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Reality Check: Why Cooking Classes Still Matter

You can YouTube, Tweet and Facebook 24/7. Pausing to schedule cooking classes seems so 1990s. Why cater to a dozen guests when you touch thousands with a Tweet?

Attending Chef Rufino Rengifo’s cooking classes and demos onboard a recent Celebrity Solstice cruise reminded me how face time with foodie fans still matters. During live classes, chefs impart their passion for cooking and food and wine pairing in a way that’s beyond the count of mouse clicks.

The theme of the Celebrity 12-night Mediterranean cruise was “Excite the Senses,” and Rengifo generated the gastronomic buzz. I quickly morphed into a crazy-busy-food-junkie dashing from cooking demos to chef competition, winemaker lunch, dinner, tastings and cooking classes.

As food-explainer-in-chief, Rengifo tapped into his experience on the Food Network, leading cutting edge kitchens in Manhattan and South Beach, and hobnobbing with Gloria Estefan at international food festivals. But as Celebrity’s Corporate Chef, he’s at home with 2,800 passengers, many eager to tackle new culinary seas.

“Guests may not always know much about cooking, but they know what they like,” Rengifo told me as he prepared for the hands-on cooking class on creating antipasti platters.

I took my seat in the Tuscan Grill restaurant and eyed the panoply of ingredients: grilled eggplant, peppers and zucchini, rows of herbs, raw veggies, pesto, EVO and mounds of olives, bread, cheese, prosciutto and sopressata. This, I thought, will be easy.

Rengifo kicked off the class by reflecting on key aspects of “Excite the Senses” that are second nature to chefs. Did we consider all our sensory choices as we cook? Do we assess artistic contrasts in color, texture and flavor?

Guests looked at each other sheepishly. “Well, we follow the recipe,” commented several.

Rengifo asked us to smell the EVO to appreciate its grassy notes. He told us to “chunk” our parmesan cheese to retain more of its flavor and aroma. We followed his recipe for fresh “Italian seasoning”: 50 percent parsley, 25 percent basil and 25 percent oregano, a world apart from dried-up bits from a jar. To emphasize freshness in another way, Rengifo recommended rinsing the brined kalamata olives in EVO to brighten their olive-y flavors.

Beyond tips and sensory moments, Rengifo painted the larger cultural picture of Italian cuisine. Since we were sailing into Venice that afternoon, he regaled us a mini-history lesson on the invaders who lusted after the wealth of the city on the lagoon.

We donned our gloves and composed our antipasti. I ignored the eggplant, played up the zucchini and made a mess dipping olives into EVO. My neighbor’s platter was tidy and packed with pesto. She was thrilled with all the “little tips” chefs never tell you.

Chef took time to appreciate our platters. He reminded us that antipasti framework was featured in the “Excite the Senses” cookbook which was, of course, available for sale.

I also savored the wine and food seminar where Rengifo demystified the pairing experience. Chef demonstrated a fresh angle for many participants: cooking methods of the food greatly influence the wine pairing. Lightly-oaked Wente Vineyards Riva Ranch Chardonnay paired well with the char from smoked mackerel. I watched guests’ eyes light up at the interactive, common sense tips.

Whether he was leading an on stage demo, sharing cultural tidbits or watching us overdose our antipasti with EVO, Rengifo encouraged us to let our taste buds and comfort levels lead to gastronomic pleasure. His joy in sharing chef’s secrets and watching us create our masterpieces was evident.

I’m pleased to report that real cooking classes haven’t entirely disappeared into the digital ether.

Photo Credit: Deborah Grossman

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