As a Christmas gift, I was given a one-night class at Camaje cooking classes. The course for the evening at the West Village French bistro that my benefactor chose to enroll me in was “A Taste of Thai.” This was the first cooking class I had taken since seventh grade home economics, and I couldn’t wait.
When I visited Thailand a few years ago, my friend took a cooking class that was offered to him by one of the girls at a massage parlor we went to. I didn’t partake, fearing a “happy ending” type of situation—so this New York French bistro-housed class on a freezing February night was a small redemption for that missed opportunity–with a much more wholesome ending.
The class included six pupils – two couples, me, and another straggler – and was led by Camaje’s owner and head chef Abby Hitchcock. I guess I didn’t read the website’s description very well, but it hadn’t occurred to me that we would be cooking in an actual restaurant, on a night when the kitchen staff were serving regular customers and we had to work around each other. Camaje is a dimly lit, cozy and romantic place. The lighting didn’t lend much for demonstrational cooking, let alone that there was no room, really, to demonstrate any cooking techniques. So Abby began by passing around Thai ingredients we would be working with to smell – galangal, kaffir lime leaves, tamarind paste, fish sauce. Then we each chose a dish from a list of recipes that was passed out, given the appropriate supplies and ingredients to work with, and off we went.
Looks like a seafood stew was on the menu that night–which I opportunistically grabbed a shot of in the kitchen
For the green curry chicken that I made, I only needed some Thai essentials and green curry paste: coconut milk, ginger, galangal, lemongrass, lime leaves, palm sugar, fish sauce, lime juice, garlic, scallions, cilantro, chicken, red bell pepper. When it came to tasting the curry after all the ingredients had been added, Abby lended a hand. It was too salty and heavy on fish sauce, so she suggested more palm sugar and lime juice. Meanwhile, everyone was clattering and clamoring in the kitchen, waiting for available burners, and the one resident cook at Camaje reaching over shoulders and opening and closing the ovens to prepare the customers’ food. I was mildly surprised when Abby instructed me to stick my finger into the bubbling broth in order to taste the curry instead of grabbing a spoon, as she apparently does, but in the end, I guess the chaos of a restaurant kitchen isn’t that much different than when you’re in a cooking frenzy in your own home.
You wouldn’t actually see too much of this in Thai cooking: straining large hunks of ginger, lemongrass, and other spices from a broth. The profusion of things you’re not supposed to eat in a real Thai dish can be frustrating, and you’re not likely to see it on many restaurant plates here
The other dishes taught in the class were pad thai, coconut rice pilaf, tom kha gai (coconut milk-y soup we made with shrimp instead of chicken), chicken satay, and an admittedly Western coconut banana tart for dessert. Everything had coconut milk in it except for the pad thai. The brand of coconut milk we were using, though, was a little too fatty and Abby didn’t stop complaining about this. As a result, the tom kha gai felt slimy in texture, and had a layer of oil floating on top.
The finished dishes were enjoyed with a toast of wine at a long table–my first taste of “eating out” in New York, though techically we all cooked
We made a banana coconut tart instead of a traditional Thai dessert–Abby gives it a carmelization zap at the table
The best part of the class actually took place after all the cooking had been finished, and we all ate our dishes together. I was probably the youngest student in the class, the rest of them various professionals who had all, for some reason, married in the last few months.
But as much fun as it was to cook in someone else’s restaurant and dine with a group of friendly strangers, I have a lot of respect for a good cookbook. I’ve learned a lot more about Thai cooking and ingredients from browsing through a copy of Vatch’s Southeast Asian Cookbook, a really comprehensive exploration of the region’s culture, history and food, replete with beautiful photography. Camaje’s Thai cooking class, while hand’s on, ultimately offered only a good “taste” of Thai in comparison. And a glass of good wine.