Taking a break from a Cooking class at an Orlando Marriott World Center. They presented me with the apron embroidered with my name.

Taking a break from a Cooking class at an Orlando Marriott World Center. They presented me with the apron embroidered with my name.

Some people eat to live.

I live to eat.

Cooking and baking are two of my passions. Thank goodness a third one is exercising (as long as music and dance are involved) or I’d weigh hundreds of pounds. My tongue waters as the smell of onions and garlic sizzling in a hot oiled pan assail my nose like the sweetest of perfumes. Fresh baked cookies, pizza, or a marinated pork roast simmering in caraway-infused sauerkraut… any and all of those aromas and my taste buds perk up like a child’s ears attuned to adults trying to whisper forbidden conversation.

I grew up in an Eastern European Jewish home and learned to cook and bake dishes from those ethnic cultures at the hands of my more than capable grandmothers, aunts and my Mom. A pinch of this. A dash of that. Smell. Toss. Stir. Experiment.

Our military service family moved frequently from state-to-state, country-to-country. Each time my Mom learned to cook like the natives. The education of my palate began early and by the time I was 11, my Mom had returned to full-time employment and I cooked all the family dinners. My Dad would take me to the commissary to shop for groceries. The rule of thumb was that if I thought I could make it, I could buy it. With hints from my Mom, I plunged into cooking as satisfying and healthy as I knew… each time refining both the taste and the healthy aspects. Of course, what was healthy then and what’s considered healthy now are vastly different, aren’t they? I mean, meat figured into most meals and if it had some sort of potatoes involved, even better.

When I was in my late 20’s, my first business partner was an award-winning Israeli chef. We were producing international cuisine in Orlando before I remember anyone else doing something other than barbeque or Southern fried. Our specialty was Middle Eastern. I learned knife skills, garde manger, and being able to cook for large numbers of people. Over the years I’ve sold homemade granola (no salt, no sugar) to stores, baked items for restaurants, and taken a smattering of classes from well-trained chefs. I also squeezed in two years of gourmet Chinese classes and a year of Japanese. I have watched cooking shows, read Chefs’ bios, and judged high school, college competitions. One of my most exciting moments was judging a Top Chef contest when they toured through Orlando.

Even with all this background, becoming a chef has never been part of my calling. I just like to cook and bake, but have always wanted to know more.

That’s finally happening at Publix’ Aprons Cooking School. The Dr. Phillips School, where I’m halfway through the 6-week basic culinary techniques classes, is the ninth school Publix has opened. There’s one in Alpharetta, GA and the rest are in Florida; Boca Raton, Jacksonville, Lakeland, Plantation, Sarasota, Tallahassee, and Tampa. A 10th is being constructed in Winter Park.

Some of my friends laugh that I’m taking basic techniques with my background, but I don’t think I’ll ever be too old to learn new pairings of foods, herbs, seasonings, and wines. What I’m learning and getting from these classes may be vastly different from those in the class with less experience, but I’m learning simpler or more efficient methods of preparation. I’m getting to try tools I had not played with. BONUS– we get 20% off of purchases when taking any classes, even the one-time offerings.  My husband is going to be so surprised when he hears how much I saved him today with my new purchases!!

There are hands-on classes, like the ones I’m taking, and there are demo classes where you can watch them work in the open kitchen or look up at the TV monitors to see details you might miss from a dinner table seat. All meals are paired with wine, whether the class description specifies that or not. I’ve attended two demo nights and the four-course themed meals are both tasty and filling.

I learned that even though I didn’t know the names of knife cuts (like chiffonade or brunoise), I have been doing them. I just found out today that rice pilaf is different from the way I make rice because I don’t pre-saute onions or vegetables into my rice before cooking and that my grandmother’s method of making rice (one knuckle of water above the line of rice in the pan) is how another chef measures. I’ve learned easier methods of cutting green peppers to eliminate the seeds, how to de-pit the avocado without mangling it in the process, and that when making eggplant parmesan I can bake the eggplant instead of frying if I use panko instead of flour and bake at 375-400 degrees for about 15 minutes.

Today in our three-hour class we cooked and dined on shrimp Étouffée, made multiple styles of roux, steak au poivre, baked tilapia with pecan brown butter sauce, eggplant parmesan, sauce Espagnole, and marinara. I drank a lovely glass of Franciscan cabernet with mine.

Gotta go. I hear a Jazzercise class beckoning…

Karen Kuzsel is a writer-editor based in the Orlando area who specializes in the hospitality, entertainment, meetings & events industries.  She is a Contributing Editor-Writer for Prevue Magazine and is an active member of ISES and MPI. She writes about food & wine, spas, destinations, venues, meetings & events. A career journalist, Karen has owned magazines, written for newspapers, trade publications, radio and TV. As her alter-ego, Natasha, The Psychic Lady, she is a featured entertainer for corporate and social events. karenkuzsel@earthlink.net; www.ThePsychicLady.com; @karenkuzsel; @thepsychiclady.