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A night in the kitchen

Alex Miller
summit daily news

With alarming numbers regarding obesity, poor nutrition, absence of family dinners and an all-around abysmal understanding on the part of Americans on how to prepare a meal, Colorado Mountain College’s new learning kitchen in Breckenridge is, literally, just what the doctor ordered. When it was installed with the new campus building last year, photographer Mark Fox and I got an early tour with culinary program director Doug Schwartz. Justifiably excited, Schwartz showed us all the cool equipment, the demonstration kitchen complete with video monitors and the well-thought-out layout that accommodates up to a dozen students comfortably.

Earlier this month, I finally had a chance to give it a test spin with a class on Thai cuisine taught by Chef Ian Buchanan. Along with my wife and 10 other students, Buchanan and Schwartz walked us through preparation of a six-course dinner that, in the end, came out pretty darn tasty. The Thai class is part of an ongoing series of “Culinary Adventures” that range from the cuisines of Italy and Mexico to Spain, China and Latin America – to name a few. The teaching kitchen is busy four or five nights a week with specialty classes like this designed for cooks of all abilities. In addition, there are also classes on the basics like knife handling, sauces, grilling and even kitchen instruction for kids.

But on a Friday night a few weeks ago, it was a group of adults with one goal in mind: to learn how to cook Thai food. As Buchanan started us off with a demonstration of making spring rolls, he noted that Thai food isn’t difficult to cook, but it does require some special ingredients that are difficult, if not impossible, to find in Summit County (Asian markets in Denver are the place to stock up, he said). As the owner of a private chef service called Open to the World (www.open2theworld.com), Buchanan exudes a love of world cuisine. He’s spent a fair amount of time abroad, including three months in Thailand and Southeast Asia, and his knowledge of the region’s cooking is obvious.

“I just love the vibrant and exotic spices of Indian and Thai food,” Buchanan said. “And Thai is surprisingly healthy – if you stay away from the deep-fried items. It’s all made fresh, with lots of fresh veggies to balance out some of the heavier carbs.”

The aim of the class, Buchanan said, is to let students learn enough to re-create the menus at home. To facilitate the hands-on experience, he walked students through the individual cooking and prep stations and pointed out where all the tools, plates and other items were located. The CMC kitchen was designed from the ground-up for this kind of experience, and there appears to be at least 20 of everything on hand – plus a dishwasher who kept busy as we students started dirtying things up.

“Man, if I could work like this at home with an on-site dishwasher, I’d cook a lot more often,” said one student.

Buchanan broke the 12 of us into two groups, and each of us was assigned a course. We were preparing spring rolls with two dipping sauces; hot and sour prawn soup; a minced beef salad; green curry chicken; beef curry; jasmine rice; and fried bananas. With the class starting at 6 p.m., he told us everything should be done no later than 8:30, after which we’d have a sumptuous feast from the fruit of our labors.

Those used to working in cramped kitchens with inadequate tools and more questions than answers will love the CMC teaching kitchen. Everything from food processors to lemon presses to sharp knives is laid out in an orderly fashion. The professional stoves and ovens work great, and there’s no shortage of surface area to work upon. Schwartz and Buchanan were on hand every step of the way to offer advice, help locate ingredients or tools or to simply cheer us on. And Buchanan was right: Thai food is not difficult to make once you’ve got all the ingredients in place. As 8:30 p.m. drew near, the presentation table was filling up with fine-looking dishes that we soon dug into with relish. The only thing missing that was remarked upon by several students was some wine to go with it all. As Schwartz explained, the law allows private groups to open bottles, but not the public classes.

The best way to enjoy a CMC cooking class is to go in with an open mind and ego checked at the door. Making mistakes is part of the learning process, and the group dynamic is a lot of fun. CMC offers classes all year round, and the cost is reasonable at $40 for most classes (and that includes dinner, of course). Classes are small and popular, so be sure to reserve your spots well in advance at the CMC website. Most of all, as both Schwartz and Buchanan stressed on multiple occasions, be prepared to have fun.

“I like to teach concepts, not just recipes,” Buchanan said. “You want to learn to use whatever’s in the fridge, and to be creative with these ingredients.”


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