Note. This post originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Observer, February 2010.
The opening of the Giant Eagle Market District store in Robinson Township last November promised to be a Mecca for Pittsburgh-area foodies. Here you could find all of your specialty food products in one place, from locally grown produce to grass-fed meats, with purveyor names like Jamison Farms and D’Artagnan. At last, you could finally purchase beer in a Pennsylvania grocery store, and not just any beer, but quality microbrews, both local and otherwise. Artisanal cheeses, charcuterie, high-end prepared foods, even gelato—the list both delights and amazes.
Despite the draw of these products, a slightly lesser known aspect of the new store intrigued me even more: The Market District Cooking School. I have dreamed of attending the Culinary Institute of America in New York State for years, if not for its formal four-year culinary arts degree then at least for its enthusiast classes. The Market District school held the promise of those kinds of informal classes closer to home.
As an overview, the Market District Cooking School offers two types of classes: hands-on and demonstration. The hands-on classes can accommodate up to 12 students who prepare the meals alongside chef instructors. The demonstration classes hold up to 18 students seated at tables (think Emeril Live from the Food Network) to watch the chefs prepare the foods being covered. Unless otherwise noted on the cooking school calendar, all students receive a full meal or appetizers, sometimes with optional alcoholic beverage if the student is of the appropriate age, at each class.
The cooking school is located on the second floor of the store; an elevator and steps can be reached through the “open container” area of the café near the prepared foods section. The room is set up like a classroom with a large, open kitchen at the front for demonstration purposes. Several cooking stations are located around the room for the hands-on classes.
On Saturday, February 13, I attended “Chocolate, Chocolate, Chocolate,” a demonstration-style class from the cooking school staff. This is the first and so far only class I’ve had through the Market District Cooking School. I really hate to say this after all of the high hopes I had for the school, but based on this single experience, I am sorely disappointed. Remember how I said the school’s setup was kind of like Emeril Live? To continue with the Food Network show theme, this particular demonstration was like Emeril Live meets Semi-Homemade Cooking With Sandra Lee, and not in a good way.
The menu for the evening consisted of dark chocolate toffee popcorn, spicy hot chocolate, cocoa-rubbed pork tenderloin with coconut rice, white chocolate blackberry cheesecake, and espresso brownies with hazelnuts. We had three chef instructors; if I can use the analogy of a restaurant kitchen, one acted as an executive or head chef and the other two were more like sous chefs (assistants).
The evening started out well. As elements of different recipes began being prepped, and I observed the delicate balance of timing preparation so that different dishes are finished at the time they are required.
The good: Although I was slightly disappointed to see prepopped movie theater-style popcorn used for the chocolate toffee popcorn, it had a great balance of sweet and salty notes (my favorite taste combination).
The spicy hot chocolate, topped with a Kahlua whipped cream, was rich enough to die for. I was happy to be served the warm drink early on in the evening because the room was quite cold. It was a little too spicy for my own personal taste, but it didn’t stop me from finishing about half of it.
A sleeper dish was the coconut rice, steamed in coconut milk and mixed with toasted coconut. It had a texture similar to risotto and was almost sweet enough to be a rice pudding dessert.
The not so good: The brownies were put together from scratch, with tempered chocolate and, an interesting twist, browned butter. Butter is “browned” by melting it in a skillet on the stovetop—it achieves the color it is named for when the milk solids start to toast and caramelize. This added a slightly nutty flavor to the brownies, enhanced by the toasted hazelnut topping. Unfortunately, they were also topped with a tub of manufactured vanilla frosting. The result was a gooey, delicious-looking brownie that had an artificial aftertaste from the frosting.
As I watched the chef scrape brick after brick of cream cheese for the cheesecake into a stand mixer, I thought I might be able to overlook the lineup of preformed individual graham cracker pie shells on the counter. How can you go wrong with that much cream cheese? That’s when I learned that this would be a no-bake cheesecake. Whoa! Hold it right there! “No-bake cheesecake,” in my opinion, does not deserve to bear the name cheesecake. Cream cheese mousse, maybe, but the moniker “cheesecake” should only be bestowed on rich, dense, fudge-like cakes that are baked in a water bath in the oven. After that, there was no hiding the artificial taste of the preformed shells.
The awful: Although the spiced cocoa rub for the pork tenderloins sounded intriguing, I raised an eyebrow when the chef said that the pork should be cooked to an internal temperature of 145 degrees. Pork tenderloin is one of my favorite things to cook at home, and I know full well that the FDA’s “safe eats” temperature guideline for pork is to cook it to 160 degrees for medium and 170 degrees for well done. At first I thought he just misspoke, but when the pork was pulled from the oven and sliced, two of the four tenderloins were visibly undercooked. To correct the undercooking, which was discovered only after both undercooked tenderloins had been completely sliced, the sous chef quietly microwaved—yes, you read that right—in the microwave—the rare slices. Even the Atwater Vanilla Java Porter that was served alongside the meal couldn’t hide that flavor catastrophe.
I feel a little bad pointing out these flaws, because despite my experience, I really want the cooking school to succeed. I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, especially since this review is based on only one class. This was a live class, after all, and who can predict what will happen live? I don’t even want to know what might go on in a real restaurant kitchen in similar situations. At the same point, I feel the need to hold the school to a higher standard than it displayed. Even if the classes are geared toward a home cook who might want to take shortcuts like using canned frosting and preformed pie shells, I expect the classes to teach the entire method of cooking each dish with the option of adding the shortcut at home. I wouldn’t mind if the frosting, pie shells, or popcorn were made from scratch ahead of time because I completely understand the time crunch faced in a 2.5- to 3-hour cooking class. It’s just when you pay an average of $35 for a demonstration class or $45 for a hands-on class, you really don’t expect to cook with or eat prepackaged ingredients.
Still, I’m going to keep my eye on the cooking school calendar; the spring class list is expected to be released in a couple of weeks. I might steer clear of any put on by the cooking school staff, at least until the memory of this one fades a bit more; however, a talented lineup of guest chefs from local restaurants will continue to grace the class list, and I plan to attend some of those.