Newbie Cooks

The cooking class is held in a loft in an artists' complex about a mile north of downtown. When we walk in, I'm momentarily dazzled by the racks of colorful cookware lining the walls until I realize that everything is stacked in multiples, and brand new. It's all for sale - not for use in the class. Indeed, the space looks more like a shop than a kitchen; there's an oven and a refrigerator, but no proper stove. Just a couple of portable camping burners on a semi-circular wood-topped island. These burners are on, with food already cooking in them. Several cups of milk warm in a Le Creuset and a massive saute pan simmers gently with a colorless stew of leeks, onions, and bok choy. Steam issues from the mixture but no smell. The individual cooking stations I had imagined are nowhere to be seen, and I start to realize that the format here is more observation, less participation.

Clustered around the island, one couple per cutting board, are our classmates. We join them, smiling hello and taking an empty spot in the middle, directly across from the instructor, Tory. Tory is friendly but not particularly effusive. If not exactly on autopilot, any enthusiasm she once had for the gig seems as faded as the leeks. Her voice rarely rises above medium-low. Perhaps to belie her flavor-challenged personality however, Tory assures us that the goal tonight is fun. "Fun! Because if you're not enjoying yourself in the kitchen, you're not going to want to get in there and cook, right?" Right, we nod dutifully. As if reading our minds, Tory then adds that the wine promised in the syllabus will be available after we complete the knife skills portion of the class. In the meantime there's water and tea. Terence gets us some tea but gives me a look: Really? I give him one back: Apparently. I'm only thirty minutes out of a deep nap followed by a scalding hot shower (our plumbing is jacked). I'm cranky and hungry and starting to suspect Hipcooks is not as hip as we'd hoped.

Tory launches into a lecture on the importance of hygiene while I size up our peers. To our left is Hipster Cooks: she placid and wide-smiling, in a porkpie hat and Anthro ensemble; he a Warby Parker model, frowning obsessively over the contents of the Le Creuset which he's been assigned to stir with a figure-eight motion. To our right is Second Date Cooks: impossibly tall, exhaustingly earnest. They smile a lot but stand further apart than any of the other couples. Beyond them is Sporty Cooks: buff, sunny, giggly. They poke one another and whisper, though there doesn't seem much to whisper about - we haven't touched a single piece of food yet. I tune Tory back in; she's still on hygiene. She encourages us to wash our hands often, warning that it's a must if we accidentally touch our faces, our hair, our phones. She demonstrates the correct way to sample a bite of food: by tipping one's head back and dropping the bite in rather than putting hand to mouth. Tory urges us to always use a clean fingertip for tasting, and when she splays the digits of her right hand one by one to illustrate, I am reminded of a song from sixth grade chorus:

Gloves / on fingers and thumbs! / we know that these highly useful tools with never get numb!

I sip my tea, wondering how long knife skills will take and whether it would be inappropriate to nick a grape from the bowl in the middle of the island. I also wonder what the grapes could be for; tonight's menu is coq au vin, mussels, a two-bean salad and pots de creme. J'aime Paris is the name of the class, which Terence found online and booked as a gift to me, knowing coq au vin is one of my very favorite dishes. He's spent all week listening to me speculate on the likelihood of whether we'll make it properly, with rooster not chicken ("There's no way they're gonna have actual rooster. No way.") Tonight while getting dressed I asked him if he was ready for Cock In a Van class. I may have made the same joke four additional times.

We take turns introducing ourselves and telling "the last yummy thing" we ate. I look at Terence in a panic. Last yummy thing? "Korean BBQ," he whispers. Oh yeah. Hipster Cooks, Second Date Cooks, and Sporty Cooks all name impressive-sounding homemade dishes. Whatever. I help myself to a grape, popping it quickly into my wide open mouth, challenging the others with my eyes while I chew. What? I'm fucking starving, okay? There is no way Tory has four goddamn roosters in that fridge.

