Sunday, August 7, 2011

Cooking lessons at the Shang and a nice dinner at home

On Saturday morning, I resisted the sudden urge to have a lazy morning and I got myself to the Makati Shangri-la around mid-morning to attend a Swiss cooking class given by Oskar Marti, master chef and owner of the famous Moospinte Restaurant near Bern, Switzerland, and his executive chef Michael Ramseier.

Oskar and Michael were in Manila for a week to make wonderful Swiss dishes at Red, the fine dining outlet of the Makati Shangri-la. I'd attended a dinner the hotel had hosted on Thursday together with the Swiss watchmaker Breguet and their Manila representatives Lucerne; and the four-course dinner had been absolutely marvelous.


I most enjoyed a creamy soup Oskar and Michael had made out of honest-to-goodness fresh organic hay from the Swiss Alps, and which they'd boiled with vegetable stock and then seasoned with champagne -- yes, champagne! -- and garnished with cream. The result was a wonderful taste that was difficult to put a lid on -- it was salty, sour and creamy all at once, and yes it smelled of hay. I couldn't have enough of it, so when I learned that Oskar and Michael were conducting a class on Swiss cooking on the weekend and demonstrating this very soup again I quickly signed up.


I love cooking for friends but I don't do it often enough. But I find attending these cooking classes really enjoyable and relaxing after a stressful week. Perhaps it's the ease with which the chefs produce excellent meals that is both comforting and Zen-like. There must be a couple of angry or stressed top chefs in this world -- but so far, the ones I've taken workshops and master classes with have all been the cool-as-cucumber types with jolly personalities and a real zest for living.

The cooking class was conducted at Red. And on Saturday, we went through three dishes to make a proper full-course Swiss dinner. We began with a medley of starters that looked beautiful when served together on a plate: an Emmenthal rabbit ragout with wild mushrooms in Barrique sauce, with a jar of carrot mousse and a cup of Swiss Alps hay soup next to it. I loved this, and of course I was ecstatic to have my favorite soup again.

For the main course, we had a spicy goulash of monkfish with sauerkraut. The overall effect of this dish -- at least to me -- was very similar to a Chinese sweet and sour fish dish. But interestingly, no such spices or Oriental ingredients were added because Oskar and Michael strongly believe in only using local and fresh ingredients in their dishes. So that sweet and sour taste I had actually came from sauerkraut.


Dessert was equally interesting because everything was based on fennel. Fennel is used a lot in Europe and -- as my dining companion reminded me -- you'll find it abundantly flavoring spirits in Europe, like absinthe or pastis. So it's everywhere. But I'd never had it for dessert. And on Saturday, we actually had three dishes for dessert that all used fennel: A fennel compote served with fennel ice cream and fennel cake. I loved it, and it was a revelation to be able to think of fennel as a main ingredient for desserts.


Equally interesting was the conversation at our table. The cooking class attracted all kinds of people. There were a considerable number of Swiss expatriates who'd come because Oskar is very famous in Switzerland and they wanted to see him up close and learn from him. There were also women of all ages. And most interestingly, there were a lot of men for this class. I do attend a lot of these cooking classes in Manila, as I find they fit perfectly with my schedule vis-a-vis a cooking school with a fixed schedule, and these take the stress off the week. But I've almost never seen so many men in these classes before.


At our table, a Swiss couple sat on my right. I assumed immediately that the man worked for a large multinational or the embassy -- just because that's more often the case. But it turned out that the man had just retired from his job in Zurich (although he looked too young to retire) and his female companion had chucked out everything in her past and was trying to reinvent herself by taking a cooking course in the Philippines and then go on to a third career. The man had come along for an adventure. They'd been here for 14 months, and in that span of time, they'd been to so many places around the Philippines that I felt completely inadequate sitting next to them. That's how extensive their traveling around the Philippines was.

"I love Mindanao, and I've been everywhere in Mindanao," the woman said. "The best kare-kare I've ever had was in a little town in Bataan, while the best halo-halo was in a stall next to Pagsanjan River. They did everything by hand and there were a lot of locals lining up, but we were the only foreigners. Of course, the best bulalo I've had was in Batangas."

The one thing they'd never done, however, was to have dinner at the home of a Filipino. They'd eaten at all sorts of restaurants and gone on so many culinary adventures, but they'd never been invited to someone's home for a proper home-coooked dinner. So I ended up inviting them over for dinner at my home sometime sooner than later.


Ironically, on Saturday night, I did have a dinner at home for a foodie couple who are among my oldest and dearest friends. I temporarily toyed with the idea of immediately putting my new Swiss cooking skills to a test by serving them what I'd just had for lunch; but then decided against it in favor of comfort food I thought was more appropriate for just chilling out and catching up. I can always have them over for Swiss hay soup another day -- although I'm going to have to look for that hay or a near equivalent.

Anyway, my choice of food turned out to be a good call. We had absolutely delicious ribs and lots of good things to go with it. Then I opened a bottle of champagne -- yes, I know champagne doesn't exactly go with ribs, but who cares -- and we ate, drank, listened to songs that transported us back to another era, giggled about a couple of text messages that made us think of high school all over again, and laughed all night.

Join our Italy events this September.

with Margarita Fores
and the Embassy of Italy & Bacchus Epicerie
September 8 at Whitespace

TRAVELIFE Gastronomic Tour of Italy
September 17-25

For reservations and information, please contact:
Bernice or Rachel at TRAVELIFE
813-8400/ 892-2620


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