the war room of the San Antonio headquarters, Chef von Bargen elucidated the list of 16 challenging assignments, everything from perfectly steamed sticky rice (more tricky than you might think) to the scrumptious adversary shrimp toast with diver scallops.
The assignments are grouped four-to-a-team, but with four assignments per mission, each member’s survival is pretty much an independent effort. Burn or brown, so to speak; your cooking project is yours to own, self-critique, plate and serve. (C.I.A. doesn’t promote NFGs — non-functional garnishes. However, this gay couple was trying to impress 20 co-student strangers and Mr. Chef, too, so artistic plating was also a challenge.)
Chef’s indoctrination included: explanations of how starches interact with the different cooking steps in each assignment’s preparation; heating the wok with 10,000 BTUs (you don’t find this appliance at Targét); the salted Chinese cooking wine is a legal tax-avoidance; soy sauces? Count ‘em: Three types in this class. Plus sesame oil and chili paste (mmmm, hot!).
Students also learned to manage each recipe so that your home is immaculate when company arrives. We learned that there are important points in each preparation where we can stop, leaving the final steps to within a few minutes before serving.
The race is on. It’s now 10 o’clock, and each student needs to apply some time management skills so as to complete their assignment at about 1:30 p.m. You are creating an item for a late lunch when everybody will dine together on a fabulous, authentically Chinese meal, not unlike what you’d enjoy on Nanjing Road in Shanghai.
Preparing for their challenge, each student took stock of what utensils are supplied, and what is missing but required for their assignment. They then quickly toured the supply room where every size and type of cooking pan, cup, mixing bowl or knife and spoon can be found. Serving platters or bowls needed to plate and present the creations are also selected.
Mise en place is paramount; it’s a term that Chef inserts frequently into your indoctrination, and essential to a successful mission and on-time delivery.
Perusing your assigned recipe, you circle the assembled cooking supplies required for this class.
Chef and his assistants know what everyone needs. A community island in the center of the classroom is resplendent with top quality fresh Napa cabbages, crisp miniature bok choy, green onions, wrappers for spring rolls and pot stickers, fresh garlic and ginger, dried spices, short ribs, pork belly, wood ear and shitake mushrooms, tiger lily buds, tofu knots and other exotic items.
At this point, students’ (even couples’) communications become limited to their mission at hand: “Do you have a set of measuring cups I can borrow? What do you think about…?” Perhaps an occasional wink or a smile of encouragement.
You’ve not been abandoned, however. Chef and his staff of C.I.A. agents monitor the stations, already aware of the unique challenges each recipe presents.
Keeping an eye on the clock and a student’s progress, the professionals quickly intervene to prevent disasters, offer tips, and say “well done.”
Face it. How many of us have ever used a 100,000 BTU wok? As Chef von Bargen cheerfully pointed out to my partner in crime, “Kevin, it’s called stir-fry, not burn-fry. Dig down deeply and keep the vegetables moving rapidly to get rid of excess moisture.” And as I lifted my pot stickers from the Teflon surface of the frying pan trying to achieve perfection, Chef helpfully intervened to say: “Pot stickers are supposed to stick to the pot and burn a bit, David. They will release themselves when they are done. They look great. Well folded and uniform in size. They’ll be delicious.”
Plated for serving and arranged on the island, Chef asked each of us to describe our dish and explain challenges we faced in preparation. Cameras flashed.
Then the famished students and staff piled our dinner plates high, and using silverware or wooden chopsticks, we devoured some damn good Chinese cooking … and discussed what we liked about each, and how our future attempts to create the same dish would be modified to improve results.
Kevin and I smiled at each other, now the proud and successful students of a cuisine we had completely avoided cooking from scratch.•
Tuition for our one-day class was $250 per person. Information about the individual campuses and the curriculum is available at CIAchef.edu/enthusiasts.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 10, 2012.