"Noone ever died from good food," says Mark Best, as he adds another generous handful of salt to a pot of boiling water.
The crowd laughs with relief. I'm at the Sydney Seafood School and tonight's class is being led by Mark, chef and owner of three-hatted restaurant Marque.
The Sydney Seafood School underwent a major facelift in 2009, led by hospitality design specialist Michael McCann. The glass door entrance -- opposite Doyles on the ground floor of Sydney Fish Market -- gives nothing away about the state-of-the-art cooking facilities upstairs.
Sydney Seafood School tiered auditorium
Most classes at the Sydney Seafood School commence in the auditorium, a slick design of semi-circular tiered seating facing a demonstration kitchen. Each seat comes with the flip-up side table you remember from uni (designed for right-handers, of course), but what's most impressive is the four camera set-up, positioned so key elements of the kitchen bench are projected onto giant plasma screens above.
Fresh from his trip to New York (oh look, who's that on the Martha Stewart Show?), Mark explained his first dish was inspired by the city's famous pastrami on rye. In his healthier and lighter version, he substituted beef with the loin of a sashimi-grade yellowtail kingfish, first curing it in brown sugar, salt, lemon zest and thyme leaves.
The fish is rinsed then rubbed in a ground-up mixture of freshly roasted spices, including coriander seeds, white peppercorns, cumin seeds, fennel seeds and Spanish smoked paprika. At least 30 minutes is recommended for the spice mix to permeate the fish, creating a darker tinge on the edges that is so reminiscent of pastrami.
The kingfish is sliced and plated on salted cabbage leaves (like a mild version of sauerkraut) and garnished with rye crumbs, a genius idea of Ryvita cracker crumbs pan-fried in butter.
Mark recommends the leftover kingfish belly be rubbed with the excess spice mix and then barbecued skin-side down for maximum crispness. A green tomato gazpacho is recommended and demonstrated as an accompaniment.
Grilled loligo squid with spinach and anchovy
Mark's final dish is a grilled loligo squid, gutted but left with the skin on, that is marinated simply in garlic, extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper before the tubes are finished on the grill.
Spinach and anchovy puree is a simple blitz of wilted spinach leaves with Ortiz anchovies. Too many household cooks don't use enough when cooking, he'd bemoaned, resulting in food that is under-seasoned. Mark believes there is a noticeable difference in taste between adding salt during the cooking process, and adding it at the table. When cooking vegetables in boiling water, he says, the water should be as salty as sea water. Plunging the spinach leaves in iced water will stop the cooking process, and help retain vibrancy of colour.
The spinach and anchovy puree is moistened with a splash of olive oil in the food processor. In his signature deadpan voice he reminds the audience that "you're playing with a feather, not a fire hose".
We migrate next door to the hands-on kitchen and break up into groups of five to cook. The island bench tops are impressive, fully equipped work stations with refrigerated drawers, a fancy ceramic cooktop with pop-up gas burners, and pre-stocked with all our necessary ingredients, crockery, tools and utensils. Lined up on the side the room are the barbecue grills.
It feels a bit like MasterChef with each person quickly volunteering to take responsibility for a dish. Two staff members float through the room, making sure everyone is prepping in the recommended order. Mark ambles across to each station for a quick one-on-one chat with everyone (the highlight of his US trip was visiting Blue Hill Stone Barns which he says has a very similar philosophy to Noma).
It doesn't take for everything to come together, and we plate up and head next door. We even have pre-allocated tables which we have to set with crockery, glassware and cutlery. I volunteer to set our table, feeling a bit like one of the trainees in the recent BBC series Michel Roux's Service (if you haven't watched it, get onto it asap!).
A drop of white wine with dinner
We eat dinner together, and it's no surprise that everyone is a food lover and keen amateur cook. Our food all tastes fantastic, especially the squid. I'm a huge fan of the barbecued kingfish belly too. The pastrami of kingfish would be an ideal entree to prepare ahead for a dinner party.
Grilled loligo squid with spinach and anchovy
Green tomato gazpacho
Pastrami of kingfish on rye
There's plenty of leftovers to take home, packed away in takeaway containers that magically appear. The best part? There's no washing up to do - we simply stack our dishes into basins just like school camp.
The classes are well-organised and do a great job of illustrating the importance of obtaining quality and fresh seafood, and how it can be used for a range of delicious meals. Other classes include Singapore chilli crab, tapas, sashimi, seafood barbecue and a range of special guest chefs. A list of upcoming classes at the Sydney Seafood School can be found here.
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2/23/2011 02:43:00 a.m.