One of the things I was most excited about when we moved to Dublin was doing my professional cookery course at Cooks Academy on South William Street in the centre of Dublin. I did my research before enroling on the course: reading other peoples’ reviews and going to see a few different cooking schools in and around Dublin before deciding on Cooks Academy. What I liked about Cooks is that they had a brilliant kitchen space and demonstration space which was well lit and airy, located right in the centre of town. When I went to visit, the staff were extremely friendly and they had an impressive array of professional chefs that would come in to teach. For me it was the right mix of obtaining my cooking objectives in a fun and informal environment where everybody was mad about food. At the time I felt like some of the other cookery schools would have been more suitable had I of wanted to train to be a professional chef and started working in a high end Dublin kitchen.
Each day at Cooks was structured in a similar way so it didn’t take us long to get into the swing of things. We would start the day at around 9am with a demonstration of what we were going to make in the morning and then we would go off and make it. During the demos our tutors would give us a lot of extra info and we took the opportunity to ask any questions we wanted and they were all extremely knowledgeable. Often we would have two demonstrations in one morning, for instance we might make a sweet pastry first thing and then it would have time to chill and then they would show us another demonstration of something we would make for our lunch, such as a chicken chasseur.
There were around 25 of us on the course and sometimes we would work in pairs if we were making something very large like a paella but most of the time we worked solo so there was no one to blame but ourselves if it went wrong! After each dish that we made we would have to present it to our tutor and get marked. I think there were three marks, one for the taste, one for how well it was cooked and the third for presentation. I am mad about presentation and I would get very annoyed if I got below a 4/5!
Usually we would make savory dishes in the morning and have them for lunch and sweet dishes such as deserts, cakes or pastry in the afternoon and then we would take home any leftovers, this let J to tell me after the first week that I was “killing him with desserts” as each day I would bring back another batch of eclairs, carrot cake, lemon meringe pie, pear tart etc. etc.
In charge of our journey into cooking perfection was Brendan and Nicola. Brendan has worked at The Waldorf Astoria (New York) and was the Chef-Instructor and Academic Department Director at The Art Institute of New York City and Nicola has worked at The Ledbury (Notting Hill, London) and Hugo’s (Bondi Beach, Sydney). Both Brendan and Nicola were outstanding tutors as well as being a pleasure to spend time with. They had so much knowledge that they shared with us and you could tell how passionate they were about food and teaching. Brendan also threw in a few good tales from history about where a dish originally came from which was always entertaining. Natasha was our dedicated pastry chef and it was always a pleasure watching her demonstrations as pastry and desserts are so technical and it was amazing to see the ease at which she made even the hardest of dishes. Natasha was a very commanding and engaging tutor and she liked to keep the kitchen running like clockwork! Apart from our main tutors we also had additional staff to help in the kitchen while we were cooking in case we forgot how to do something or couldn’t find something, or to save our dish if it went terribly wrong, which happened a few times!
The days were very intense and quite exhausting, we would be on our feet most of the day and always under time pressure. But there was tea and coffee on tap and we never went hungry! We had a host of guest chefs come in to teach while I was there. We had Stephen Gibson from Pichet, who taught us how to make three of the dishes that were currently on the menu at his restaurant. He was great and he taught my favourite dish which was mackerel fillet wrapped in brick pastry topped with horseradish and chives, served with pickled cucumber, beetroot and avocado puree.
James Burke from Vegetarian restaurant Cornucopia came in to teach us some celiac appropriate desserts and other vegan dishes. Surprisingly I actually preferred his vegan panna cotta to the normal version. Liam Campbell came in to speak at our wine evening where we were allowed to invite a friend to come to Cooks and hear his ‘How to pair wine with food’ lecture. We spent the whole of that afternoon making the most amazing canapes for our guest, and I may be biast but I think my partner’s and mine were AMAZING, we made parmesan shortbread topped with quince jelly and parsley pesto and I channelled my inner OCD to arrange them on the huge display plate. The wine talk was very informative and I even got to spit into a spittoon. I particularly liked the two Rieslings, one of which was from Alsace and we had another Alcasian wine so J was very happy! One of the best guest lecturers was the Butcher, he brought in an entire half of a large pig and butchered it in front of us to show is the different cuts and discussed the best way to cook them.
My highlights of the course were making loads and loads of pastry so that now I feel confident working with all sorts of different types and the dos and don’ts that go with them. I loved trying to make the sauces as they were very challenging, especially the béarnaise sauce and the beurre blanc which always split on me! Choux pastry was easier than I expected and I loved the texture, I will be making that again!
The knife skills we learnt were fantastic as now everything is much quicker to prepare. I loved making breads as there is something so special about bread making! Learning how to roll sushi was also a treat as I love to eat it so now I can make it any way I want. But one of the most fun things to do was making pasta from scratch, I loved rolling it out and making whatever filling I wanted to put inside it. They tasted so much better than shop bought!!!
On our last two days we had a series of exams, firstly we had a written exam which involved coming up with various menus and answering lots of questions about all sorts of cooking/baking/hygiene related things. Then we had a ‘recognition test’ when there was herbs, spices, mushrooms layed out and we had to name them all. Naming all 6 different types of mushroom was a real challenge! On the last day we had to serve a three course menu as if we were in a restaurant. We were told what we had to make but we could add our own additions and garnishes. This then had to be served between 12.30 – 2pm and would be marked by 2 of our tutors for fairness.
My menu was:
Starter: Chicken Ballantine stuffed with a pistachio and cashew and onion stuffing (we had to make the Ballantine but we could choose the stuffing as long as we made it on the day). I served it on a bed of julienne carrots blanched and glazed with butter as well as a tomato concasse topped with carrot pure and a cauliflower puree. The chicken leg we had to de-bone ourselves so that we could stuff and wrap it.
Main Course: Pan fried fillet of sea bass on a bed of spinach and thyme infused rostis served with a beurre blanc sauce. Before we could prepare our main we had to fillet our fish, a skill we had practiced many times during the course.
Dessert: Individual Lemon Meringue Pie, served with lime ice cream and a raspberry coulis. I made the ice-cream and coulis from scratch the day before so they were ready to garnish my desert with. I finished off the desert with some fresh kiwi and raspberry.
The exam day was totally exhausting and the pressure was intense to get everything made on time and cooked perfectly. Apart from some minor issues with my beurre blanc splitting and my lemon curd taking longer than expected to thicken, it all went very well and I was totally knackered at the end, as was everybody. Our final marks were added to our exam marks and our daily marks we gained throughout the course and that determined our final certificate level. We had a formal graduation with Nicola and Nicole presenting us with our certificates and having our picture taken. As a a surprise to all of us Nicola announced that the person with the highest marks overall would be getting a prize and that it was neck and neck for two people as of the morning of the exam, but the exam itself threw it in one person’s favour and that person was……. ME!!!!!! I was SO HAPPY! It made striving to do everything as best I could really worth it and it made all the time I spent researching presentation and garnishes well worth it! I was presented with the new Ottelengi cookery book which all the tutors wrote a little message in which is a wonderful keepsake from the course!
Cooks Academy do day and evening courses as well as long term professional cookery courses. I hope to go back and do a short course with them before I leave Dublin!