By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
|Photo by Anne Fishbein|
Some of us burn toast and screw up cereal. Others breeze through a dinner party like Marcia Cross’ robotlike character on Desperate Housewives. Not everyone has a cooking gene. But that shouldn’t stop us from throwing a fabulous dinner party. Whether it’s for catching up on office gossip or to hear the dirty details about your best friends’ latest sexual exploits, a dinner party is the perfect way to show off your culinary talents, even if you are making it up as you go along. But with dozens of shows on the Food Network these days — raising expectations with lessons on everything from how to roll sushi at home to crisping the surface of a crème brûlée — throwing a dinner party isn’t as easy as it used to be. That store-bought Costco lasagna is not the sure-fire crowdpleaser it once was.
If you fear losing an appendage while cutting up an onion or entertaining your allegedly non-judgmental friends, you might try Hipcooks — which offers cooking classes for the culinary-impaired. Owner-chef Monika Reti’s goal is to free the wannabe host from the strict confines of recipes and measuring instruments, allowing for a certain degree of spontaneity in the kitchen. Those of the klutzy variety, who might be prone to accidentally starting small fires, might want to reconsider the class, which is intensively hands-on.
The Connecticut native teaches a handful of themed classes (“Tarts for Tarts,” “Hot Soup Focus Group”) four nights a week, covering everything from the romantic dinner for two to the Moroccan feast for 15. She also offers vegetarian, sushi and brunch classes. Classes are $45. In her spare time, Reti caters dinner, lunch and bridal-shower parties.
“When you cook for others, it is a precious opportunity to tickle people’s senses,” she says. “It is delightful. Part of being a hip cook is using what you have. You don’t need the expensive Martha Stewart dishes.” As such, she is an advocate for one-stop shopping. “That is what a hip cook does.”
Last January, Reti, who motors around town on a Suzuki SV 650, started Hipcooks in downtown L.A.’s Brewery-based artist colony. She spent five years perfecting her cooking skills at London restaurants while she was a graduate student of economics. In 2000, she returned stateside where she worked for the high-powered think tank Rand Corporation, but after two years she gave it up and started catering parties.
Amid the Brewery’s many sculpting and painting studios, Reti’s smallish artists’ loft houses a 700-square-foot kitchen, a large wooden table and an office space/bedroom. The walls are adorned with aprons, pots, pans and cooking utensils as well as an enormous blackboard, with the night’s samplings written in colorful chalk. On tonight’s menu is tapas, featuring manchego cheese with quince paste, Argentine-style beef empanadillas, tortilla de bacalao (an omelet with potatoes and red onion), hummus with fire-roasted peppers, shrimp with garlic and saffron, and caramel flan for dessert.
The class is filled with cooking wannabes — the types who become paralyzed at the thought of being put on flan patrol. But things get a lot easier after the first glass of sangria. At least four of the students are veteran hip cooks. Eddie, a blond, blue-eyed office worker, has tried Reti’s “The Thrill of the Grill” class. Reti’s neighbor, Tuan, a 40-year-old architect, is on his fifth class. He says he joined up because of the good smells emanating from the loft. He stayed because he realized he liked to cook. Elaine and Nancy, both corporate lawyers, are first-timers. Nancy, 28, is no stranger to hosting parties. “I have dinner parties, but I get stressed out,” she says. Elaine, also 28, bought her the class as a birthday gift and the two plan on throwing a party together for 15 guests next month.
“I definitely won’t wear stilettos the next time I go to a cooking class,” groans Nancy as she pours way too much Patron Citronge into the sangria. No one here is complaining.
“Now that’s a hip cook,” says Reti.
Forget etiquette. We dip our fingers in batter. Are encouraged to. We abandon recipes, toss ground beef in the air like it’s a softball, and become intimately familiar with the inner workings of the empanadillas. By the end, it looks like a pack of toddlers had their way with the kitchen.
We do learn, however, to sauté and flip beef and vegetables without using a spatula, the jiggle technique for finding out if our flan is cooked, and that garlic is best peeled after soaking in water for 20 minutes. All the while, Reti peppers her classes with amusing anecdotes and interesting “factoids,” like the one about saffron being more expensive per ounce than cocaine. She does all this with dramatic, colorful hand gestures, utilizing different accents or accentuating certain words to emphasize her point. Her energy level is on par with a 5-year-old on chocolate.
By the end of the three-hour class, if you still can’t bring yourself to throw a party at home, then hell, just have one there. Reti facilitates private parties in her studio, in the form of group classes. Bring nine of your food-obsessed friends, say, and have the stagette shindig right there — just be prepared to do your own dishes. Note to partiers: The door closes at 10:30 p.m.