My first master class was with Chuck Mangione, jazz composer and flugelhorn player par excellence. He came to my school, sat down with a group of student musicians, and attempted to speak to us about music, as a profession, and as a way of life. When it came time for the Q&A portion, one of the participants asked him, “Why the hat?” Chuck always wore a hat. It was his signature, his trademark, his brand.
His answer, in those days of personal dignity and privacy, was, “Next question,” which was his polite way of saying, “Don’t be a dick.”
I don’t remember much else from that master class, just Chuck, the hat, the question, and “Don’t be a dick.”
Since then, I’ve participated in many other master classes (mostly from musicians), and each time I strove to get as much as I could from the experience. It’s a rare enough event to be able to sit down with a master artist or craftsman and have a conversation. After that first time, I never wanted to waste the opportunity again.
So, last Sunday, when I had the opportunity to learn from Bruce Naftaly, acclaimed master chef and proprietor of Le Gourmand (formerly a restaurant and now a cooking school), I was determined to learn as much as I could… and not to be a dick.
On almost every weekend, Bruce gives a master class, tucking up to ten
sardines students into the smallish kitchen at Pacific Crest School and cooking for them a four- or five-course meal, from scratch, all in real-time. Bruce is an unassuming guy–bearded, balding, grizzled–with an impish smile, a bright eye, and an easy, collegial manner. Wearing a Pacific Crest School apron over a short-sleeved shirt and chinos, he greeted the eight of us (I have no idea how he gets ten people into the kitchen.) and proceeded to cook us a four-course meal.
One thing I’ve learned in taking master classes is to take copious notes, so with my Moleskine journal on my knee, I wrote down every ingredient, every procedure, but more importantly, every observation Bruce offered us. It’s those “off topic” comments, those astuces as the French call them, that are often the nuggets of golden wisdom, and I was eager to learn them.
The other thing I’ve learned is not to get caught up in the performance or, in this case, the recipes. Again, it’s like the astuces. It’s not the chef’s recipes, per se, that educate, but the techniques he employs and his approach to the ingredients, the process, and the result.
So I spent time observing how Bruce moved around the kitchen, cramped and cluttered as it was. How does he handle his knives? How does he deal with hot surfaces? How much attention does he pay to the reductions, simmering away on the stove? What spices does he choose and why?
It was a three-hour master class during which Bruce prepared and served:
- Two-pumpkin soup
- Poached filet of sole with duxelles stuffing and matsutake mushroom sauce
- Rosemary-smoked pork loin with wild mushrooms and fig butter, en papillote
- Quince and crabapple sorbet
Hopefully, I took enough notes to recreate these dishes on my own, but the real lessons I learned were about handling sauces, choosing spices, and having respect for your ingredients. Only once during the evening did Bruce speak of how long something should cook, showing us instead of how to tell when it was done. He measured few things, mostly judging by eye and heft. He did not fuss over anything, preferring to leave pots simmering along undisturbed. His actions had an economy of movement honed by four decades in the business. And that, in my opinion, is the real point of a master class: to get a glimpse into the mind of the master, and see the lessons that only experience can teach.
I’ve already tried my hand at a simple stock reduction, and learned much in trying Bruce’s techniques at home. I will undoubtedly be attempting to recreate some of the dishes he prepared and will be returning to his kitchen for more education.
Oh, and the astuces I jotted down?
- Put a wet paper towel on the counter, under your cutting board, to keep it from moving.
- Mint has two flavor profiles: cooked and fresh. Put half in early for a deep mint base, and add more at the end for that fresh-mint brightness.
- Use equal portions of thyme, rosemary, and marjoram for a good, all-purpose spice blend.
- Don’t be a purist about stock ingredients. Anything that brings flavor to the party is welcome.
- Combine 1/4 lb butter, minced shallot, 1/2 bunch Italian parsley, and juice of a lemon for an easy, versatile compound butter. Roll into a log and store in the freezer; cut off a round from the frozen log, as needed.