Posted On: 09/01/2006
Just talking with Ann Repetto, you’d probably never believe that she won Sauce Magazine’s recent St. Louis’ Worst Cook contest. She purports at one time to have been able to pull off a vegetarian shepherd’s pie and knows enough about wine to know that Sauvignon Blanc can sometimes taste grassy.
Then she starts with the crazy talk. Like how she’s considering removing the kitchen from her house because she doesn’t use it. Or how she once cooked a potato in the microwave for 40 minutes.
She’d like to be a better cook, honest. “My friends say it’s a disconnect because I do love eating and reading about food,” she said. When Repetto was younger, she liked to cook, but somewhere along the way she lost her touch. “What little skills I had, I lost.”
That’s where we came in.
As the newly anointed worst cook in St. Louis, Repetto won a private cooking class with Marc Felix, chef and culinary director at Whole Foods Market’s Lifestyle Center. We billed it as a culinary makeover, something like the “Extreme Makeover” series, sans plastic surgery or bullhorn-wielding hosts.
The two met earlier this summer in the Brentwood grocery store’s spacious lifestyle center, where Felix and other instructors hold a variety of cooking classes. Felix, originally from the Savoie region of France, described his job thusly: “I’m here to demystify food, to entertain, to please … and to bring people and food together.”
That night, though, he had his work cut out for him. Repetto, recently retired from her job as a medical librarian where, she noted, she was able to eat an omelet every day in the facility’s cafeteria, hoped to learn to make one on her own. Felix immediately steered her toward a more practical solution, a frittata, an open-faced version of the classic egg dish.
A frittata is an eminently adaptable meal, easily served hot or at room temperature, for brunch or for a light dinner. And it is easier to make than an omelet as it requires no potentially aggravating flipping.
They began by walking through the produce aisles. Felix offered Repetto advice on choosing the best vegetables, normally a mundane task. Shopping with Felix was quite a bit more exciting, not only because he is attractive, charming and French, but also because directly before the shopping started, he uncorked a bottle of Cristalino, a Spanish sparkling wine.
I immediately began racking my brain to recall any of the French that Madame Larson attempted to teach me at Logan Fontenelle Junior High School in Bellevue, Neb. Alors, my brain, she was empty.
Repetto’s shopping basket, on the other hand, filled quite quickly. Attention, grocery store executives: If you could just issue every female shopper a debonair Frenchman and a glass of pink bubbly when she walked in the door, I’m sure your profits would go through the roof.
Felix urged Repetto to choose only the ingredients for her frittata that she liked. They were not following a recipe per se, but rather, he planned to teach her some techniques that she could then adapt to her own needs at home. “Create whatever you want,” he advised. “That’s the magic of cooking.”
He showed her how to choose the best-looking produce, encouraging her to feel and even smell the various vegetables before buying. Of course, at Whole Foods, all the produce is beautiful. I imagine the produce workers are like bouncers at those fancy nightclubs, unloading vegetables, keeping the less attractive peppers and zucchini firmly behind the velvet ropes.
On some points, however, he was not at all flexible. When she confessed to using pre-chopped bottled garlic at home, he sighed, “Ooh la la, we have a lot of work to do.” More sparkling wine, tout de suite!
Felix recommended Repetto only choose four or five ingredients to incorporate into the frittata, “otherwise, it’s distracting.” Repetto settled on asparagus, portabella mushrooms and chicken chorizo with a bit of Râclette cheese to be melted on the top. A simple salad of roasted tomatoes would accompany the frittata.
Anyone looking to really learn to cook has to be able to do more than just follow a recipe. Felix aimed to instill in his student a bit of foodie philosophy so she could become more thoughtful and relaxed as she cooks.
“Take time to develop a sense of appreciation for your ingredients,” he counseled, advising Repetto that before she begins cooking any dish, she needs to organize her mind and her work space. It helps to think like a chef and to coordinate mise en place, a French term that refers to the practice of organizing all your ingredients before you start out. If all your vegetables are chopped and laid out in an orderly fashion before you even begin, you’ll find the entire cooking process much more relaxing. Or as Felix put it, “The only way to succeed at the stove is if you’re not running around.”
The theme of relaxation continued with a quick demonstration of knife skills. Felix quickly reduced a few shallots to fine dice with almost military precision. Slightly daunted, Repetto took a try and quickly warmed up, especially once she got a bit of advice. “Relax your shoulder,” Felix instructed. “Keep your knife straight out, use it as an extension of your arm.” He also urged her to find a technique that was comfortable for her. Chefs use a precise technique because they must move very quickly and chop a large amount. At home, “you don’t have to imitate what you see
Felix said that beginning cooks often make a few common mistakes. “People cut everything far too small. You can’t taste it. ‘Oh, there’s onion in there?’ Give me my shallots. I want to taste them.” Also, they tend to lose focus, running around like the proverbial headless poulet. Say to yourself: “I’m in control. It’s my kitchen.”
Many Americans have culinary issues, and those issues don’t start in the kitchen. Americans in general, Felix said, tend to shop incorrectly. Instead of making one big trip to the market, we should make smaller trips more frequently. Buy only what you need, only what is fresh and in season. This philosophy extends to the dishes themselves. Your palate (and probably your waistline) will be happier with smaller portions made with really good ingredients than with huge helpings of mediocrity. Personally, I believe that too much of a good thing is just about right, but that’s just me.
Most beginning cooks aren’t lucky enough to have private cooking lessons but Felix suggested there are many good places around town where one can learn. Make sure they are participation classes, rather than demonstration only, so you can really get a feel for what you’re supposed to be doing. Watching a chef on TV can be entertaining, but “you can watch all the shows you want, but unless you’re in the kitchen, you’re not doing too much.”
Armed with her newfound confidence, and one more small glass of Cristalino, Repetto set out preparing her ingredients, blanching asparagus, sautéing the portabellas, choosing some basil to add at the end. “Fresh herbs, they are your friends,” Felix said.
After briefly sautéing some shallots, she tossed the prepared ingredients in a small frying pan and added some eggs beaten with soy milk. (Repetto leans toward lactose intolerance. Felix said you could easily use milk, half-and-half or cream.)
The eggs quickly set up and were finished off with a few strips of Râclette. Then it’s under the broiler for just a flash to melt the cheese. “Don’t overmelt the cheese. It’ll disappear,” Felix admonished. Because she followed another of Felix’s maxims, clean everything as you go, she had a virtually spotless work space and could sit down to enjoy a delightful meal.
The measure of success of any educational endeavor is how well the student can apply the lessons. I caught up with Repetto a few weeks after her culinary makeover to see if she’d been able to translate any of Felix’s teachings into her own routine.
She reported that while she might not be ready for rack of lamb or filet béarnaise, she has definitely taken steps toward a more enjoyable culinary experience, starting with an equipment upgrade. “I bought a new nonstick pan like a little wok. It’s of much higher quality than I’m used to and it makes a big difference.”
Another easily applicable lesson for Repetto has been the use of high-quality ingredients. “The most astounding thing,” she noted, “is the difference between dried and fresh herbs. I’m tempted just to throw out all the dried ones,” adding that she has also become more motivated to incorporate unfamiliar vegetables into her evening meals.
“I learned a lot,” she said, “but I still need to learn more.” Knife skills are difficult for even the most accomplished home cook and require a great deal of practice. But it’s a skill she’s willing to work on.
And how about those plans to remove the kitchen from her house? “Actually,” she said, “I just saw some fabric the other day, and I thought, ‘That would make great curtains for my kitchen.’”
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