Savvy chefs, eager students and secret spices: Tasting notes from our survey of four cooking demonstration classes
Everyone knows Las Vegas has blown up as a global dining destination. But it’s not because our chefs are sitting on a stash of secret recipes. Rather than locking away the methods that power their menus, many of our culinary leaders are throwing open the doors to their kitchens and teaching us to cook like they do.
Don’t know a whisk from a wonder pot? Don’t worry. In these demonstration classes, chefs cover all the terminology and utensils. No skills? No worries. All you need is a couple hours, a few bucks and an appetite for culinary adventure. Best of all: You get to eat the homework. I put on my chef’s hat and took a few local classes for a spin — um, make that stir.
Mon Ami Gabi: The French connection
One thing’s for sure: Executive Chef Terry Lynch doesn’t merely recite recipes. His classes, held in a wood-paneled, private dining room at Mon Ami Gabi in the Paris Las Vegas Hotel, focus on technique. Lynch is French on his mother’s side, and he trained in Paris at Le Cordon Bleu. Translation: This is the real deal, with authentic recipes and kitchen-tested tips. Menus vary, but for my class, we enjoyed four-mushroom soup; sea scallops with butternut squash purée; Brussels sprouts, hazelnuts and brown butter; and warm chocolate pudding cake. Louis Latour wines, made especially for Mon Ami Gabi, are paired with each course, and you also learn about the regions where the wine is produced and how to properly hold a wine glass. (By the stem, rather than the bowl, so you’re not warming up your wine.)
Lessons learned: 1. Want perfect sautéed mushrooms? Brush them off rather than wash them — that way they’ll caramelize properly. And use pomace oil rather than extra virgin olive oil, because it has a higher heating point. 2. The proper way to whip cream is with a whisk in a figure 8. It adds more air to the cream and goes faster. (It’s also a fantastic arm workout.)
Sweet spots: Each seat in the class has a spiral-bound recipe book and pen. The book includes all the recipes along with places to write notes. Also, Chef Lynch takes volunteers from the class to act as his sous chef for various parts of the meal. It’s a hands-on way to master technique. Finally, your wine glass will never be empty. Sour note: Chef Lynch takes this stuff seriously. At one point, he scolded me for talking to my classmates too much while I was carrying around the demonstration dish. I was admonished to “get back to work.” ($50, inside the Paris Las Vegas, monamigabi.com)
El Segundo Sol: You can Mexican
I’m not sure how Chef Lynch does it, but he oversees both Mon Ami Gabi and El Segundo Sol, the Mexican restaurant in the Fashion Show Mall. Classes start before the restaurant opens, and the private access adds to the restaurant’s cachet. Chef Lynch still dispenses great information and plucks volunteers from the audience, but he’s much less formal here. Munching started with chips and salsa, which was soon accompanied by homemade guacamole. Beef and chipotle tacos followed, finished by crisp buñuelos (Mexican fritters) with fresh raspberries and cream. The meal was accompanied by a cucumber mojito and then a delicious strawberry margarita.
Lessons learned: 1. Chop everything in equal sizes for even cooking. 2. For the best-tasting, most authentic buñuelos, use real cinnamon, which can be found in Mexican markets throughout Las Vegas.
Sweet spots: You get two different cocktails, and you leave with a lovely bag filled with goodies and an El Segundo Sol gift card. Sour note: No refills on the cocktails without handing over your debit card. ($25, in the Fashion Show Mall, elsegundosol.com)
Chocolate & Spice Bakery: Bake it ’til you make it
There’s a reason why Megan Romano, owner and chef of Chocolate & Spice Bakery, has been named Desert Companion 2011 Pastry Chef of the Year. Her shop is filled with fresh-baked pastries, handmade chocolates, rock candy swizzle sticks and fruit sorbets. But that’s just the brûlée on the crème now that Romano has expanded her offerings to include a range of savory dishes and seasonal cooking classes, including special courses for kids and holidays.
The bakery is charming but fairly small, with most of the space taken up by the glass display cases, modern four-seat tables and conversation areas flanked by zebra-striped, overstuffed chairs. Not much room for a class of eight. I was surprised when we were led behind the counter into the compact kitchen, where three rows of three armless chairs awaited. It was cramped, but we were up close and personal with the food preparation. We began with an egg white frittata, followed by an arugula spring salad with citrus vinaigrette, and ending with blueberry buttermilk scones. Recipes were provided on a stapled color printout.
Lessons learned: 1. Season at every step, rather than just at the end of a dish, for more consistent seasoning. 2. Grate butter into the flour mixture for your baked goods. It keeps your hands from making the butter warm and overmixing it.
Sweet spots: Between the meal itself and the “small bites” for noshing before the meal is cooked, there’s plenty to eat — and it’s all scrumptious. You leave with an amazing goodie bag filled with beautifully packaged Chocolate & Spice Bakery treats like artisanal chocolates and gourmet popcorn. Sour note: Almost every recipe had a small error or omission. Chef Romano pointed these out along the way — but it was hard to jot down the changes while balancing dishes on our laps. ($75, 7293 W. Sahara Ave., 527-7772, chocolatenspice.com)
The Cooking Experience by Mise en Place: In the hot seat
The Cooking Experience is a culinary school featuring an 18-seat open kitchen. Guests watch chefs prepare meals during demonstration lunches or dinners, or chairs and place settings are cleared away for hands-on classes. Aside from the black- and white-checked floor, the space is done in blue and white with stainless steel appliances, giving it a clean, professional look. The demo class I attended benefitted the Southern Nevada Pug Rescue, and Chef Cody Hinckley prepared British food. We were served salmon tartare, Beef Wellington and sticky toffee pudding with Chantilly.
Lessons learned: 1. Use phyllo dough instead of puff pastry for a lighter Beef Wellington. 2. The key to good shepherd’s pie is using beef short ribs.
Sweet spots: Large, flat-screen TVs situated on each end of the room provide overhead views of the cooking process; with the broad range of classes, you can choose the price point and instruction level that works for you. Sour note: A recipe book would’ve been great — if only for a memento from yet another wonderful meal. ($35 or $45 with wine pairing, 9500 S. Eastern Ave. #170, 754-4400, miseenplacenv.com)