For knife skills, each couple is entrusted with a sharpened, 8-inch Wustof chef's knife to share. "Make sure you each get a turn practicing these techniques," she instructs. Unless at some point I blacked out due to hunger, I am fairly sure we still haven't laid hands on a single piece of food. Tory spends some time extolling the virtues of the blade, enlightening us as to the differences between German and Japanese cutlery. She passes around a honing steel, which we obediently glide our Wustofs against once, twice, three times. Terence, recently fed, is in a better mood than I am. Tory has tasked him with periodically stirring what she's now identified as the "sauce base" for the coq au vin. (That is, for the cornmeal-breaded chicken thighs already washed, cut, seasoned and breaded, and ready for the oven.) He laughs, self-deprecatory, at his ineptness. Tory laughs too, more enthused than she's been all night, telling Terence he's doing great. She maintains eye contact with him for longer than it took me to eat the grape. I test the knife's edge with a very clean fingertip.

We chop. We slice. We chiffonade. We do all of this on handfuls of grapes, cherry tomatoes, garlic, bok choy, herbs. To help us remember the correct, safe way to cut, Tory pretends her clenched fist is a bunny, jumping out of harm's way at the last second. "Hop, hop, slide. Hop, hop, slide." There is still no wine in sight. Each couple contributes its efforts to the prep bowls passed down the line. "Wait, is that the basil or the tarragon?" Amidst the low-level, sober chaos, Tory disappears and reappears with two massive platters covered in wet white kitchen towels. Mussels. Ten pounds of them. Alive.

It's finally time for wine.

For the next ten minutes, I clutch my chardonnay and watch in horror as my boyfriend, similarly horrified but gamely partaking in the exercise, prepares shellfish to be cooked. My horror, born of the realization that we are boiling animals alive, is too much on an empty stomach. I feign interest in the process, which involves snipping off the mussel's "beard" with scissors and cupping questionable specimens to makes sure they are in fact alive. Terence glances at me, stifling laughter, his eyes wide. What the fuck. He ventures a "This is so weird!" but none of the others seem remotely disturbed. Tory picks up on our reticence and we are forced to confess: neither of us has had mussels before.

The sauce for the chicken thickens and starts to give off an enticing aroma, but I'm stubbornly noting the lack of red wine, carrots - of any of the traditional coq au vin markers, in fact. Tory says something about it being a "mediterranean version." Ah. She dribbles mouthfuls of the broth from her large spoon onto our smaller ones, for tasting. "We'll mama bird it like this, so no dirty spoons go in the pot," she explains.

We pile the mussels into two Le Creusets, one of which catches on fire a few minutes into cooking. No harm no foul though; nothing gets burned. There are now multiple dishes being prepared at once, and multiple glasses of wine being drunk. Tory manages and directs. We watch. I lean against Terence, weak with hunger. He smuggles me another grape.

A salad is made. We're invited to put in "as much or as little" of its ingredients as we wish. The "as much or as little" directive has been a theme all night, actually. Rather than give us specific portions, Tory has her students guesstimate how much of each thing we "think will taste good" in each dish. Terence looks adorable in his apron, and the burgundy we've moved onto is actually quite good...

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We eat at a farm table, on benches Terence has some difficulty climbing in and out of. I slide over wordlessly to give him room, my head down over my plate like I'm in trouble. Which is what it feels like. I pick at the mussels, nibbling dry bread, privately impressed by the lack of Instagramming going on. No one seems to notice or care when we casually switch plates. We are clearly the odd ones out; the others are discussing recently made (or invented) recipes. Second Date Girl asks the group what everyone's specialty is. "Dr. Pepper ribs," say Hipster Cooks. "Waffle iron sandwiches," say Sporty Cooks. "Microwave burritos," I say. Terence snorts.

The chicken tastes like Shake and Bake. The sauce is barely more than watery, white-green mush. The pots de creme, however, are undeniably bomb. Someone, I think Hipster Cook Guy, suggested we add cayenne. And the flakes of salt we sprinkled on top are almost making me forget that there is no cock in my vin.

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Outside, Terence is energized, playful. He picks me up, howling, wrapping my legs around his waist and pinning me against a brick wall near the car. "Nooooo!" I laugh. I'm still hungry, we both know the class was a total bust, but the wine's loosened us up. I realize I left my wallet in the kitchen and we sprint back to get it. As we walk to the car, breathless and silly, we compare notes. "Where were the carrots??" Terence wants to know. I'm still hung up on Tory's cleanliness fetish. "It's cooking for Christ's sake. It's supposed to be messy."

We agree that the next class we do will be in our own kitchen, just the two of us, with as much wine as we want, following an actual recipe, start to finish. We just need a name.