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From the Frying Pan . . . : Into the fire isn't so bad. A shock at first, introduction to cooking has its rewards, including a salad to go.

December 23, 1994|DON ALTMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Don Altman is a Redondo Beach writer

The home arts are not my strong point. My Teflon pan has cooked up far more burgers and hot dogs than it has omelets and stir-fry vegetables. It is thus with great apprehension and a cooking IQ lower than Tom Hanks' in the movie "Forrest Gump" that I drive up to the Westlake Culinary Institute for my first professional cooking class.

Pinning down the source of my anxiety is difficult. It seems to spring from as many holes as a pasta strainer's. Suddenly, I think of a thousand reasons why I shouldn't learn to cook. But the most convincing is simple and direct: I don't know the first thing about food or cooking.

I try to calm myself by thinking that Mozart could compose and play a sonata at age 5, but I'm pretty certain he couldn't bake a nifty German chocolate cake. With that comforting thought, I enter a retail cook's store called Let's Get Cookin'. It is here that the professional cooking series meets once a week.

"Hi, are you checked in?" asks Phyllis Vaccarelli, owner of the store and founder of the culinary institute. I snake my way past shelves crammed with odd-looking utensils to the classroom at the back. About a dozen students face a wall loaded with two floor-to-ceiling commercial refrigerators and a freezer, pantry cabinets and a double stainless-steel sink.

Our teacher arrives without fanfare. Cecilia De Castro is an attractive and diminutive Filipino woman with boundless energy and a passion for cooking and teaching.

With a degree in restaurant management and nutrition, she began and developed the UCLA cooking school program. Currently, she's a cooking consultant, caterer and teacher whose graduates are employed in California's best restaurants.

Cecilia has the students introduce themselves and describe their cooking ambitions. The majority are experienced cooks. There's Joseph, who runs a large kitchen of more than 10 chefs. Ron works for a restaurant's catering division. "I want to work at a restaurant in Maui," says John, a man in his 40s who's hoping to make the transition to cooking from a job with the phone company.

Only two students are homemakers who simply love to cook and have no pretensions of becoming the next Wolfgang Puck. I'm there simply because the whole process has always been so mystifying and indecipherable that I finally decided to try to break the code.

The first subject is health and sanitation. "Who knows at what temperature bacteria multiply?" asks Cecilia. I'm fascinated to learn the answer: Various bacteria can infect food between the temperatures of 40 and 165 degrees Fahrenheit. In general, the key to preventing infection is quick preparation and immediate cooking or refrigeration of the ingredients.

I was always better at textbook learning than laboratory work, and I don't mind if we discuss bacteria for the rest of the time. We also learn about kitchen etiquette, such as never ever put a knife in the sink, and always say, "Behind you," to alert other kitchen workers to your whereabouts.

"Open your notebooks," Cecilia instructs. I was hoping we'd keep talking, but it's time for the first "practical" cooking exercise. Every class is preceded with a handout of that night's assignments. Tonight is salad night.

I am paired with Jan and Curtis. Jan is looking to enter the catering field; Curtis is an actor and model who would like to find a way to combine his two passions of food and motorcycle riding.

The teams are assigned one of three salads: Cobb, Caesar, and three-color rotelle (a kind of pasta) with roasted bell peppers. We've been assigned the Cobb. Jan instantly takes charge, like a head chef. "Don, you start preparing the vinaigrette a la moutard. " From what I can tell, if you know French, you're way ahead in this class. Unfortunately, I don't know a word.


"One more thing," Cecilia barks, as we scurry about the room gathering ingredients like ants at a picnic. "Make sure you make as many mistakes as you can. That's how you learn."

And I waste no time, mistakenly pouring the salad oil into the bowl containing the egg before whipping the yolk. The two emulsify. No matter how frenetically I whip, I cannot cajole these two ingredients into harmony. Jan wants me to start over. Instead, I fess up to Cecilia.

"Didn't you read the recipe directions?" she asks.

To make matters worse, I answer that I did. Well, I did.

Cecilia shows how to easily repair this common problem. We all watch as she heats water in a pan, then slowly pours the separated mixture into the hot water, all the while whipping it. Like magic, the yolk and oil combine.

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