|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.
By 9:15 p.m., we sit down to eat. The room smells of herbs and spices. The savory dishes are passed around in an almost frenzied pace. The class has worked up an appetite. After a few glasses of sangria, we are all hip cooks. Paul tells us that he is newly separated and plans to have a tapas/cleansing party to celebrate his pending divorce. “You have parties to celebrate marriages,” he says. “Why not divorces?” To make things more interesting, Paul says he plans to burn his wife’s remaining belongings in a metal garbage can in his backyard. Now that’s a party.
Hipcooks, 672 S. Avenue 21, unit 5, downtown; www.hipcooks.com
Dinner at Eight: Additional classes for the cooking-impaired
Amuse Café. Chef/owners Nick Roberts and Brooke Williamson lead theme classes such as “Welcoming the Spring” on the third Monday evening of the month. 796 Main St., Venice, (310) 450-1956.
Angeli. Chef/owner Evan Kleiman invites the culinary adventurist to thrice yearly trips to Italy to tour wineries and artisan food producers by day and cook at night. Next: Tuscany, April 16. (323) 936-9806, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bristol Farms Cooking School. Topics at this 15-year-old school range from how to whip up quick dinners to weekend entertaining, and it offers classes for teens and kids. 1570 Rosecrans Ave., Manhattan Beach, (310) 233-4752, bristolfarms.com.
Chris Allen, A to Z Gourmet Catering and Cooking Academy. Le Cordon Bleu–trained, Chris Allen leads classes from perfecting the barbecue to world cuisine. 169 Waverly St., Pasadena, (626) 497-2256, www.a2zgourmetcatering.com.
Epicurean School of Culinary Arts. Holds recreational cooking workshops — such as “Chicken 101,” “Fish Tales” and “Cake Love” — as well as a professional-track Pro-Chef program. 8759 Melrose Ave., L.A., (310) 659-5990, www.epicureanschool.com.
Gelson’s. A variety of classes, ranging from perfecting hors d’oeuvres to a kids’ class on how to make gingerbread houses. Nationally known chefs, cookbook authors and local restaurateurs teach. 22277 Mulholland Highway, Calabasas, (818) 906-5711, gelsons.com.
Jar. Chef/owner Suzanne Tracht gives Saturday-morning demonstrations on how to cook what’s on the restaurant’s exquisite menu. Winetasting provided with each course. 8225 Beverly Blvd., L.A., (323) 655-6566, www.thejar.com.
La Cachette. French master chef/owner Jean François Meteigner teaches students how to make four-course meals in La Cachette’s spacious kitchen. The two-hour class is offered the last Saturday morning of the month. 10506 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A., (310) 470-4992, www.lacachetterestaurant.com.
Let’s Get Cookin’. Classes and workshops for professionals and beginners are taught by cookbook authors and world-renowned restaurant chefs. 4643 Lakeview Canyon Road, Westlake Village, (818) 991-3940, www.letsgetcookin.com.
Sur la Table. Night classes for hobbyists, kids, beginners and professional cooks. (866) 328-5412, www.surlatable.com.
The New School of Cooking. Professional series program for the budding chef as well as a full range of recreational classes, including knife skills, how to make tarts and pies, and sauce making. 8690 Washington Blvd., Culver City, (310) 842-9702, www.newschoolofcooking.com.
The Tasting Spoon. Veteran chef Sue Young provides monthly private classes in her large open kitchen. 4350 Via Dolce, Marina del Rey, (310) 306-8851, www.tastingspoon.com.