It seemed like a good idea when Ellen and I first thought about it.
After all, we had done something similar seven years ago (see The Best Father’s Day Gift Ever) when Ellen arranged for a four hour cooking lesson for two friends and ourselves in the home of one of DC’s top chefs, Roberto Donna.
So when we were planning for activities at a wonderful Costa Brava house we had rented to celebrate our 50th wedding with friends, we scheduled a chef to come to the house to give us a lesson in Catalan cooking.
The first indication that should have been a forewarning was when it took 16 email exchanges between Ellen and Francesc (the Catalan chef) simply to decide the menu, which was finally settled as follows:
Sopa Melo (Melon soup with crusty cured ham and mint)
Escalivada (Smoky grilled vegetables)
Tar-Tar de Tonxina Abib Guacamole (Tuna tartar with guacamole)
Bunyols de Bacalla (Cod fritters)
Calamars a’ la Romana (Romana squids)
Fideua (Seafood noodle paella with lobster and rock fish broth and diced cuttle fish)
Flan (Spanish creme caramel)
We began to get the idea that we might have gotten someone far different from our DC cooking lesson with Chef Donna when the eight of us who were planning to attend received an email from Francesc informing each of us that we had been assigned one of the above recipes. He gave us a stern warning to study the recipes closely prior to our arrival in Costa Brava.
Plus, we knew there were already some ‘hurdles’ ahead: Matt, who had been assigned to the Cod fritters, had not been anywhere close to fried food for at least 40 years. Paul, assigned to the complicated looking Romana squid dish, had only a nodding acquaintance with a kitchen, a place where he only seems comfortable if he’s near the refrigerator or passing through on his way to his carport. Ray, the most senior member of our group and a practicing sommelier, was most likely to be an observer, I suspected, no doubt saving himself and his talents for the wine pouring with the actual dinner. And Fruzsina had made it abundantly clear that she wanted to be reassigned the Tuna tar-tar and guacamole, which was to be my task, and was negotiating my taking over her Rock fish broth and diced cuttle fish preparation in exchange.
Was Francesc flexible enough to deal with these ‘hurdles,’ to say nothing about the various personalities and kitchen incompetents assembled, and’ would he realize at least half of us, mostly the males, were primarily looking forward to eating and drinking more than preparing and cooking?
And then he arrived.
Chef and Student
He was one third our age, tattooed, and smoking. He arrived in a huge van with at least 20 boxes and cartons and assorted other paraphernalia (trash cans, various bottles, some with strange contents, 47 different cooking utensils, and even an enormous roll of paper towel that would last most large families a year). It took the four ‘men’ six trips each simply to get all of this into the house. Francesc brought in what looked to me like a medium sized garden of flowers and herbs. Flowers to eat, apparently, not ones for table decoration.
We ‘helped’ Francesc unpack his boxes, put on the aprons and chef hats he provided, and looked skeptically at the spiraled 16 page bound document entitled “Technical Data Sheets” he gave each of us. Included in that document was each of the dishes and its recipe, including information on ingredients, quantity, units (in European measures, of course), cooking utensils, and a preparation and cooking method for each of the seven dishes. Plus, he showed me his four page cooking plan with our names next to our assignments and a list of the 65 total ingredients (averaging nine per dish). Also, under various headings he had on his shopping list was the following: Fresc – 38 items; Altres – 6 items; Sec – 12 items; Material Cuina – 12; and Material Neteja – 9 items. Talk about pre-planning. He made Ellen M. & Fruzsina look like two totally disorganized teenagers by comparison!
Then Francesc looked around the kitchen and asked where the oven was. We didn’t see one. Only a microwave. After 22 minutes of panic while we searched every inch of the kitchen, pantry, laundry room, dining room, living room, and storage room, Francesc, with a good deal of relief, figured out that the microwave could also double as a small oven.
