There are very few things that will get me up early on a Saturday morning. With early morning weekdays, a few beverages to start the weekend and frustratingly bad weather - it had better be real good.
After missing my intended first Sydney International Food Festival event due to poor weather last Saturday (lame, I know), there was no missing the pre-booked cooking class at Selah. In fact, I'd been looking forward to it for a few weeks now - and not early arising, slight seediness nor threatening weather were going to rain on this parade.
On a bus-crammed CBD street near Circular Quay, Selah is inconspicuous but with an immediately welcoming interior - perhaps it's the warm colours, cosy setting or the open, yet intimate kitchen. And it was this commercial kitchen which I was most excited about getting intimate with. Minds out of the gutter for a moment - but how many opportunities do you get to not only invade a restaurant kitchen, but prep, pan-sear, plate and generally pose as a person who can cook in it?
Introductions, caffeine hit and recipe distribution are swift, and we're herded into the tight kitchen to begin prep work as would be done for a real service under the tutelage of head chef Gavin and apprentice Frankie. On the menu is a three course meal that reads dauntingly for the amateur chef side, but mouthwateringly for the diner side.
It's all ears and eyes as the two professionals ably demonstrate and teach; and it's all hands on within minutes. It's a bit of a whirlwind with prep taking place for desserts first and foremost; followed with bits and pieces of the entree and main.
The entree looks adequately ambitious on paper, with gnocchi among the first items. The baked potatoes - thankfully prepared earlier - are quickly split, skinned and put into a fine ricer and cooled to room temperature for our gnocchi making pleasure. It seems simpler than my previous home attempt some time ago but then again, I didn't have a ricer, apprentice chef, and huge benchtop to work with.
After cooling, and light kneading with flour and egg yolks; we make sausages that become pillows that become bottom-of-the sea lumps that become floaters that become blanched gnocchi ready for pan frying. They say many hands make light work - they said nothing about consistency.
The dish is a sauteed gnocchi dish with king prawns, tomato concasse (fancy French for diced tomato), pine nuts and a burnt butter sauce. I try to look away when the 'generous' blocks of butter are added to the pan but what's a burnt butter sauce without butter?
And most excitingly, we get to plate! Warmed plates, lovely restaurant setting and wine to match just wouldn't be right without a bit of affected positioning of ingredients and sauce, and of course, the wiping of plates! Following chef Gavin's lead, I'm pretty happy with my efforts.
The gnocchi were not floatingly light, but with a bit of resistence that was ideal paired with the crunchy pan-fry coat. The sauce of such simple ingredients came together harmoniously although there was a hint too much lemon, refreshing as it was with the prawns. The revelation was the addition of brandy-soaked muscatels - their sweetness valiantly combatting the rich butter sauce alongside the meticulously diced tomatoes.
The entree downed with a glass of white, there was no time to rest or relax - mains service was coming up and the diners were sort of waiting. The main was a fairly straighforward sounding lamb dish, but the preparation of the many components was actually quite unexpected - though nothing compared to the dessert.
With the mortar and pestle (and a volunteer's arm) getting a good workout pounding roasted whole spices for marinating lamb backstraps, we others turned our attention to a myriad of vegetables. I was delighted to see Chef throw several bright red capsicums directly onto the stove's flame - I've always wanted to do this but never quite dared at home.
There was also eggplant to be roasted and transformed into a salad; witlof to be julienned by a dangerous new lust in Shun knives; watercress to be picked; chiffonades of herbs to be prepared and a mint yoghurt to be whipped up. We were busy little bees in the kitchen and there was a sense of collective achievement when it came time to slice the seared lamb and plate up.
Oh what fun it is to plate with a round mold at one's disposal. I've discovered the joy of putting in a bit of effort with plating as opposed to my often eating from the pan. There's a time a place for both, I think.
After quite a filling entree, this huge main looked almost a challenge. The lamb was seared with a spice crust and finished off in the oven, driving my sudden need to buy a cast iron frying pan. The medium-rare meat was set on top of a salad of julienned roast capsicum and witlof, and hand-picked watercress. I'm beginning to understand why restaurant menus are sometimes listed so extensively as with all the efforts we put in, it would be a shame for any ingredient to not get a billing on the menu.
The roasted eggplant was super easy, as too the mint-spiked yoghurt, and both things I could see myself having at home. The main was rounded off with a "here's one I prepared earlier" veal jus and parsley oil for colour and interest. The various components of the main melded together fantastically, with flavour spikes in the yoghurt and lamb tempered with sweetness in the salad and eggplant.
A necessary pause after the main ensued - we were getting rather full of food and wine, and mostly, we were just a bit tired from all the work. To think we hadn't even gotten through a full service for 10 yet. While there was temptation to let the professionals deliver dessert while we napped, the lure of plating a restaurant dessert was a little more desirable.
Working as a team, we'd made toffee cream pannacotta at the very beginning; baked a ginger and spice cake; segmented oranges for a compote; made a toffee orange sauce; made hazelnut praline and then turned it into round wafers; and made candied orange peel. Somehow, this was all done amid prep and cooking for the other meals, so serious kudos to whoever has to deal with a hectic working order as such.
Working as smoothly as a conveyor belt now, the team all pitched in to recreate the artistic assembly that was to be our third course. Given the amount of work in this dish, I don't think I'll any longer ponder the value of eating a restaurant dessert.
I think this is one of those gasping desserts although the almost unanimous "Mmm..." around the table upon tasting the pannacotta makes me think it's a "Oooh... Mmm..." kind of dessert.
The pannacotta is more the thick custard type rather than the wobbling jelly type, rich with vanilla and caramel flavour. The toffee sauce is subtle on the orange and partners the chai-like cake like a little devil and angel on each shoulder. The candied peel is delightfully chewy with the tiniest twang of peel bitterness and the compote plays a beautifully sophisticated textural role. My favourite component by far is the praline: freshly roasted hazelnuts set in toffee; blitzed to smithereens in a processer to be reformed as thin wafer rounds of insatiety. More please.
It's a pretty big dessert and following our prior two courses, it's no real surprise that no-one wants to get up or move. We wile away time in a sort of food coma; surrounded by food in its many forms and all its beauty. The afternoon's turned into a pretty, sunny day and I found it hard-pressed to think of a better way to spend it. Many compliments to the Chef and Selah - and just now to install a day bed for that post-main meal nap.