At Prague's Chef Parade cooking classes, they're serving up great meals - and some invaluable lessons too.
My arrival in Prague was a triumph but it didn't feel so auspicious at first. At the train station, I was holding my breath. This was it. A new country. A new language, a new currency, even a new political history. I was in Eastern Europe for the first time and I was in over my head.
As living in the train station wasn't an option, I found the metro entrance, then the ticket box, and finally the convenience store that provided change through the purchase of a Snickers bar. I found the right metro train and then even the right tram, which stopped precisely in front of our hotel. Whew! As I stepped onto Prague's cobblestones for the first time, I was overwhelmed by the most incredible smell; the onion-y, savory aroma from someone cooking a mouthwatering meal. There was music playing in the square and I finally exhaled. And I started to laugh. That's when I knew that Prague and I were going to get along just fine.
In less than an hour, Prague had already taught me some important lessons, like how it's okay to feel trepidation. And that it's okay to take your time to figure things out. And that acquiring Snickers bars should always be step one of any plan! And maybe the scrumptious smell that greeted me was the fore bearer for what came next - an amazing cooking class with some surprising life lessons of its own.
This Prague cooking class is in a class all its own.
Chef Parade is a culinary phenomenon in Eastern Europe. With branches in Prague, Bratislava, and Budapest, plus a Prague food truck, an e-store, and a presence at festivals, it's safe to say they know their way around a kitchen! You can see their chefs in action at a live cooking demonstration, or be totally immersed in a three hour, three course, hands on cooking class, complete with three wine pairings and a guided market tour.
We couldn't wait to get the full experience and become better acquainted with Czech food and wine! But it turned out that cooking lessons were just the tip of the iceberg. Here's what else our Chef Parade class taught us about food, travel, and life.
Good things come in unexpected places.
Spoiling ourselves on the ultimate indulgence- an Uber ride from our hotel, The Nicholas Hotel - we were dropped off less than 5 minutes from the Chef Parade cooking school. But what should have been an easy walk turned into a bit of a wild goose chase, including an aborted attempt to climb what was either a highway ramp or a parking tower and a hopping-the-fence, road dashing adventure. We were baffled as we circled what looked more like an industrial park than a purveyor of produce.
At last, it all came together and we dashed into the clean, modern classroom with not a minute to spare. I wasn't expecting THIS from the outside! And as we joined our group and walked around the corner to visit the Holesovice Market, we couldn't believe what was hidden in plain sight the entire time.
Prague's Holesovice farmer's market was amazing. We picked up some treats, including fresh fruit for our desserts, and learned a lot about local cuisine. (One curiosity I saw: huge sunflower heads. I learned that they're sold for their seeds, which are used in bread).
We also couldn't get over how affordable everything was. A huge bag of blue plums was the equivalent of a dollar! If you want an off-the-beaten-path destination in Prague, or even just an fantastic haul of groceries, head to Holesovice.
Our little misadventure on our way to the cooking school was an important reminder of several travel lessons that always bear repeating. Beauty can be hidden where you least expect it - and that a rough exterior can contain something much warmer inside.
(Oh: And always have both written directions and a map with you when heading onto uncertain turf when you have a deadline!)
Waste not, want not.
I've learned a lot from my travel experiences, but few lessons have had such a direct impact on my daily life like Chef Parade's stock pot. I knew about stock, in theory. I even occasionally made my own with turkey bones after Christmas as a precursor for homemade turkey vegetable soup. But I never thought of stock as an everyday ingredient or an everyday act.
Stock was the foundation for all of our recipes. Therefore class started with a lot of vegetable prep so we could have our ingredients ready and add our scraps to the pot. Every scrap, every peel, and every strip of onion skin got unceremoniously tossed into a large pot of boiling water where it bubbled for hours. Along the way, peppercorns, whole allspice, and bay leaf got added, as well as a pork bone. Absolutely nothing was wasted. And the smell was divine - almost as good as what greeted me the previous day!
As the class progressed, more peels and scraps were continuously added and ladle-fulls of the fragrant broth were pulled out to reconstitute dehydrated mushrooms and add volume to our soup, before finally forming the basis of the sauce for our goulash. The dark purple onion peels added a great dark color to the liquid and the allspice was the perfect ingredient to add depth of flavor.
