What the hell is a béchamel? Fear boils up in the Kitchen

Posted on Dec 15, 2011

Chef Dave claims, “All you have to do is…” and then follows with a whirlwind of chopping, slicing and scraping All-Clad pans across searing gas flames. Grapeseed oil is sizzling and I’m told that shallots ‘want to get moving’ in the pan and never at too hot a temperature.

My own temperature is sky-rocketing as soon as I realize that after his lightning fast demo for the class I will have to reproduce his culinary magic back at my own cook station. Fear courses through my veins; I wish instead it was red wine in my blood.

What the hell was I thinking! I interrogate myself. Foolishly I was lured in by the beautiful set up and first-rate marketing. The Dirty Apron is impeccably crafted through and through, from its logo right down to their tile patterns on the walls of the cooking class kitchen. I am enchanted by prismatic chandeliers which called to me from outside on the street. Their delicatessen is perhaps the finest pantry on the west coast, with splendid bottles and potions – each one so thoughtfully crafted and labelled. They have local sea salt which throws me into a drooling fit of delight.

Artpowerhouse image of The Dirty Apron Cooking School
Artpowerhouse image of The Dirty Apron Cooking School
Artpowerhouse image of The Dirty Apron Cooking School

Artpowerhouse image of The Dirty Apron Cooking School

Ingredients Do Not Make the Chef

But all this beauty and these most excellent products cannot make me a cook. The setting is nothing short of sublime yet my anxiety is quickly rising to a rolling boil.

Chef Dave finishes his first demo and enthusiastically sends us off to our stations. I stall. I fold my sweater (again) and re-arrange my purse… Eventually I make my way to my chopping block.

Luckily the girl beside me seems to know just what to do. I copy her, pretending to read the recipe up on the wall but really I just wait to see what she does next. How can she remember all that stuff Chef Dave said? And how can she keep it in the right order in her brain? And what the hell is wrong with me?

I have no answers and everything Chef Dave said has gone down my intellectual drain. I wonder if it’s washed away forever or if it will resurface later at some less deathly time.

Her sautée is turning out just dandy. I’m glad because I’m doing everything she is. But two steps behind. In school I think they call this cheating.

Tonight’s cooking class theme is comfort food. I scowl a little since I am nowhere close to experiencing comfort. In fact, I think I might die, right here in front of this gleaming Wolf gas range. Damn she’s a beauty.

Artpowerhouse image of The Dirty Apron Cooking School

Artpowerhouse image of The Dirty Apron Cooking School

Artpowerhouse image of The Dirty Apron Cooking School

Béchamel Hell

We’re making a Chicken Pot Pie. This involves a béchamel. I don’t have hint in hell what that means, but I know I like pot pies.

By mimicking my neighbour and racking my brain to remember what Chef Dave said, I soon find myself whisking the bejesus out of equal parts butter and flour and hoping my arm doesn’t fall off. Oh, and praying the whole concoction doesn’t burn to a crisp (these flames are serious!). I learn béchamel is one of the five mother sauces. What the….? There are mother sauces?

I successfully navigate the Chicken Pot Pie. It tastes completely convincing. I don’t know how. I think it was God (and copying my neighbour).

Next round: Lobster Mac & Cheese. We watch Chef Dave’s demo. I copy everything the girl beside me does. Again. It tastes awesome. And it looks really beautiful.

The Sweetest Dessert

The third course is dessert. Chef Dave demonstrates the Bailey’s toffee sauce and I’m shocked to hear myself believing it looks easy and that I can do it no problem. Has the confidence of the girl beside been absorbed into my cells by osmosis? Or is it just an easy sauce?

The little dessert cake we are making requires an obscene amount of whisking. There is no way I am giving up now. My arm muscles scream in pain but I am determined to whisk this damn batter to perfection. I notice others are not whisking until they nearly collapse-oh they are weak! I notice I’m ahead of the girl beside me. I notice my cake is already in its butter & sugar coated tin and others are wimpily whisking.

We tackle the Bailey’s toffee sauce. I don’t even look at the girl beside me. My sauce is perfect. It’s a glossy, warm caramel colour and I am so very pleased. Feeling smug, I finally glance at my neighbour’s sauce pan. Hers is going lumpy and sizzling. Perhaps she forgot that we were supposed to reduce the heat once the brown sugar went in. Remember now, sugars burn!

Our little toffee cakes come out of the big group oven and there’s one in particular that looks just divine. It has risen perfectly and it’s colour is heaven. I walk over to inspect the little monster. The damn cake is mine! I did it! I rocked something in the kitchen all by myself! My little cake earns ‘best in show’ among those discussing.

I drizzle the glossy sauce over the warm little toffee cake. I eat it. It’s the best damn thing.



Below you’ll find tips I finally remembered from Chef Dave once my blood pressure returned to normal. You’ll also find more photos of another cooking night courtesy of Reine at Artpowerhouse.

Quick Tips from Chef Dave at The Dirty Apron Cooking School

  1. Wine goes early into sauces to ensure the alcohol taste cooks off.
  2. Garlic is best smashed to smithereens in a garlic press to get the maximum flavour, especially for marinades. It should be spreadable with your chef’s knife.
  3. Use grapeseed oil for high temperature cooking, and olive oil for lower temperature cooking. Olive oil goes funny at high temps.
  4. To correctly make a roux (rue) use equal parts flour and fat (ie: butter, pork fat etc).
  5. If your creamy sauce curdles, toss it in the blender. No one will know the difference.
  6. In baking, for a more crusty edge, coat the baking tin with butter and dust with sugar. For a softer edge, dust with flour.
  7. Sautée onions on medium-low heat to prevent the sugars from coming out too fast and burning. Sugars burn!
  8. Don’t wash mushrooms, they’ll suck! Instead, cut off the stems then peel off the skin (and dirt) with your 3″ paring knife, staring at the base. Easy!
  9. Pre-cook your pasta to al dente (firm) and toss with olive oil before guests arrive. Once your sauce is ready, plunge the pasta into boiling water quickly. Done.
  10. Putting hot food into the fridge heats up the temperature of the whole fridge – not good for the other food. Let items cool to room temp. before refrigerating.

Artpowerhouse image of The Dirty Apron

Artpowerhouse image of The Dirty Apron Cooking School

Artpowerhouse image of The Dirty Apron Cooking School

Artpowerhouse image of The Dirty Apron Cooking School

The entire staff at The Dirty Apron were ever so gracious and thoughtful, just like the space itself. And despite my unreasonable terror, Chef Dave made the environment completely welcoming and low pressure.

Chef Takashi was equally brilliant and always supportive (like when he sees something is about to go up in smoke he calmly suggests reducing the heat) and no matter what step you’re at in the recipe he can be called upon to know precisely what’s next and toss in that last bit of flour for you. Awesome.

A deep bow of gratitude to everyone there (including the lovely hostess who hung up our coats and served us wine)!  It’s all just so damn good. You could take my word for it or just go experience it yourself. Start by learning more about The Dirty Apron Cooking School here.

Images via Artpowerhouse.

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  1. reine
    December 16, 2011

    I laughed so much my fake eyelashes just melted off with the tears!
    Lets go back!


  2. Charity
    December 17, 2011

    You feel about cooking the way I feel about technology. Unreasonable terror. I love this posting. So funny.

  3. Klara Nowinski
    December 25, 2011

    I really like your writing style, good information, thankyou for posting : D.