Gourmet Hawaii

Pro chefs teach clients the ins and outs of haute cuisine

By: Michele Kayal

Most of us were still gulping our French-press coffee, but chef George Mavrothalassitis was already buzzing, diagramming his intricate jasmine squab with a black Crayola.

“I want you to have some emotion,” he said, scribbling lines and circles like a football coach. “You have to feel what is good with squab.”

Sixteen of us had gathered early on a Saturday morning on the island of Oahu to cook with the 2003 James Beard-award winner known for his innovative merger of French technique and Hawaiian ingredients. And even though I knew immediately that none of what we were about to learn would ever happen in my own kitchen besides the squab, our lunch would consist of coriander-crusted onaga and “chilled pear cloud” that wasn’t really the point.

The point is to be backstage at the foodie equivalent of a rock concert. Gourmet Cooking Hawaii has been inviting people into the kitchen with Mavro and chefs from two-dozen other upscale Honolulu restaurants since 2003. Clients who like to cook or even just love to eat will enjoy watching a chef peel, core and dice a pear in 20 seconds, or divulge cool tricks you can use at home. (I can now make a perfectly round poached egg.) The classes are also a hands-on way to learn about Hawaii’s haute cuisine and its roots in local food. And Mavro a French guy with a Greek name who cooks Hawaii Regional Cuisine is a show in himself, making his class the agency’s premier experience.

Clients can choose to watch or do. Excited by the six-ring cooktops, the walk-in freezers and the immaculate stainless-steel counters, I started out doing, but was sort of fired. (That poached egg? It took me a couple of tries.) But, since I vowed to never make any of this at home anyway, watching and listening was a great education.

On TV, Jacques Pepin can debone a chicken in 30 seconds while talking about his childhood, but Mavro was there, live, using a scimitar to fillet a 10-pound onaga like it was a minnow.

“I want to tell you something very important,” he said, pushing cropped silver curls from his forehead. “If you like fish well done, eat something else.”

Mavro’s rules are simple.

“If you don’t have time to cook, don’t cook,” he said, doing a hilarious imitation of a TV chef chopping away with machine gun rapid fire. As he does this, the milk on the stove boils over, making it feel even more like you are just sitting in his kitchen having a casual chat.

Chef Mavro’s Helpful Hints

When simmering pears, apples or any fruit that will turn black, prevent discoloration by cutting a hole in a disk of parchment paper and placing it on the water’s surface.

To crisp the skin of a chicken or other bird, start on high heat and then turn it down.

When making a stock for sauce, reduce it to a nearly dry pan three times to get the maximum amount of caramel from the bones.

For perfectly round poached eggs, line a ramekin with plastic wrap, spray it with non-stick spray, crack the egg into the ramekin and tie with a string. Drop the package into gently simmering water and cook for 7 minutes. For extra richness, add a dash of truffle oil and salt before tying the package. If preparing the eggs in advance, cook about six minutes, and then plunge into a bowl of ice water. Drop back into the simmering water for about one minute just before serving.

Never buy a knife advertised on TV for $19.99.

The Details

Gourmet Cooking Hawaii offers a 12 percent commission to travel agents who arrange private classes for a group. Chef Mavro’s classes are $150 per person with a 10-person minimum. For other experiences, the price is $2,200 for up to 20 people and $110 for each additional guest, with no minimum number of participants. Classes last about 3 hours.