There was a point in my life when they only thing I could cook was a good-old English fry-up. And to be perfectly honest, I was quite happy with that. But as I got older and my waistline widened and arteries began to clog, I knew I needed to expand my repertoire. So I spent the last ten years with my head in recipe books and watching cookery shows on television, trying to learn how to understand ingredients and flavours, and how to put them together. There was even a point when I considered retraining as a chef and trying to do it professionally.
I mentioned none of these things when my colleague Sofia suggested we try out a cookery class, at Fairmont The Palm’s new The Chef’s Palette. I sheepishly agreed to go along, making all the noises of a man who’d really rather be anywhere else. But inside, I was overjoyed. At last I was going to get the chance to learn from a chef in a professional set-up. I couldn’t let anyone know how excited I was, of course (what if I was a legend in my own kitchen, but nowhere else?).
As the day drew closer I began to feel the pressure. After all, I know that Sofia (who, to most, appears as the personification of sweetness and politeness) is one of the most competitive people I’ve ever met. She hides a steely determination that, up close, can be quite frightening. Thankfully we were to be accompanied by another couple of colleagues, so I wouldn’t be left alone with the cut-throat cook in the kitchen.
At this point, I should point out that an experience at Chef’s Palette isn’t even a competition. It’s a chance for friends, family or workmates to gather together and learn how to prepare a dish, with guidance from one of the Fairmont chefs, in a fun, relaxed atmosphere. What you cook (and then eat) is really down to you – just call the hotel in advance, talk through your requirements with the chef and turn up on the day.
When we arrived, I was blown away by The Chef’s Palette kitchen, which has been kitted out by German firm Gaggenau. It’s new, bright and seriously well-appointed, with every bit of equipment and gadget you could wish for. We split into our teams (I was paired with Time Out Group Picture Editor Kate Austin, and Sofia teamed up with Creative Director Athina Simeonidou) and we nibbled on some tasty canapés, while the hotel’s executive sous chef Jason Green (helped out on the afternoon by his colleague Kyle Grant) explained how the following two hours would go, and what we’d be cooking.
The dish of the day was to be squid ink tagliatelle with lobster and salsa verde. I’d never made my own pasta, or prepared and cooked lobster before. But I couldn’t have been more confident about the sauce. The first task was to make the pasta dough. The chefs were both excellent, explaining things slowly and clearly and coming around to give us pointers. I was worried from the off, I’m no good at dough and ours just seemed too dry. Nevertheless, both teams were given some that had been prepared earlier, that had been allowed to rest. I have a sneaking suspicion that my own would never have worked out, but we will never know. Sofia’s, on the other hand, seemed just fine. Next, we moved on to the sauce. Now I know I won this stage of the recipe. I hid Sofia’s olive oil to make sure of it.
After a crash course in killing and preparing a lobster (verdict – not everyone’s idea of fun), the chefs showed us how to prepare the meat sous vide (in a water bath). We ran the pasta through a pasta machine and cut it into tagliatelle ribbons. We brought the pasta, sauce and lobster together and plated up. Presentation isn’t usually my strong point, but my hands steadied and it all came together. I was delighted and turned around to see Sofia’s surely inferior creation. However, what sat on the bench behind me was foodie perfection. It looked like I’d been beaten fair and square, but once I tucked into mine, it didn’t matter. With the help of the Fairmont chefs I’d turned out a dish worthy of a restaurant and learned some things along the way, and that tasted as sweet as any minor victory over my teammate.
Prices vary. Advance bookings essential. Fairmont The Palm, Palm Jumeirah (04 457 3457).