"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" - an overused phrase to be sure. But in these pages of plenty, it is important to remember that every perfectly sautéed shrimp comes from a wretchedly hot kitchen, and every tossed salad requires a pair of human hands. While many of our plates are prepared by those who love us, an increasing number of our meals are prepared by those for whom food is a profession. Cooking is a matter of pleasure to the connoisseur, and an issue of practicality for the worker. Nowhere is this more strongly illustrated than in the case of two cooking schools - one, a paid course at Central Market, and the other a project of the San Antonio Food Bank, designed to give its homeless students enough skills to land a job.
The students and the courses couldn't be more different, but the sauce that marries these two disparate groups is the sustenance of food. Most of us have a tricky relationship with it: We eat too much or too little, worry about fat, cost, calories, carbs, and our proportionate waistlines. Some quibble over the authenticity of the tiramisu, while others are simply glad to have something to satisfy their moaning belly. It fascinates, repels, forces us into strange places and into some strange logic - but above all, it must be cooked. In two very different cooking courses in San Antonio, food is on the lesson plan.
` By Laura Fries `
Chef Mario Perez began his career in the kitchen of a Broadway Street landmark, the highly patronized Earl Abel's Restaurant. "I was 17 years old when I started as a food runner, then I went into the kitchen, and studied with Eugene Williams. I was making his soups and I was making his sauces." Perez joined the U.S. Air Force, where he spent 24 years in Bavaria, Spain, Portugal, Austria, and Switzerland. He landed part-time jobs in civilian restaurants in those locales, and studied various cooking techniques. "I learned in the real world. A restaurant kitchen is the real deal," Perez says.
The real deal nowadays is that Mario Perez is sharing his vast knowledge of the craft of cooking - with local residents who have lost jobs and are on the verge of living on the street. He is head of the San Antonio Food Bank's latest project - launched in October - a cooking/food service school for the homeless, or those at risk of becoming homeless.
"We teach all about food service, from A to Z. It's a crash course that lasts six to eight weeks for people who are displaced and homeless," Perez explains. "I can give them a fresh start by sharing my experience in the food service industry - and they can get employment."
His students are men like Calvin Robinson, who was nearly on the street after losing a maintenance job at a local McDonald's. Robinson is struggling to earn a computer science degree from University of Texas at San Antonio, and money is scarce. He applied to the San Antonio Housing Authority, and lives at 307 Dwyer, in the same building as the Community Kitchen that is supervised by Perez.
"They will learn how to cook as they learn about food service," says Perez. Eight students are in the current class, learning every aspect of kitchen work: maintaining proper times and temperatures, rotating food, how to keep cold food cold and frozen food frozen, how to plan future menus.
Perez keeps the kitchen spotless in the city's building. Up to 31 women and children eat at the dining room every day, and Perez plans to organize a catering service. His group has served a meal to the City Council during one of its weekly meeting days.
Trujillo graduated from the program, but is sticking around to help out in the kitchen, a job he hopes will turn permanent. For Trujillo, the lessons learned from Perez have brightened his future. "I can make a career out of this. This is a way to have a relationship with an employer. I want to build up something for retirement." •
`By Michael Cary `
"I assume everyone's 21?" Mary Martinez cracks to the well-heeled group - all of whom hit that milestone decades ago. "Barely, right?" she continues, amid laughter and the pouring of wine into glasses. A small group of 32 students has paid $50 each for a cooking lesson from Jason Dady, the young executive chef and owner of The Lodge restaurant in Castle Hills. Snug in the cooking school above the produce section of Central Market, the students sit in rows festooned with china and wine glasses. With copies of the recipes before them, they spend an hour and a half watching the master chef craft delicacies, portions of which are later sampled by the hungry crowd. A large slanted mirror and televisions hooked up to a camera help those in the back to view the proceedings.
"I'm 27 - that is usually the first thing people are asking," begins Dady wryly, encouraging the crowd to ask questions. "Following the recipes verbatim is not going to get you anywhere," he continues. "You have to be an active participant when you are cooking for yourself."
The recipes reflect that philosophy: Although the ingredients for the courses are listed, the instructions are bare-bones, even for someone familiar with a kitchen. Dady begins the first course - a shrimp cocktail served with three sauces: spicy horseradish, tarragon-lemon, and garlic anchovy, followed by a raw ahi tuna poke tossed in a sauce of soy, sesame oil, oyster and Thai garlic chili sauces, and finished with a flourish of chives and sesame seeds.
As he rolls a pork loin in sage and pancetta, and begins a sauce of chicken stock, butter, and cream, Dady passes along helpful cooking tips - like the "hand trick" for determining the doneness of meat (the middle of your palm feels like a piece of medium rare meat, while the flesh along the thumb feels like a well-done steak). Most of these tips fall by the wayside, as each diner devours his or her tiny tasting plates of Dady's delicacies.
Dady describes most of his students as "affluent - they know what they like. This was a pretty talkative class." As for the significant age difference between him and his students, Dady confesses: "It's fun. I feed off that," explaining that he raised a few eyebrows when he opened a restaurant at 24. "I try to shock them a little bit." •
` By Laura Fries `
A Tale of Two Cooking Schools