I put on a chef’s apron and admitted my weakness right up front.
“I cook a lot. But I’m terrible at cutting and chopping things,” I said. “Knives sort of terrify me.”
Perhaps there was a small part of me that hoped I could get out of cutting and chopping duties. But I’d come to Reto’s Kitchen for a cooking class. And chef/owner Reto Biaggi was there to teach us some things.
By the end of the night, each and every one of us had had a hand in preparing our meal. And we all received instruction on how to properly use a knife.
But first, he went easy on us.
He greeted us cheerfully and invited us to wine, water or tea. There were black aprons and a tall white chef’s hat for each student. The main dish of the evening was paella - a traditional Spanish dish of rice, vegetables, sausage, chicken and shrimp. The ingredients are similar to jambalaya, but the flavors and texture of the rice are different. Biaggi’s laptop displayed a video of Spaniards cooking paella in a giant cast iron pot. It looked to be the size of a flying saucer, and the fire below it resembled a bonfire.
Our approach wouldn’t be quite that authentic, but we did use genuine paella rice and Spanish chorizo, which looks less like the Mexican version and more like an Italian salami.
But first, our appetizers. Baked mushrooms stuffed with rosemary oil and goat cheese and topped with panko bread crumbs. It was delicious and simple to put together. Just fill mushroom caps with goat cheese, sprinkle panko, then bake. Tuna tartare on crisp wonton wedges were also divine.
The cooking classes are usually small. The night I went, there were just six of us. Nellie Vinograd attended with friend Anna Rider, courtesy of a birthday gift from Vinograd’s brother. Emily Lawing-Roland and husband, Bradley Roland, received the class as an anniversary and Valentine’s Day gift from a friend. I attended with 1808 photographer, Elise Manahan, who was excited to take her first cooking class.
We began preparing dessert before starting the paella. Amanda Row of Reto’s said the chocolate volcano souffle was the simplest, but most impressive dessert you could make.
“The most bang for your buck,” she said.
It requires just five ingredients - butter, flour, sugar, eggs and chocolate. It’s also perfect for entertaining because it can be made ahead of time.
Then it was time to chop some stuff.
Using a knife properly is all about positioning and angles. Positioning your fingers, feet and torso. Ensuring that the knife is at the proper angle. And allowing your shoulders to move with the torso to keep the knife moving. Biaggi is like Mr. Miyagi with a knife. He guides you firmly, but patiently. Soon onions and peppers were sweating and crackling. Chicken was browned, sausage was sliced, and it was time to throw in the rice. We literally threw in the rice, because that’s how it’s done in Spain.
Our little class did a pretty good job. The paella was perfect, even though Biaggi would have preferred more crusty rice at the bottom of the pan. The souffles rose beautifully and were light and moist. And when the cold ice cream met the hot chocolatey, liquidey center - it tasted like magic. I even wanted a second helping of salad, made with fresh oranges, marcona almonds, tiny cheese wedges and an orange sriracha dressing.
Afterwards, Biaggi dines with the class. He makes it fun. He has a heavy French accent that’s delightfully melodic. His comments are occasionally sprinkled with familiar French words or phrases. Biaggi was Swiss born but spent most of his formative years in France. I may have paid more attention in school if all of my teachers had had such cheerful voices and charming French accents. He’s a caterer and personal chef, who believes it’s essential to pass on the knowledge and skills he has.
“It’s dangerous as a nation to not have a knowledge of cooking,” he said. “There’s a need for instruction.”
Like basic knife skills.
Biaggi began to host cooking classes at his business to share what he’s learned. He also offers cooking camps for kids in the summer.
He aims to keep things “super fun and light,” and he does.
If you do something incorrectly, he simply chides you, then encourages you to try again.
“I’m giving people the impression it can be a blast to be cooking in the kitchen,” he says.
And it is.
Even if you’re among strangers. When you sit down to eat a delicious meal that you prepared together, you’re no longer strangers.