I fry, sauté or pan sear something just about every day. Ninety percent of my home cooking takes place in a single, large, trustworthy cast-iron pan, and I'm comfortable using it. But halfway through frying up the chicken marsala scallops for an Italian food and wine pairing course at the Las Cosas Kitchen Shoppe's cooking school, I suffered a food lobotomy. I didn't know if the heat was right or if the butter was melting off too fast or if the lovingly tenderized breast meat would be over- or under-cooked.
Fortunately, Johnny Vee (aka John Vollertsen), the free-spirited and jovial chef who commands the kitchen there, is accustomed to both novice and accomplished home cooks suddenly stopping in their tracks like over-jellied terrines, as their brains momentarily imitate poached eggs.
"Looks great," he said. "I might add a little oil to extend the life of the butter." Nodding slowly, I did as he said and, suddenly, things began to make sense again. I regained the ability to, say, use a pair of tongs, and everything went off without a hitch.
This is a typical scene in my experience at Las Cosas, and it is generally multiplied by at least five or six: Vollertsen is likely to have several different teams of students working furiously on a variety of dishes during the same time span, each experiencing greater or lesser degrees of panic, failure or success. Vollertsen handles everything from expert execution to spectacular disaster with the same lighthearted enthusiasm and deep reserve of patience. Some say he carries a bit of a belly—I believe it's a subcutaneous repository of patience and, of course, more food knowledge than most of us will learn in a lifetime.
The list of courses spans from general topics and specific skills to national and regional cuisines, with guest appearances by local and visiting chefs. General topics might include offerings such as "New Mexico favorites" or "sauces and salsas." Specific skills could be garnered from workshops that empower students to cook a variety of dishes using the miracle of steam and high-altitude baking. The knife skills workshop is fantastic and regularly offered. A variety of Asian cooking classes—such as the Asian appetizers and Vietnamese cookery classes that will be offered in April—are routinely on the roster. Vollertsen also offers introductions to classic chophouse recipes, Mexican mole dishes and a sampler of items spied at food carts and trucks around the country. If you can't hit Portland or Austin this spring, Las Cosas' food truck demo might be just the ticket.
On April 23, Charles Dale from Terra at Encantado will be the guest chef. Encantado may suffer from a kind of eye-roll-inducing resort vibe, but Terra is a very, very good restaurant under Dale's direction.
Vollertsen and Las Cosas have recently formed a partnership with Sunflower Farmers Market (also in DeVargas Center) that allows Sunflower to umbrella Las Cosas with its alcohol permit, thus enabling courses such as the wine pairing I attended and an upcoming "beer blast." Typically, a representative from Sunflower will attend the class, pour the beverages and fill everyone in on the history and character of each particular wine or beer.
Most classes are in the $75 range, which may sound a little steep but, considering that a multi-course meal is part of the package, it's a bargain. Add in the newfound culinary prowess that will have you saving money by cooking at home more often—and your newfound friend in chef Johnny Vee—and you can't beat it with a stick.
Unless, of course, Vollertsen tells you to.
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