An all class holiday in the kitchen

SUSANNAH WALKER
Last updated 05:00 26/01/2014
Cooking Class

ASSEMBLY LINE: Students assemble the prawn and beetel leaf "flavour explosions".

Prawns
PREP TIME: Queensland wild prawns await their fate.
Cooking Class
FOOD FOREST: The cooking school is surrounded by lush hinterland rainforest.

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"First, brown your bottoms."

Under the expert eye of chef Annette Fear, we are shallow-frying dumplings, before adding water to steam them in the pan. Each dumpling is soon to prove a morsel of culinary revelation, but right now all I can think about is coffee.

After flying into Brisbane the night before, collecting a rental car and promptly getting lost, then driving for 90 minutes to the Sunshine Coast hinterland, sleep-deprivation is biting.

But my 17 classmates - women, mostly aged 30 to 60, plus a couple of husbands - are pretty chirpy. There are neither professional chefs nor complete cooking novices among us.

Several have come from Brisbane that morning; others are on holiday from Cairns and Melbourne. Sandy is from Lightning Ridge, an outback mining town whose attractions apparently include one of the largest old and rare cacti displays in the southern hemisphere.

"Can we make something with cactus?" she asks.

Alas, no. We're taking a Tasting Asia class at Spirit House Cooking School, so we're creating a five-course Thai feast, then scoffing it all for lunch before rolling out the door at about 2pm.

The temperature is rising when we start at 9.30am but inside it's cool and airy. Enclosed by rainforest near the inland town of Yandina, the school building is part-homewares store, part-kitchen, with two long tables adorned with frangipani flowers at one end and a leafy courtyard at the back.

Annette, one of four chefs who take classes here, begins by talking us through the menu: Prawns with toasted peanut and ginger; spiced lemongrass pork satay; smoked fish and coconut galangal soup; poached prawn, chicken and water chestnut dumplings; steamed barramundi with ginger and black bean paste.

"You might like to do the smoked fish soup when you are entertaining," she suggests. Clearly this is not the time to confess to not owning a dining table - a great excuse for not having people around for dinner.

The menu sounds tasty, and I do love Thai food - there's a good takeaway near my flat back home - but this seems too much like hard work. Annette reads my mind, or perhaps my face.

"It's a fairly ambitious menu," she concedes, before giving us a "bonus" recipe - pickled vegetable salad - to add to our "repertoire". I used to enjoy cooking with my partner at weekends, but lazy solo living has since shrivelled my repertoire to the point of invisibility.

As the coffee machine calls my name from the corner, Annette outlines the day's proceedings, slipping in cooking tips, elaborating on technique and explaining ingredients along the way - "satay means three pieces, whereas Aussies cram as much meat on a stick as possible".

Over the next four hours she juggles students, instructions, cooking and timing like the pro she is. Having worked in restaurant kitchens before joining the school 15 years ago, and with four cookbooks to her name, she handles it all with good humour while working far harder than the rest of us.

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This class is not, Annette assures us, the cooking school equivalent of MasterChef. "It's not a competition, no-one will be voted off."

Phew, lucky.

Aprons on, we troop into the kitchen, where chopping boards, serious looking knives and cloths are laid out on stainless steel benches configured in a U shape. Bowls of lemons, lettuce and three types of fresh ginger - Queensland is a major producer - are set out just like, well, a cooking school.

I look around for a stool but they have already been nabbed by classmates with "health issues". I'm guessing a plea to sit down on the grounds of coffee deprivation isn't going to cut it.

We get acquainted with the fresh ingredients, smelling a pungent coriander root and tasting some grassy betel leaves, while Annette issues a reminder to "clean up as you go".

Having inherited my mother's cooking style - using every item in the kitchen and leaving them for someone else to clean up - I wonder just how far out of my culinary comfort zone I'm about to go.

Call me a cooking school novice, but I'd assumed each of us would make every item on the menu.

