A year after the tinola, I watched chef Tony Minichiello’s demonstration at the front of cooking class. I loved Chef Tony: his joy as he held up a peeled Walla Walla onion under the light; the exuberance with which he described grilling a cob of corn and rubbing it with butter, lime, and chili oil; how he refused to tell us how long or at what temperature to cook anything (“You cook it until it’s done.”); how you should toss a salad with your hands (“And if you find that icky, grow up!”); and how, watching him meditatively chop carrots without the dreary chop chop chop of a cook who doesn’t know better, I believed that I might learn to do the same.
Chef Tony’s class was for “serious amateurs.” He was delighted that none of us took offense at the term “amateur”—in French, after all, it just means “lover of.” We each received an apron, and many of us had bought brand new knives. For me it was an eight-inch Victorinox Fibrox chef’s knife, a Wusthof paring knife, and a pastry scraper. I was thrilled when the lady at the store asked if it was for home use, and that I could answer, “I’m going to cooking school!”
Watching Chef Tony felt like watching a cooking show in real life. He didn’t use measuring cups or timers. When faced with a decision like which part of the chicken bone to throw into the soup, he asked himself, What would Grandma do? We learned about mirepoix and bouquet garni, pretty French terms for the base note and seasonings of a broth. We practiced the roll cut on celery (successfully) and carrots (a little less successfully). We learned how big or small to cut things by asking, “What do I want in my mouth?”
We made a chicken broth and added salt in five-finger pinches. We made a salad by throwing together walnuts, watermelon, leaves, and quinoa in little plastic tubs and topping that with a vinaigrette made out of lemon, olive oil, and a sprinkling of fennel seeds. (In my enthusiasm for chopping things up, I accidentally minced the leaves of our salad.) We made an Azteca soup. We tasted a tiny piece of jalapeño to decide how much of it to add. We took the drumsticks out of the stock, unpeeled the skin, and tossed strips of chicken into the pot. We topped the soup with crumbled red tortilla chips, avocado, and cheese. We did not use a single measuring spoon. I sent my mom a picture of every dish I made in class, and she was thrilled. Hope you come back home soon so we can try all dishes you made, she texted.
The truth is, I’m still not exactly a great cook. Sometimes I attempt cooking class meals at home and end up with mildly (to wildly) disappointing dishes that I do not photograph. But I do send my mom pictures of the pumpkin cheesecake pie I bake for a friend’s birthday, or my replica of the salad she always makes, with a dressing made from soy sauce, vinegar, sesame oil, sugar, and, yes, Lao Gan Ma chili oil. Each time, she responds with delight. I don’t think she’ll mind my mistakes the next time I visit. After all, I’m learning how to cook with love, and that makes even a burnt steak—I hope—taste that much better.