Learning to Cook the Old-School Way with Chef Michael Sohocki

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As a dining blogger, I eat out a lot.  One major reason dining out (and in turn writing about it on The San Antonio Palate) appeals to me is – to be honest – I am not the best cook.  Actually, when asked by friends to rate my cooking on a scale from one to ten, my husband awarded me a negative three.

I don’t think my cooking is that bad, but surely I could use a bit of help.  So, when I heard that Chef Michael Sohocki of Restaurant Gwendolyn fame was going to teach a series of cooking classes at the San Antonio Botanical Gardens, I registered both my amateur culinary critic husband and myself.

If you haven’t been to Gwendolyn, you must go as soon as possible.  Chef Michael is a food prodigy and a real driver behind San Antonio’s slow food movement.  The concept of Restaurant Gwendolyn is to bring clean, honest and seasonal local food to diners.  Everything is sourced locally and prepared the way it was before the Industrial Revolution.  It takes some real talent (and tenacity) to prepare every dish the old school way with no blenders, mixers, choppers, freezers or any other appliance with a plug.

Chef Michael cutting into a ripe watermelon for a refreshing picnic starter. Photo by Megan O’Kain Lotay.

And, it’s delicious.  I was so enamored with my dinner I forgot to take pictures for my blog review before I ate every last bite! My hope is that through this six-class series running every Sunday through October 21, some of Chef Michael’s genius will transfer to me.

The first class focused on kitchen basics and cooking fundamentals. Chef Michael started with a summary of knives – how to

Chef Michael Sohocki of Restaurant Gwendolyn demonstrating proper knife-sharpening technique. Photo by Megan O’Kain Lotay

choose, care for, and sharpen your kitchen knives. I learned that the fancy knife block we received as a wedding gift is totally unnecessary.

You need one large knife (a chef’s knife) and one small one (a paring knife).  A $30 chef’s knife and $3 paring knife will do you just fine.  For easy and effective sharpening, you’ll want to look for blades that are continuous (no funny bumps by the handle) and are not made of stainless steel. The important part is keeping the knife sharp, which you should do by grinding your knife blade on a perfectly flat sharpening stone (100 grit JIS will work.)

We moved on to a discussion of flavor profiles as Chef Michael showed us the proper way to chop an onion and deconstruct a chicken.  Flavor profiles are important, we learned, not recipes.  We were treated to several simple salads with the same base ingredients – corn and apple – yet completely different tastes.  By just changing a few ingredients with items in your pantry, the entire personality of the dish is transformed.  With a little mayonnaise, white wine vinegar, salt, smoked paprika, pepper flakes, onions and chopped oregano you have Baja style apple/corn salad.  Take the same corn and apples, add a dash of fish sauce, a squeeze of lemon, some garlic, red pepper flakes and Thai basil and you have an Asian-inspired salad.

Our most important takeaway was that if you use what’s fresh and available, and pay attention to flavor profiles, you’ll always have a delicious dish.  The second most important lesson was to taste test as you go along, with which we readily complied!

Perfectly peeled deviled eggs. Photo by Megan O’Kain Lotay

The second class, held this past Sunday, offered a new perspective on picnic foods. First, Chef Michael enlisted the class’ help to peel eggs and garlic. Turns out I’ve been peeling hardboiled eggs the hard way for all of these years. The right way is to take a spoon, hit the egg a bit with it, and then wedge the spoon under the shell and slide around the curves of the egg. Voila – perfectly peeled egg! These eggs, sans the gouges that I usually create using my peeling method, make the most appealing deviled eggs!

The key to picnic foods, or any foods that will be sitting out a bit, is high acid content, like vinegar, to discourage bacteria growth. Every dish Chef Michael prepared, from the deviled eggs to the watermelon salad, included some sort of vinegar to ensure its acid content. Again, the same idea of flavor profiles, as opposed to recipes, was applied.

When Chef Michael began to sauté the onions and bacon for the potato salad, he started with grapeseed oil for its clean, light taste and fit with German foods. For many of us, olive oil is our go-to oil for sautéing, but olive oil is Mediterranean in origin and would disrupt the flavor profile of the salad. Butter, pork fat and grapeseed oil mesh well with the other ingredients’ flavors and are much better choices. 

There are four classes left in the series, and one is already sold out.  If you can make any of the remaining classes, I highly recommend that you do! There is still room in this Sunday’s class, focusing on salads (Sept. 30), as well the holiday beverage (Sunday, Oct. 13) and meat smoking (Sunday, Oct. 21) classes. Next Sunday’s class on unique soups and stews is already sold out! Learn more on the Slow Food South Texas website.  We’ll look forward to seeing you there!

A light and fresh version of bruschetta. Photo by Megan O'Kain Lotay.

A light and fresh version of bruschetta. Photo by Megan O’Kain Lotay.

Megan O’Kain Lotay and her husband, Jesse, are recent transplants from Houston.  Megan works in Marketing at USAA and in her spare time keeps a blog, The San Antonio Palate, to chronicle her dining adventures.  Connect with Megan via her blog or Facebook page

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