Chef Chris Galbraith aimed his infrared thermometer at the pan of oil heating on the stove. The display flashed “375,” and he nodded. Time for Dan Abraham to start frying the 20 breaded, raw shrimp on a wire rack on the counter next to him.
Abraham, who as an anesthesiologist is more at ease with delicate Tuohy needles than with foot-long tongs, plopped a shrimp into the canola. The oil responded with pops and a nasty hiss.
“Lay it this way,” Galbraith instructed, showing Abraham and his wife, Billie Schwartz, how to direct the tail to minimize the danger, and also to work slowly, lest the shrimp crowd the pan and cool the oil dramatically.
It was part of the hands-on classwork at Hudson Table, a cooking school that opened in January at the Piazza in Northern Liberties. It’s the offshoot of a popular kitchen in Hoboken, N.J.
Cooking schools, or more precisely kitchens that offer hands-on classes, have become popular date-night activities and corporate team-building events. How does a loved one handle a kitchen knife? Can your colleagues collaborate to make a batch of cookies without eggshell fragments?
Philadelphia is dotted with classes, such as La Cucina at the Market, near Reading Terminal Market; In the Kitchen Cooking School, in Haddonfield; Really Cooking With Robin, in East Norriton; and Let’s Cultivate Food, in Manayunk. Some, like Italian Table and Cozymeal, will send a chef to your place, or you to their kitchen. For those who choose to be spectators, Audrey Claire Cook, near Rittenhouse Square, fills its calendar with guest chefs who prepare meals at a 16-seat counter; occasionally, classes are hands on.
Chefs at the schools work in catering and in restaurants, and value the flexibility. Few consider it a full-time job; it’s like picking up a shift.
Hudson Table got to Philadelphia through the Kushner Cos., its Hoboken landlord, which several years ago also was an owner of the Piazza. The Philadelphia location is on the southwest corner of the Piazza next to Tendenza, a catering hall.
“We checked out Philadelphia and were quite impressed with the food scene,” said Hudson Table founder Allen Bari, who came at the business not as a trained chef or restaurateur.
He was a professional poker player who was “dragged” to a cooking class in Atlantic City eight years ago. The experience changed his life. Turning his attention from the poker table to a kitchen table, Bari and his wife, Allison, set about equipping a kitchen and hiring chefs comfortable in front of small crowd. They opened Hudson Table near their home in 2014.
Hudson Table’s programming varies. There are hands-on cooking classes for 17 people, private dinners for 24, catered parties for up to 60, and competitions, where two chefs — each working out of a fully outfitted work station — go head to head for 18. The space, with full-length windows, has a vastness.
Kitchen equipment is residential-quality. “We want you to be able to replicate everything at home,” Bari said.
A Saturday daytime class for 16 people in early February was themed to popular dishes served at Momofuku Ko, David Chang’s Asian-inspired restaurant in New York: crispy shrimp buns, bo ssam (Korean-style thin-sliced pork belly) with rice and lettuce wraps, spicy cucumber salad, and corn cookies and cereal milk ice cream.
Galbraith had started the pork at 8:30 a.m. to allow a head start well before the 11 a.m. start. The class was divided into teams of four, each at a work table with a shelf bearing sheet pans and bowls of ingredients. From there, it was a matter of dividing and conquering the recipe in front of us with three chefs — Galbraith, Justin Shuda, and Natalie Rangel — walking the room to offer advice. (They also cleaned up.)
My cooking partner, Leigh Schemanski, and I were more comfortable cutting vegetables and working the blender, so we yielded the stove stuff — the shrimp-frying and the steeping milk for the ice cream, for example — to Abraham and Schwartz, a pediatric psychologist.
“We’re always looking for ways to expand our skills,” said Schwartz. “It was also something fun to do together. And we love Momofuku.”
We chopped cucumbers, sliced scallions, cut cabbage, and mixed marinades and dressings for the salads. We creamed softened butter and sugar, and added the dry cookie ingredients into a KitchenAid mixer, rolling the cookies onto sheets before chilling them. Shrimp, cabbage, and sauce filled the buns, which were premade because making them is specialized. Galbraith spooned the luscious pork shoulder into serving bowls. Although the ice cream did not chill for the full four hours, we got the idea.
All in, from our handwashing to the final bites of lunch, the experience took three hours. The meal yielded leftovers, which we packed up. Bari does not want waste. Recipes were emailed to participants the next day.
The experience, said Schwartz, would kick-start their home cooking and inspire them. Married recently, she said brightly, “we have a bunch of new kitchen equipment we need to use.”