There are a fair amount of things I’m decent at — cooking is not one of them. In fact, I’d even dare to say that my complete and utter ineptitude in the kitchen has become an endearing characteristic of mine, an opportunity for people to shake their heads at my culinary attempts, questions and blank stares with a pitying, “Oh, Dani.”
But that didn’t deter Clovis’ Institute of Technology from inviting me to partake in the campus’ first hobby cooking class held on Friday, Aug. 26. Simply interviewing its culinary program’s faculty and staff wouldn’t be enough, they said. I needed to experience it for myself, they said. I’d do great and have fun, they said.
Well, turns out, what they said was mostly right.
The vocational school has established itself as a visible force in the Fresno-Clovis communities, earning recognition as locals’ favorite trade or technical school in this year’s The Fresno Bee’s People’s Choice Awards. And as IOT’s flagship program, it’s not unusual to come across its culinary program students participating at various events throughout the year.
One of the questions they frequently hear: Do you offer cooking classes to the public?
“We’d tell them we don’t and want to start,” said Chef Kevin Arnett, IOT’s culinary program director. “And we’re finally at that point where we can, so we’ve decided to just do it.”
The list of scheduled hobby cooking classes dip into a range of cuisines and styles — some savory, some sweet — and just like the food, are geared toward a wide variety of participants. Apparently, total novice somehow falls into the mix.
I’ll admit, I’m a coward — especially when it comes to engaging in things that are far out of my comfort zone. So, instead of facing my impending doom as a woman, I begged friend and The Clovis Independent editor, Farin Montañez, to tag along. My selling point: we’re making pizza.
Each of the program’s educators have signed up to teach a hobby cooking class that falls within their area of expertise, with Argentinian-born chef Christian Romeo jumping into the role as teacher for the first (kind of test-run) course on making pie.
It started off simple enough. IOT students, staff and friends gathered around the campus’ dining area to meet Romeo, as well as get a brief overview of what to expect for the next three or so hours. There would be directions and demonstrations on how to assemble the two different types of dough and three types of sauces — but the number of pizzas and their toppings were choices left up to us.
Grabbing one of the provided aprons, we were then given a brief tour of the three kitchens we’d be working in. The industrial-sized rooms looked official and clean, and to be frank, the assortment of equipment and state-of-the-art wizardry happening in there were outside of my knowledge base.
After eyeballing the selection of fresh fruits, veggies and meats at our disposal (which were not pre-cut, diced and sliced, I might add), Romeo took his place at a small demonstration table at the head of the room. Things were about to get serious.
Romeo has an easy way about him, making the complex movements of his hands as he shaped and rolled the dough into a perfectly elastic ball seem almost doable. He even had other brave souls in the class mold and construct their own alongside him, proving how easy the task really is.
And it was — or so we thought.
See, Farin and I are diligent note-takers (comes with the trade), and we followed her sketched out diagram of how to properly compile the soft-dough styled ingredients of salt, sugar, yeast, olive oil, honey and water into the mixing bowl to a T. Our ball looked and felt great, and we were confident when we went to place our Saran wrap-covered bowl into the proofer box that we had aced this part of the class.
The next steps were more lax as we got to sample the fresh, spicy and buttery pizza sauces Romeo had whipped up for us to spread over our crusts. That was also around the time when we were able to fully peruse the table of toppings, and once selected, begin chopping the items we wanted to adorn our completed pizzas.
Full disclosure: I left the scary vegetables for Farin to handle because, fingers.
And then it was time to see how our dough had fared. The first dough we were given was gorgeous. Like, fluffy, risen, compliment-worthy gorgeous. Still, amidst the praise from our kind classmates, Farin and I grew suspicious — the initials on the wrap were slightly off.
Sure enough, another couple realized the mishap (yes, that was their beautiful masterpiece in our work station; not ours) and Farin and I’s carefully crafted dough hadn’t changed in the proofer box. At all.
Chef Arnett mentioned there would be a stock of already prepared dough on hand for those who weren’t comfortable attempting their own, and sadly, we were the only participants who needed one. The slight embarrassment wore off quickly, however, as we rolled out our doughs and decorated the pies to our personal specifications.
Guests were directed back into the building’s dining area to try the demonstration pizzas Romeo had already baked, allowing us to mingle with our fellow chefs, eat and wait for our own creations to finish baking. Once ready, we were encouraged to pop open a bottle of wine or any refreshments that participants brought with them to enjoy alongside their pizza, or pack it up in a to-go box. Class dismissed.
“I think that in today’s society, we work so hard and have isolated ourselves into a cocoon of people and we stay in that group,” Arnett said. “This is a great chance to get out and meet other people, be out of your comfort zone, and honestly, it’s meant for you to have fun.”
Dough difficulties aside, IOT’s hobby cooking class wasn’t wrong. After taking that first bite into my pineapple, pepperoni and veggie-infused pizza, I guess I can cook — and learning (and failing) along the way was fun, too.
Hobby Cooking Classes
▪ Saturday, Sept. 24, 9 a.m.-1 p.m.: macaroons, buttercream and cupcake decorating
▪ Friday, Oct. 14, 5-9 p.m.: Italian cuisine (handmade pasta and sauces)
▪ Friday, Nov. 11, 5-9 p.m.: romantic meals for two
▪ Saturday, Nov. 12, 9 a.m.-1 p.m.: yeast breads
▪ Saturday, Dec. 10, 9 a.m.-1 p.m.: cream puffs and eclairs
▪ January 2017: Spanish tapas
▪ February 2017: classical French cuisine
▪ February 2017: modeling chocolate, marzipan and pastillage
▪ March 2017: Mediterranean cuisine
Class prices range from $35 per person to special classes for couples at $100 per couple. Contact Chef Kevin Arnett at (559) 392-8769 for more information or go to IOT’s Facebook page to sign up for classes.