When I signed up for the Knife Skills class at the Calphalon Culinary Center, I knew that it would be both the most useful cooking class I was signing up for, and the most expensive. When I arrived, it became rapidly clear why it was so expensive: the amenities are sumptuous, and there are multiple staff members devoted to a class of twelve people. Each of us had our own cooking station, our own burners, our own full set of tools (including something like 8 knives), bowls, pots, pans, and ingredients, plus a bottle of water. The room was large and spacious, with an enormous mirror over the instructor's prep area, plus another four large screen t.v. screens suspended about the room, also showing the prep area, just in case the mirror wasn't sufficient. And the instructor was miked. In addition to coat racks, there was a hat shelf and more shelves still, a separate cubby for each attendee's backpack or suitcase. We were given bruschetta to tide us over to dinner.
There wasn't just an instructor: there was an assistant instructor, a host/receptionist, and another staff member beyond that who showed up to help clean up after the class. The host/receptionist doubled as a wine server - there was a short menu of wines we could choose from, if we were so inclined. This being a class about knife skills, I wasn't inclined towards drinking at all. And the entire staff was friendly, helpful, knowledgable, and enthusiastic.
Three hours sounds like a lot in advance, but it flies by when there's so much to learn, so much to chop, julienne, mince, chiffonade, and other chopping, cutting, and peeling techniques. We ended up finishing cooking just at nine, so half the class had to go without eating. Takeout containers and plastic bags were provided for just such a purpose. Indeed, I'd made much more food than I could eat for one dinner, so took most of mine home too.
So, what did I learn? I learned how to hold knives, how to walk with them, how to care for them on a daily basis with a sharpening steel, and about using a whetstone and what kind to buy (Water-based ones. They're more expensive than oil-based ones, but don't take such large chunks out of the blades). The instructor said that when he's working, for every hour of constant knife use, he'll probably hone his blade four times.
The rest of the class centered around two knifework-intensive recipes: fruit salad and a gingered shrimp, chicken, and vegetable stir-fry. We went through knife use on a fruit-by-fruit basis, learning techniques for cutting fruit in decorative ways for elegant buffet tables. Segmenting oranges by knife; scooping out the core of a pear by melon scoop in order to leave the pear's shape intact; how to seed a papaya without bruising the fruit's flesh (use a knife, not spoon). Best of all, we learned to make very pretty quarters of pineapple, cutting away the seed pods to leave a spiral of curves and valleys. In addition to strawberries and kiwi, the salad was finished with triple sec, orange juice, and garnishes of mint and toasted coconut. I particularly liked the coconut.
There was less niftiness and more practicality to the stir-fry preparation. We learned how to efficiently dice onions, mince garlic, peel ginger (use the back of the knife), and to cut bok choy in half down the middle for prettiness. The class was useful too for giving me a sense for why different ingredients are cut to different sizes for a stir-fry - it's to better coordinate cooking times. I have the whole recipe on a sheet here, but there's not a great deal that's interested about mixing up pre-measured ingredients for marinades and sauces.
The Calphalon Culinary Center is ultimately designed as one big advertisement for the Calphalon range of cooking equipment. And it's quite effective. If you take one of their classes, they'll keep the store open for you afterwards, with a 20 percent discount on anything you buy. Many of us did. I only have lousy, cheap, poorly maintained knives at home, and after that class, it felt wrong not to invest in at least one decent knife. (I can buy more later. They're heavy and I'm moving in a few months.) Thus I am now the proud owner of a lovely santoku-style chef's knife and a honing steel, good for nearly all of my knife needs.
Yes, the class was expensive, but the money's well invested into very high-quality infrastructure. Only practice will give me real confidence using knives, but I feel I know a great deal of the theory of how to hold and use a knife properly. The class is also an effective sales pitch for the product line - but that says good things about the products in addition to sales technique. Coming home with stir-fry and fruit salad wasn't quite as cool as coming home with a box of truffles and chocolate-dipped strawberries, but the skills I learned tonight will be far more useful to me on a daily basis than chocolate-making will be.