Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Finding Your "Inner Chef" at Hipcooks

I'm a cooking class slut. Okay, that's pretty dramatic. But, I just love them. You just never know what great little tip you'll walk out with, what techniques you'll end up adopting, what new ingredient will become your new passion.

So, I was eager to check out Hipcooks, a new cooking school that opened in North Park in September. It's one of a chain of five cooking schools first launched in L.A. in 2004. The manager of the San Diego location is Tristan Blash.

I know Tristan a little because we both have volunteered as cooking teachers at Olivewood Gardens. Tristan, a self-taught cook, learned a lot of her skills from the French chefs she worked with as an event planner for a French catering company in New York. She's volunteered her cooking skills as a teacher with the Oregon Food Bank as well as Olivewood Gardens. She's also got her masters degree in teaching and while teaching middle school in Portland, she took a part-time job at the Hipcooks Portland and went through months of training with the owner.

Long story short, she moved down to San Diego, continued with Hipcooks in L.A. and trained in their management program, then opened the San Diego school, located on 30th St. just north of University, a couple of months ago.

And it is certainly hip. And urban. Cool colors, sleek modern furnishings. The latest appliances. Yet, surprisingly, there are no built-in stovetops. Instead there are portable propane burners that are easy to move around a large semicircular teaching island that turns a demo into a hands-on class in moments.

You also won't find any measuring tools or recipes (although recipes are e-mailed later to participants) in class. "My hope is that my students become, or stay, relaxed in the kitchen," says Tristan. "That they learn to trust their instincts when it comes to cooking, maybe even finding their 'inner chef.' By 'banning' measuring implements and tasting and using our own senses to determine how much of this and that goes into a dish, a person learns to trust their own likes and dislikes and depends less on following the recipe line by line."

The idea, she says, is to, "play, create, you may mess up, so learn from that and start over. That you leave class believing that you know more about cooking and creating than you thought you did when you walked in and that the final product is up to you, not the chef that wrote the recipe."

The three-hour+ class I took was all about soup making, with seven soups -- watercress, carrot ginger, potato leek, butternut squash sage, Moroccan lentil with prunes and cinnamon, corn chowder with tarragon and sundried tomatoes, and creamy mushroom with thyme and sherry -- on the menu. Prepped veggies and herbs were strategically placed on the island, where there were also about 10 round solid wood cutting boards and Wusthof chefs knives marking each place. The class of about a dozen was launched with what was essentially a knife skills mini-class as Tristan first demonstrated how to hone a knife, then different ways to approach slicing, dicing, and chopping.

We got tips for cleaning leeks (peel away the green little by little to get the most out of the vegetable, chop, then wash to get out all the grit). And a fascinating, if noisy, tip for stripping the paper off garlic cloves: put them in a metal bowl, place another metal bowl the same size over the rim to make what looks like a ball (the two rims should meet) and then shake. The motion will release the peel off the garlic cloves. It'll also freak out dogs, cats, and small children -- but all for the common good, right?

The soup-making tasks continued along those lines as students learned how to build a soup so that on their own they could riff on creating other soups based on available ingredients and tastes. We were divided into teams to work on each soup, four in the first half of the class, then partaking of the finished soups, followed by making the next three.

As mentioned, there was no measuring. So with Tristan guiding the way and explaining why we were doing what we were doing, it was a handful of this, a pile of that, some spoonfuls of stock, dashes of wine, herbs to taste. Cook it down. Then ladle it into the Vitamix. Get a little whirring action going and then start tasting and adjusting the seasonings and consistency.

The results were pretty darned good. We first sampled the watercress soup, after drizzling it with creme fraiche. It was herbaceous, but finished with a lovely lemony flavor.

Then there was a very pretty table set family style so we could dine in plain view of people walking on 30th St.

We filled it up after serving ourselves with the carrot ginger (a bright stunner); the hearty potato leek with layers of flavor thanks to white wine, thyme, and lemon; and a thick and woodsy butternut squash soup punctuated with white beans. Then on to the next batch. From what I could tell, my fellow students were having a lot of fun and learning a lot.

Carrot and Ginger Soup
From Hipcooks
(Printable recipe)

Carrot & Ginger Soup
1 ½ lbs carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
3 celery sticks, roughly chopped
1 onion, peeled and roughly chopped
1 garlic clove, peeled and chopped
4 inch piece of ginger, peeled and chopped (or grated!)
4 cups veggie stock or water (in this case you can use water since this soup is so rich in veggies)

Heat some olive oil (or 2 T. butter!) in a nice soup pot and add the onions, carrots, celery and ginger. Have your heat on low, cover the pot and cook until all the veggies are soft and buttery until softened (about 20 minutes). Pour in the veggie stock or water (add 3 tablespoons of honey here for carrot, ginger and honey soup) (or 1 sliced ripe pear for carrot, ginger and pear soup!) and cook for another 10 minutes or so, until the stock is hot. I am guessing the amount of stock to cover the veggies plus an inch or so, to make blending easy. So you can always add more or less stock as necessary. Blend safely in batches. Season if necessary, and taste for ginger-content. You can always add more. If you add too much, a swirl of cream in the soup will tone it down, as will the honey. A handful of chopped cilantro (coriander) would be a gorgeous garnish for this superlative soup.

Hipcooks San Diego is located at 4048 30th St. Classes are $55 each and range from beginnerish (the soup one would qualify) to classes geared to more advanced cooks. A schedule of classes is on the web site. You can also arrange three-hour private classes for groups. Additionally, they've got some terrific kitchen tools, gadgets, and condiments for sale. (I fell in love with the Chef'n Flex Trio Spatula Set.)

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  1. The class sounds really fun and is just what novice (old and new) cooks need to keep from fretting about recipes. I will check them out.

  2. Caron, that sounds fabulous and fun. That's my style of cooking. (That's why I make a lousy baker -- I lack precision.)

    Thanks for the great post. I'd love to go take that kind of class. See you soon! - Julie

  3. Yeah... you couldn't do this with a baking class, but for soups and many other kinds of dishes, many of us are laissez faire about measuring. I always think of my mom and grandmothers and trying to get exact measurements for family recipes when they just tossed in a pinch of this or that. And whatever they made always tasted wonderful! So this is the "Nana" approach to teaching cooking ;)

  4. Sounds like fun, Helene! What were the other flavors in the butternut squash soup? Did I send you my butternut squash soup recipe with Indian flavors?

  5. Hipcooks sounds awesome, right up my alley, AND in my neighborhood! One more thing to add to my Christmas list! This soup sounds wonderful too, making it tonight...