It turns out we share the labour on all of the dishes. Prepping ingredients for various courses, many hands soon make light work of chopping, dicing, grinding and beheading (who knew you should behead bean sprouts?).

I'm assigned the task of juicing limes and lemons with Kim from Brisbane. She has two teenage boys and admits she would never cook this food for them.

"I have to go for the quantity not quality approach and, anyway, my husband does most of the cooking."

Further along the bench, Karin is here with two friends - Spirit House classes are popular with groups of women, though hard work for Annette.

"When it's groups of women it's a bit like herding cats," she admits later.

"When it's mostly couples it's a lot easier."

As we work, Annette moves smoothly among us, showing a student how to slice ginger easily, giving technique tips to another attempting to finely chop lemongrass, and sharing her firm views on sweet chilli sauce.

"It's the sundried tomatoes of the noughties. Aussies put it on everything and they think that makes it Thai. I saw a recipe for sweet chilli sauce sausage rolls the other day!"

Thanks to a silently smiling kitchen assistant, dirty dishes seem to vanish into thin air.

"It's like Harry Potter," says a classmate, clearly wishing she had a kitchen fairy back home.

By now, the kitchen is bubbling with activity and quick camaraderie. I manage to elude the task of chopping up pork neck for the satay, but am then teamed up with Kim and Kelly to prep wild Queensland prawns.

This includes removing the "waste canal"(or "shit vein" as a Sydneysider once indelicately described it to me).

We are wrestling with the slippery, whiskery things when Annette checks on our progress.

"No Kim, you haven't got it," she says.

"Step away from the prawn."

Unfortunately, she doesn't say the same to me.

It's 11am and 75 per cent of the work is done. So far, so good, but within half an hour, the class is losing focus. Toasting, smoking, pounding and caramelising all these ingredients has created a siren's song of tantalising aromas, and we're getting hungry and restless.

Working on elements of different courses, I lose track of what ingredients are for which dish. While token blokes Tony and Peter roast shrimp paste wrapped in foil on a gas ring, others (OK, me) sidle to the coffee machine. Annette must know it's at this point that stomachs growl and attention wanders, as from now on we watch more than work.

But we don't escape entirely. Let's just say my dumpling "pleating" skills are dubious at best.

"You'd have to be in love or very bored to do this," says fellow pleater Sandy, while pleating-pro Jane claims she was nervous before the class started.

"I thought everyone else would be really professional, but it's pretty relaxed and inclusive," she says, gazing at my dumplings.

After a short break - I wander past the Spirit House restaurant on the same property, spotting water dragons and brush turkeys on the way - we return to find the kitchen fairy has laid the tables for lunch.

The payoff is in sight and the prawns are ready to devour. As we pop the little betel-wrapped parcels in our mouths, a classmate rightly pronounces them "flavour explosions".

Next up, the dumplings and their beautifully brown bottoms. The dumpling aficionado from Melbourne to my left declares the filling the best she's ever tasted. She doesn't comment on the pleats.

Across the table, Jillian and Liz are agreeing to recreate the menu at home.

"It's a lot of prep, though," adds Jillian.

The kitchen fairy materialises with bottles of wine, and when she finally understands my Kiwi accent ("The red, please"), all is right with the world.

Meanwhile, Tony and Peter are asked to cook the pork satay. Brandishing tongs, they happily assume positions at the $10,000 barbecue which gleams with promise in the courtyard. Unaware of Annette's view that those operating the barbecue tend to have the fewest culinary skills, they are about to become unwitting guinea pigs in her stealth barbecuing-skills project.

The rest of us return to the kitchen to assemble the smoked fish soup. For me, it's the high point of a spectacular meal, every mouthful running a gamut of surprising flavours from sweet to sour. Of all the tasty, light, delicious food heaped invitingly on the platters passed between us - "presentation is very important," says Annette - this is the dish I can see myself making for friends at home. Perhaps it's time to buy a table.

The writer travelled with the assistance of Sunshine Coast Destination.

- Sunday Star Times

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