By Danielle Charbonneau
There is a comical meme out there that captures my recent culinary spirit well. A few small pieces of toast are cut into dainty triangles and artistically arranged into modern geometric structures on a clean white plate. Three delicate paint strokes of peanut butter adorn the side of the plate, and a few carefully constructed spheres of raspberry jelly dot the empty space making the plate look like a contemporary, abstract canvas. The dish, which I would fancifully call a “deconstructed peanut butter and jelly” looks like a culinary masterpiece fit for a fine-dining establishment. The meme reads: “Me after watching 15 minutes of ‘Masterchef.’”
I laughed out loud the second I saw the picture in my message stream. My boyfriend (well aware of my recent addiction to watching “Top Chef,” “Masterchef” and “Chopped”), sent it to me. He too has been a little obsessed lately with reality cooking shows. We love the pace — the energy and creativity packed into an hour — the mystery box challenges and strange ingredients — the imaginative dishes and judge’s harsh critiques. We chime in with our own critical comments as if we were established New York Times food critics. Though inspired, neither of us really know how to cook. We are left living vicariously through those masterful chefs on television.
It wasn’t until recently that we decided to take our newfound interest in cooking to the next level. We scheduled a class at Sur la Table — a cooking store in Mizner Park that has a full teaching kitchen with a packed schedule of classes. There’s savory classes, such as: “Thai Street Food,” “Secrets of Paella,” “Weeknight Dinners,” “Perfect French Crepes,” “Steakhouse-Style Burgers” and “Spanish Tapas.” Then there’s the sweet, such as “No-Churn Ice Cream” and “Bakeshop Fundamentals.” There’s classes for teens, children, wine lovers and a ladies night out.
We chose “Thai Street Food” because A) I love Thai food; and B) the one time I attempted to cook a Thai-style curry, I failed miserably, leaving a gigantic pot of pasty, spicy, inedible gunk. To my credit, I tried hard. I added a little of this, a little of that, more kick, a splash of that, and, before I knew it, had concocted something that could feed a family of ten (if only it was edible). At Sur la Table, under the professional instruction of Chef Jerimiah Liburidi, I figured I could have a bit more success.
We attended class at 7pm on a Friday night. Upon entering we put on two red aprons and name tags, then claimed two of the ten cooking stations, which were set up with stove burners, cutting boards and utensils around a large kitchen island. At Sur la Table, you cook in groups of four, so we were paired with one other couple. The ingredients were each pre-measured and delivered as-needed by Liburidi’s friendly assistant. Liburidi cooks up front, with a huge mirror overhead so all his students can see his crafty skill.
Liburidi made the class fun — charismatically teaching us cutting techniques, cookery and food knowledge, while sharing stories about his two decades in the restaurant industry as a professional chef. In his time in kitchens, he worked in restaurants owned by Angela Hartnett, Gordon Ramsay, Daniel Boulud, Michela Larson and Roy Yamaguchi. He started working in small kitchens doing the grunt work (a step he said is critical for aspiring chefs) before attending Florida Culinary Institute in 2001 and moving up into the fine-dining leagues. He was born in Incheon South Korea and raised as an “army brat” for the first 16 years of his life, during which time he was exposed to a wealth of international cuisines.
Chef Liburidi guided us through the various steps of preparing three dishes: a spicy green papaya salad, a chicken satay with spicy peanut sauce and a traditional pad Thai. Some of the ingredients were exotic — dehydrated shrimp, fish sauce, sweet preserved radish — while others were commonplace — roasted peanuts, green onions, lime. Somehow they all came together to create bold, invigorating flavors. The three dishes we made were the best (and probably most authentic) Thai food I have ever eaten in South Florida.
The green papaya salad, which I had expected to be somewhat boring or bland, was fantastic — sweet, spicy and refreshing. The julienned green papaya, green beans, cherry tomatoes and brown sugar gave it freshness, while some Thai chilies and minced garlic packed a serious punch. The secret to the chicken satay was thinly slicing the chicken and coating it in a coconut curry sauce before weaving it onto skewers and charring it on a hot grill. We made a homemade peanut sauce with coconut milk, ginger, garlic, peanuts, fish sauce and Thai tamarind concentrate for dipping. The pad Thai was scrumptious — with wok-seared tofu, bean sprouts and scrambled egg tossed in a homemade sauce with soy sauce, white vinegar, fish sauce, Thai tamarind concentrate, sriracha, brown sugar and garlic powder.
Throughout the process, I learned to use some new tools, including a mortar and pestle (to grind down garlic with dried shrimp and Thai chilies), a sharp mandolin (to julienne the green papaya), and my personal favorite, an awesome little garlic peeler (simply a rubber tube in which you roll garlic gloves to remove their skin). By the time the class was over, I was ready to spend my month’s paycheck on gadgets from the Sur la Table store (which I’m sure is the point).
I also learned some interesting food knowledge. Did you know that the reason you use different types of oil for different recipes is because their smoke temperatures are different? For high temperature cooking situations (such as in a wok or cast iron skillet) you want an oil with a high smoke point, such as Canola (with a smoke point of 400 degrees Fahrenheit), not an extra virgin olive oil (with a much lower smoke point of 350). Chef Liburidi recommends grapeseed oil because it is completely tasteless and has a smoke point of 420 degrees Fahrenheit.
Did you know that the reason a wok is curved is so that you can move food up onto the sides in order to let the oil re-heat in the bottom of the wok? This way, you are always moving your ingredients into extra-hot oil, not oil that has been cooled by the ingredients. Did you know never to rinse chicken? The water, Chef Liburidi said, not only contaminates your sink, but also coats the chicken in minerals and sulphates that affect the taste and cook of the chicken. These were just a few food knowledge gems I learned while cooking at Sur la Table.
While I can’t say I’m ready to go compete on “Masterchef,” I can say I now feel completely capable of cooking a few Thai dishes at home. My boyfriend might disagree, but we shall see. I look forward to going back to Sur la Table again to expand my repertoire.
Sur la Table is located at 438 Plaza Real in Mizner Park in Boca Raton. The class schedule is online at surlatable.com. Single classes average between $25 and $95 and include all ingredients, instruction and large portions of each dish. Sur la Table also has virtual cooking classes online. For more information call 561-953-7638.