Belfast Cookery School: Joris Minne puts culinary skills to the test under tutelage of top chef
In an almost poacher turned gamekeeper switch, it's time to ditch the pen and pick up a very sharp knife for a cookery school lesson
Review my own cooking? I don't need a full page to tell you I'm a hopeless cook. I have a couple of set pieces for family dinners, a firm grasp of the microwave functions and a sensitive if formal approach to setting the table; but my culinary talents are ultimately narrow, limited and unimpressive. The adviser on the other hand is an accomplished cook which makes domestic meal preparations all the more stressful for me.
If you, like me, lack confidence in the kitchen, help is at hand. There are two top schools in Belfast: James Street run by chef patron Niall McKenna and Andy Rea's Belfast Cookery School. Earlier this week I enrolled at the latter for a brunch lesson and to learn how to make Jerusalem Eggs, or Shakshuka as they are known among the beards and fixies.
Chef Ian Hunter is the master of his realm, a purpose-built set of 16 kitchen tops and hobs and a high altar at which Ian performs his magic. Watch carefully, because you will be required to do what he just demonstrated.
The school is perched two floors above Castle Street's busy shops, a couple of doors down from the new Primark entrance. You feel you're at the heart of the city, just a flicked fag butt from the cordon. For this course which kicks off at 11am, students are a mixed bunch of men and women, couples, families and people in for a bit of bonding. The mood is giddy and glasses of prosecco and nibbles (substantial: smoked salmon and croissants) are distributed as we gird our loins for the class to begin.
After a few minutes Ian Hunter introduces himself and the running order, and we're off. The dish is an ancient staple, he says, already finely chopping shallots. It is a very common breakfast in north east Africa and the Middle East, but Ian says he believes today's rendition is based on its final and most popular interpretation. (There will be chorizo in this version, however, and while I'm not convinced this would be acceptable to Muslims and Jews, I can see why he adds the porky paprika morsels, but more on this in a minute.)
He explains the use of shallots over onions (less water, more intense flavour), and shows us how to do a chiffonade, the French term for finely chopping things, without causing ourselves injury. Ian's little cheffy tricks are very compelling and I'm trying to write these down as quickly as possible as I'm conscious we will soon be repeating this as best we can. His next tip is to bin the garlic crusher. Instead, he advocates the use of the fine grater as the grated garlic clove will be paste-like, easier to use and less wasteful (have you seen all that garlic fibre you lose in the crusher?).
We go through the ingredients list which includes peppers, spices, sugar, tinned tomatoes and much more besides, we learn how to properly cook these in the pan using Broighter Gold rapeseed oil which he swears is not only better to cook with thanks to its higher flash point but so good for you that you really ought to be drinking it by the pint. I'm joking, of course, but so convinced was I by his belief in the health benefits of rapeseed oil, I went out and bought some on the way home.
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All the while, little sips of prosecco are being taken around the group before eventually we are guided to our work stations. Written instructions, semi-prepped ingredients (just the shallots, chorizo and peppers to chop), aprons and sharp knives are all beautifully laid out and ready. And as we all lower the heads in concentration, a little army of helpers appears to take away the detritus.
Cooking like this is brilliantly rewarding and not too difficult. There's just enough challenge in it to make it interesting and then you have the ultimate satisfaction of eating it. Any left overs are neatly stored in Tupperware like containers for you to bring home.
It's the fun in the room and the jovial competitiveness which never gets too serious which makes this such a wonderful experience.
I fully get why firms and organisations use these cookery schools for team bonding. In fact, I will be booking 14 of us in very soon. Give the gift of cooking this Christmas: vouchers start at £5.
Classes from £30 per person.
Also check out:
Belfast Cookery School
53-54 Castle Street, Belfast
Tel: 028 9023 4722