Lessons learned in virtual cookery class, by Cate Devine

What strikes me most about taking part in a virtual cookery class is the number of things you learn without expecting to. For example, the amount of advance prep that’s required from the chef and staff. Receiving one’s box full of each carefully-measured, weighed, portioned, chilled, sometimes partially-cooked, and packaged component of the multiple-course menu, plus printed instructions, is the first thrill. Some are sent to hundreds of participants all over town and beyond. Not only does it makes you realise the sheer hard graft that goes into running a professional kitchen; the added complication of logistics – getting the ingredients safely delivered intact and in compliance with health and safety regs – is pretty impressive.

I took part in one of the first @Home classes hosted by Stuart Leslie, head chef at The Cook School, the sister company of Braehead Foods in Kilmarnock. The £50-for-two menu was Italian and we made aubergine cannelloni (ten ingredients), mushroom risotto (11 ingredients), chicken breast wrapped in Parma ham (four ingredients), and chef kindly threw in a pre-made vanilla Panna Cotta for dessert. The equipment list packed into my box required some 19 items to be found around my kitchen and laid out in advance (a useful time-saver during the 90-minute class).  

My mis-en-place sorted according to chef Stuart Leslie’s instructions

The second thing I learned that night was how great it was to be able to ogle other participants’ kitchens. Forget politicians’ bookcases being featured on news channels as TV interviews have been conducted at home, following social distancing guidelines: this was far more interesting, if a little envy-inducing.

The third thing was how to chop an onion. Finally. Chef Stuart cheerfully – and tearlessly – demonstrated how you’re meant to cut the top of the onion off and keep the root on so that vertical slices stay together until you cut the root off. Bravo. As the atmosphere between us and the dozen or so others was relaxed and full of banter, helped along by the fact that most of us had a glass of wine to hand, I didn’t feel embarrassed at my ignorance.

“There’s no such thing as a silly question, as we’re here to be comfortable as we go,” chef Stuart assured me. I’ve since been told that someone in another class on vegetarian cookery enquired about the best way to cook a steak.

So I wasn’t abashed to discover that risotto should be served slightly sloppy, otherwise it’s more of a paella, and that it should be eaten on a cold plate to stop it continuing to cook and congeal.

Speed, precision, keeping the work station clean and tidy, sticking to the plan and paying attention to detail were also important lessons I learned as a home cook. Thanks to chef, I was really pleased with the end result of my dishes.

I also discovered that the presentation skills of the host chef are key to the whole thing. Chef Stuart has been running The Cook School for some years now, so is used to performing in front of an audience. Others may have to learn this – it’s no longer the case that a chef’s life is destined to be led in obscurity, stuck behind the stove. If the Coronavirus pandemic continues and lockdowns are imposed around the country, online classes are set to stay.

“Doing live classes were Stuart’s idea, and the reaction and feedback so far have been absolutely brilliant,” says Craig Stevenson, managing director of Braehead Foods. “They were designed for lockdown to cater for those working from home, learning to cook, who need a break or a date night, but can’t go out to eat,” he says. “We will be continuing this into the future even if lockdown stops. It’s a good way to educate and entertain customers, while helping local producers and suppliers and even delivery drivers stay in work.”

My version of the aubergine cannelloni …

About Cate Devine

As a journalist, Cate has been covering developments in food and drink for over 25 years, variously as a deputy monthly magazine editor; weekly magazine editor; daily newspaper commissioning features editor, women’s editor, senior writer and food specialist; and latterly freelance contributor, broadcaster and interviewer.

To view more of Cate’s writing, please visit her blog: https://www.catedevinewriter.com/