We were very excited to be invited to a cooking course at L’atelier des Chefs: a central London cooking school that I have heard of many times and wanted to visit for a while. I was asked to choose any course, which in itself was very tough. There is such a wide variety, from 30 minute ‘cook eat and run’ courses that you can do in your lunch break, longer courses at 60, 90 minute and 2 hours, and finally four hour master classes for more detailed techniques such as bread making. There are courses in baking, sushi, chocolate, pastry, classic French and brunch; endless dishes that I would have loved to learn how to make.
Eventually, after some advice from the school, we settled on the fish and knife skills course. We wanted to do something that would teach us skills that you just can’t learn in a book or from a video online, and thought learning to prepare and cook fish was perfect.
The school itself has two locations; Oxford Circus and the one we went to in St Paul’s. The interior is a mixture of converted warehouse and country kitchen and feels open and spacious, but is still quite homely. The shop has some useful kitchen equipment and gadgets for sale, which are fun to browse before and after your course. The kitchen was at the back surrounded by a glass wall, so you could see what was going on as the chefs prepared for our class.
The class itself was small with only three students. This suited us very well and we got a lot more attention throughout the 2 hours from our chef, Neil, than perhaps we would have done with a larger class. Neil was very relaxed and friendly, and being from Lyme Bay, was obviously very passionate and knowledgeable about fish. He said that this was a course he had devised, combining knife skills and care with fish preparation and cooking.
We began by learning how to sharpen knives, and were prompted to clean and sharpen our knives every 5 minutes. With our newly sharpened knives, we started to prepare the ingredients for the fish that we would be cooking later: a marinade for the squid, a sweet chilli sauce dip and ginger, garlic and shallots for our baked fish parcels. At this point we started to learn some really great tips. My personal favourite: you can peel ginger with a teaspoon. Brilliant. This was followed closely by creating a garlic puree by halving a garlic clove lengthways, sprinkling it with sea salt then using the flat of the knife to grind it into a paste. You can use this for marinades or for sauces.
While we used different techniques to chop and slice garlic, ginger, shallots, herbs and chillies, Neil regaled us with stories from restaurants he had worked in, both Michelin standard and otherwise, and the contrast between fine dining and rustic cooking. Neil definitely preferred the rustic approach, and this gave the whole class a relaxed feel, without the feeling that everything had to be precise. I think this gave us more confidence and didn’t put us off the idea of trying the techniques ourselves.
Once all the marinades and ingredients had been prepared, we moved on to the fish. Neil proceeded to show us how to clean and prepare a squid by removing the cartilage and beak before slicing it into chunks for the marinade.
The marinade consisted of lots of olive oil, chunks of garlic, chilli and a big handful of black pepper.
Covered in ink, I washed up before tackling the lemon sole, which we had to fillet with a long, flexible (and very sharp) knife. Once we had been shown where to cut and the technique for separating the fish from the bones, it was surprisingly easy. Rather than watching us the whole time, Neil would show us the technique then let us get on with it, coming back every now and then to check we weren’t completely messing it up. This really helped to give us more confidence, and rather than asking constantly if we were doing it right, we soldiered on even if we made little mistakes along the way. We removed the skin and sliced the fish into goujons, which D was then tasked with bread crumbing.
Again, we learnt a great technique. Use one ‘dry’ hand to cover the fish in flour, and one ‘wet’ hand to dip it in egg, before returning to the ‘dry’ hand to coat it in breadcrumbs. Neil explained that one of their suppliers was Yutaka, a Japanese company, so they were awash with panko breadcrumbs. I use panko breadcrumbs all the time, they are larger and give a crispier finish than normal breadcrumbs. The goujons were now ready for deep frying later on.
We had saved the most complicated fish for last: the sea bream. It was a bit harder to fillet, but Neil continued to show us good methods for reducing the amount of wastage and get as much flesh as possible. Finally, we had to pin bone the fillets, trim and slice them for the foil parcels which we filled with slices of ginger, garlic, shallots, chilli and a good glug of soya sauce.
Whilst keeping one eye on our filleting and pin boning, Neil continued to give us lots of great tips for choosing and buying fish. He was also baking bread to go with our meal which he told us about with great enthusiasm assured us would be fantastic. It made the whole kitchen smell incredible and helped to drown out some of the fishiness which by that point had started emanating from the kitchen and our hands! It was now time to cook everything that we had prepared, which only took about 10 minutes in total and showed that simplicity is best when using such fresh, delicious ingredients. The parcels went in the oven for about 8 minutes.
In the meantime, we fried off the goujons for a couple of minutes on each side in the deep fryer until golden and crispy. At the same time, D fried the squid for a minute on a smoking hot griddle pan. Neil had told us earlier that when dry frying black pepper, you can treat it as a spice and use a lot more. It becomes very fragrant and seems to lose some of its spiciness. In a sauce, he would use a pinch, but for the squid, a whole handful of ground black pepper went in.
We had also used the pureed garlic, finely chopped chilli, ginger and coriander stalks to make a sweet chilli sauce to go with the squid. You add the same amount of vinegar (Neil used Japanese rice vinegar I think) as sugar, and bring to a boil until the sauce thickens. It was served in a small dish, topped with a handful of fresh coriander, which then wilted into the sauce.
Everything was served up for the three of us at one end of the long dining table in the shop, with a lovely glass of white wine. Although all the marinades and ingredients were along the same lines; namely garlic, ginger, chilli and coriander, the variety of preparation and cooking techniques meant that every element had a unique flavour which complemented everything else.
The goujons were wonderful and crispy, the fish parcels succulent and fragrant, and the squid was smoky and tender. And the bread…it definitely did not disappoint!
While we were eating we talked about the class and the school with our fellow student, who was originally from New York. She explained that before she came to the UK ten years previous, she didn’t cook at home very much at all because of the great value food you could find at restaurants in New York. She had been to quite a few classes at L’atelier des Chefs, including the short lunch time ones as she worked around the corner. I thought these sounded like a great idea, and really encourage people to cook a full, delicious and healthy meal even if they don’t have much time. They are affordable at £15 per person, and with a meal at the end of it, are a great alternative to a normal lunch break.
During our meal the chefs and staff were setting up for a sushi class which was being filmed for a Japanese TV channel. Neil had run us through the menu which sounded great. I decided that when (and it is a matter of when, not if) I go for another course here; it would be the sushi one! Neil managed to find a few minutes to chat to us about the food, as did some of the other members of staff.
This class is 2 hours long and costs £72 per person. Have a look at their other courses on their website www.atelierdeschefs.co.uk . 30 minute courses are only £15, 60 minutes £36 and 90 minutes £54. There really is something for everyone.