I had always composted at home but I never considered turning all those carrot tops and parsnip peels into an actual usable product. Stock takes all those throwaway items and turns them into a nutritious, flavorful addition to any recipe. So now I keep my compost bin for things like eggshells and coffee grounds and maintain a sealed container in the fridge for all my daily vegetable bits. I make a weekly batch of stock and decant it into a Mason jar. Whenever a recipe calls for water or broth, that's what I bring out. I even got some stock bones from the butcher's to add a little oomph! Nothing has been so easy and so cheap and has had such a powerful impact on my cooking.
Just try it.
Seeing an unfamiliar stack of knobby green vegetables in the market had me gesturing for our chef to come over with an explanation. I was coming face to face with kohlrabi for the first time! When the chef asked me abruptly if I'd like to try it, I was game. I thought he was going to ask the market vendor for a sample but instead he grabbed a large bunch to take back with us to the kitchen.
Deftly peeling the kohlrabi of its outer skin (straight into the stock pot!), he layered crunchy slices on buttered slices of traditional Czech brown bread. It was so good! Kohlrabi tastes (to me) like a combination of apple and turnip (and you know anything that resembles turnip has to be great in my books). It was sharp and crunchy and peppery and sweet and juicy and fresh.
I would absolutely have kohlrabi again and I think it's the perfect ingredient for coleslaw and salads and veggie and dip platters. Munching on the crunchy, tangy slices reminded me how seldom I add new ingredients to my regular grocery list but how often I should.
Go slow and steady.
Did you know that there's a right way and a wrong way to chop onions? There is - and I was the recipient of remedial lessons! Onion chopping seems like such a basic step, but doing it right was pivotal to our culinary success. The uniform sizes of all the tiny pieces meant that nothing would burn, everything would caramelize, and it would all cook down into nothingness.
And cook down they did! I was in charge of stirring the onions, slowly and steadily, until they virtually dissolved. The chopped pork was added, with more slow, steady stirring. Our gorgeous stock went in next, along with a generous helping of paprika. This was it - glorious, homemade, utterly wonderful goulash, made with ingredients I've had in my home a thousand times, all done in one pan, with one worn spoon.
All day, I was amazed by how such simple components - nothing expensive, nothing unusual - were turned into such wondrous dishes. All were made exquisite with patience. It's a lesson I should well emulate in all cooking and all travels. Sometimes you need to slow down and smell the roses - or re-chop and carefully stir the onions!
Classes at Chef Parade start at 9:00 am and that's when the wine starts as well. And why not? Food and wine and friendship and time around the stove all go together so well. And Czech wine goes down very easily! And other worthy indulgences? Pools of butter and icing sugar on fruit dumplings for dessert. My first thought was that the chef was using WAY too much of each. But maybe there is no such thing as too much butter and sugar - especially after a busy morning of chopping and stirring. My only regret was leaving the box of leftover dumplings behind on the counter.
Obviously not every day can start with wine and end with a pool of melted butter but that hasn't stopped me from buying new wines at home, as well as digging out old cookbooks to drum up some old-is-new fruit crisp recipes.
Full stomachs and full hearts.
During our three hour class, we made homemade stock, potato and mushroom soup, pork goulash, herb and bread dumplings, and fruit dumplings (filled with apricot, plum, and strawberry, as per our picks at the market), plus enjoyed a snack of bread, butter, and kohlrabi and endless wine, bottled water, and soft drinks. Along the way, we learned many valuable cooking skills, not the least of which was my remedial onion chopping lesson! We were all encouraged to get involved and try our hand at all the techniques.
As you can probably guess, we had a lot of fun at Chef Parade. We got to see a different neighbourhood of the city, met new friends through our fellow classmates, learned several useful cooking techniques, gained valuable insight into Czech culture, and - of course - had a decidedly delectable meal. That's pretty great for one morning!
But this class has stayed with me like no other. It's changed how I shop, how I cook, and how I approach food. I knew from the moment I stepped off the tram in Prague that I was going to fall in love with the city but I had no idea at the time just how long term that relationship would be. It feels like the lessons of Chef Parade are in my kitchen and in my life every day.
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