Saturday, March 17, 2012


Today I took a cooking class. A fish and seafood class to be precise.  I learned how to cook five different dishes, including sautéed tilapia with citrus-mustard sauce and roasted pecans, oven roasted salmon with miso glaze, grilled mako with tamarind vinaigrette, nut-crusted mahi mahi with browned butter, and jamaican jerk shrimp with minted barbados flambé.

People who know me well would be a little surprised that I took the class.  I am famous for my pan-burned spaghetti sauce.  During football season, Son #2 suggested that we ask one of the other player's moms, who is a really good cook, to cater food in for us every night. (If I was rich, I so would have considered it).  I would much rather eat at a restaurant than cook. I am not, and probably never will be, the kind of gal that flames shrimp at my dining room table.

But my book club decided several months ago that we needed to take a cooking class. So while they were cooking away, I was thinking about how much Chef Dan knew about teaching, starting with the structure of the class. He started with an introduction, kind of a mini-lesson, then went to a workshop, where everyone was cooking, then ended with a wrap up.

Here are some other things Chef Dan knew about teaching:
  • Have a welcoming and supportive environment. The second I walked into the class, I was struck by the learning environment. It was clean and visually attractive. A cooking school employee greeted me at the door, and pointed to toward the aprons, and the registration table across the room.  There was fresh coffee waiting. Everything said, "We are glad you are here. We want you to have a good time."
  • Have clearly established rituals and routines.  Chef Dan was very clear about his rituals and routines. "Tell people when you are walking behind them. Put hot dishes in one place, dirty dishes in another, and sharp dirty things in yet another.  Use tasting spoons one time, then throw them out." He gave frequent reminders and retaught routines as needed. 
  • If you want good fish, go to an expert. Chef Dan does not buy his fish at the local grocery store. He goes to the natural grocers or to a meat market, or a wholesale fish dealer. Or in the case of teaching reading, an independent bookseller, who really knows kids' books and authors.
  • Let people use the real tools, but teach them to use them  properly. Chef Dan had very sharp knives (they actually kind of made me a little nervous). He spent ten minutes showing us how to carry a knife, how to hold the knife, how to hold on to what you were slicing, and then how to cut correctly (there is actually a whole class on knife skills, which, if I was going to become a cook, I would kind of like to take). I thought of how often we ask kids to read fake books, e.g. decodable texts, or "practice" skills in a workbook. 
  • Expose people to new tools. At the very beginning of the class, Chef Dan held up a fancy spatula. "This is a fish spatula," he said. "If you are going to cook fish, you need a fish spatula. They cost (Ok, so I forgot how much they cost, but he did tell us). He also told us about a place that was going out of business and selling them for 30% off. I was thinking about the connection between spatulas and books. My most important tool, as a teacher of reading, is great books, and lots of them. I not only need to tell kids about the books, however, I need to tell them where they can find them (one week, as a kind of after thought, I included the hours for the two libraries closest to my school, in a parent newsletter. I was really surprised that week as kid after kid after kid told me that they had been to the public library). 
  • Use a variety of sensory modalities. Chef Dan taught us several really cool tricks. One had to do with putting different fingers together, then poking the side of your hand to know whether the fish was done enough. Another had to do with watching for a plume of smoke to know the oil was hot enough. Still another had to do with the sound of the oil in the pan. There was pretty much something for everyone. 
  • Differentiate. After the introduction, Chef Dan asked who had already taken other classes and grouped us accordingly. My book club got oven roasted salmon with miso glaze, (which was very, very yummy), and which I will definitely be making at home. The people who had taken several classes set the shrimp on fire (I wonder if he knew that the fire department had visited my house on not one, but two occasions when I was cooking hamburgers). 
  • Approximation is fine. At the beginning of the class, Dan said asked how many people had ever undercooked fish. Everyone raised their hand. Then he asked how many people had ever overcooked fish and dried it out. Again, pretty much everyone raised their hand. He then told us that his goal was to narrow the margin of error, that unless we were going out and paying a lot of money, we didn't need to expect the fish to be perfect. Throughout the course, he made us laugh, again and again, at our need for precision. "Just throw a little in," he would say. "This isn't a pastry class. It doesn't have to be that precise."
  • Provide extra support/scaffolding as needed. At one point, Chef Dan was trying to show people how to hold onto something you were trying to chop. He had everyone hold up their hand and pretend they were holding an onion. I didn't do it correctly, so he handed me an orange, and told me to hold onto that. I still wasn't doing it right (I told you I was domestically challenged!), so he took my fingers and placed them on the orange the way that he wanted me to hold them. 
  • Let people practice, but provide support. Chef Dan gave everyone a dish they could accomplish, then he stepped away and said, "Go to work."Dan rotated from station to station, offering advice and lending help as needed.
  • Teach new skills as needed. Chef Dan stopped the whole class several times to make an announcement, or show us something he thought might be helpful. Once, for example, he showed us how to skin off of a fish. That wasn't a skill I needed right at that time, but I filed it away for future reference (probably after I take the knife class!) One man who had already taken the knife class tried it, pretty successfully, right away.
  • Celebrate your learner's accomplishments in small doses.  Our class made five different dishes. Chef Dan had the pacing down to a  science. Each dish finished at a different time. Every time someone finished, we would sit down for a few minutes and savor that dish, then get right back up and go back to work. 
Even though I don't like to cook, I had a really nice morning.  Chef Dan made me feel like I truly was a member of the fish cooking club, like I could easily make one of these dishes at home, and it would taste ok. I hope my fourth graders have that same feeling every day.


Anonymous said...

Wow. You took a lot of information from your class...and you might even be able to cook a fish dish! Thank you for some important reminders about learning. My favorite is having the established rules and routines. I often forget that my students don't know everything that I know about HOW to do certain tasks.

Dana said...

I'm now very hungry! I had to giggle at how your teaching brain took in the scene but I also found it very helpful to reflect upon. I wonder if Chef Dan knows that he does all these wonderful things?

Jama said...

Well said! You taught me a lot about cooking fish and writing. That was really interesting, too.

Linda B said...

This is just terrific, Carol. You made me want to take the class, you used asides for humor, and you connected it to teaching/reading. I can see you were not only focused on learning yourself, but how the class was handled as a whole, like yours. Thanks for a treat of reading!

Carol said...

We went to THE SEASONED CHEF at 999 Jasmine, I have never done anything like that, but I thought it was great. Think I could make any of the recipes at home and I really am a bad cook. If it wasn't so expensive ($90) I would love to do some of his other ones.