He adjusted the assignments so at least Fruzi was happy that she would learn to make “the perfect” tuna tartar (we are still waiting to be invited to her home to sample what she learned). Matt bravely stayed with the cod fritters, and Paul, skeptically but with good humor, agreed to the cleaning and preparing of the squid. (His wife Ellen H. just rolled her eyes and smiled, clearly delighted that someone else would have to deal with Paul.) Following the chef’s instructions that the most important job in the kitchen was to keep a clean counter and clean utensils AT ALL TIMES, I took on the unskilled and unassigned task of constantly washing every dish, bowl, glass, utensil, cutting board, etc. as soon as it had a speck of food on it. (My job lasted for as long as we did the preparations — about six hours.)
We all got busy cutting and dicing, except for Ray, who took on the role of overseeing ‘quality control’ and Ellen M who took on the role of photographer, ably assisted by Ellen H and Anita. Among many other things, we learned the best way to dice an onion, mince cuttlefish, and clean squid (should either of the latter two endeavors ever be useful to us in the future). We had to make the dessert first — the Flan — as that involved the longest amount of preparation and the need to chill it in the refrigerator.
After learning not to “stir the candy” (the sugar for the caramelized top, or was it for the bottom?), the rest of us watched as Anita and Francesc went through the 11 steps outlined to make the Flan, only to be informed 30 minutes later that we had to throw it out and start over. Chef claimed failures were part of learning to cook.
I’ll spare readers a dish by dish description of our trials and tribulations with the other dishes, but fortunately (?) we did drink a good bit of wine and took frequent breaks (Francesc liked to smoke).
There were, however, as might be expected when you have nine people in a kitchen cooking, eight of whom are ‘students’, some unanticipated (and often hilarious) things that happened along the way:
*Blowing out the electricity and having to search for the fuse box and reset it so we could continue cooking;
*Paul’s cleaning of the squid (see picture at the top of this post as four of us watched him with varying degrees of amazement and concern);
Ellen H’s preserving of the squid spines (“For earrings,” she said. We’ve yet to see them.);
*Learning about tossing the short spaghetti-like pasta called ‘fideos’ with olive oil and toasting it before any broth or seafood was added to the fidua;
* Trying to note temperature and ingredient sizes in US measurements on our technical data sheets so we might repeat some of these recipes once we got home;
*Ray’s very careful drying of the thin slices of cured ham (for the melon soup) and his frequent wine pouring to ease the difficulty of our tasks;
*Our collective amazement (and enviousness) at the “tweezer-like” utensil for putting the miniature flowers and wonderful sesame seed caviar atop various dishes;
*Tasting those ‘flower arrangements’ that decorated much of that food.
We ‘worked’ from 3-9 PM, mostly joking, laughing, learning, and tasting (though we did ‘accomplish’ a few of the tasks assigned), before we finally sat down to the seven course Catalan feast.
It was beyond sumptuous.
The melon soup with Ray’s dried ham was a revelation, Ellen H’s smoky grilled vegetables were unlike anything we’d known before, Fruzsina’s tuna tartar with guacamole (topped with sesame caviar) was a big hit, Matt’s cod fritters were better than even he expected (though I cannot attest to whether he actually tasted one or not), and Paul’s squid was also unlike any squid any of us had previously tasted, tender and filled with flavor. The biggest revelation and biggest hit was the fidua (the pasta paella) made with an unbelievably rich lobster and rock fish broth, diced cuttle fish, and red prawns. We had prepared the fish broth though we have to admit that Francesc made the lobster broth before arriving).
Francesc joined us for the Flan (he had begged off joining us for the whole meal, despite our urging him to do so). And what a Flan it was. We chatted with Francesc and told him of our initial concerns about him but how delightful it had been to have him, how much we had learned, and how wonderful the entire afternoon and evening had been (a few of the participants had been skeptical about the whole enterprise).
We were delighted when we returned to the kitchen to see that Francesc had taken care of the mess we had made and had cleaned the entire area, which now looked the best it had the entire week. Additionally, he had packed up what remained for him to take home and left us with a few goodies for the rest of the week.
The eight of us each made three trips from the kitchen to the van and happily and sadly said good bye to a truly delightful, relaxed, knowledgeable, and talented teacher and chef.
So what initially had seemed like a good idea to Ellen and me, then looked questionable to all eight of us, turned out to be a one of the highlights of our week and certainly a memorable day for all.