What would you do if you and your honey went to an elegant new restaurant, and the chef hands you an apron, a filleting knife and a chunk of meat and tells you to get cracking? If you're at the Fanatic Kitchen Studio, you roll up your sleeves, get knuckle- deep in spicy marinade, and prepare for the culinary experience of a lifetime. The Fanatic Kitchen is a new concept to Trinidad, a place where gourmet lovers and cooking buffs can gather in intimate groups and enjoy a hands-on lesson in fine cuisine, then sit at the table with the chef and savour the fruit of their labours. As I step inside, I'm greeted with a mimosa and a smile. Surrounded by cool tones of gray, off-white, black and red, the Barefoot Contessa wannabe inside me feels like a little girl in a Barbie-doll showroom. The walls are hung with oversized photos of masterfully presented dishes, and TV screens loop scenes of exotic landscapes, markets, and beautiful people consuming everything from simple peasant dishes to Cordon Bleu.
The space, put together by Trinidad Innovation USA Company, makes me feel like I've stumbled onto the set of a new Food Network show. When I get an eyeful of the gleaming rows of Fagor stainless steel fridges and cookers, I have to remind myself about that whole "Thou shalt not covet" thing. With 20 minutes to go to the Fanatic Kitchen's inaugural cooking workshop, I sit and chat with owner Donna Wyke-Reese. In front of us is a tray of black olives, sea bass ceviche and toasted rounds of Italian and pumpernickel bread. I decide against politely pretending to be already stuffed, and dig in. Wyke-Reese, also a Director of Publicis Caribbean advertising agency, has always surrounded herself with food. "I love entertaining in my kitchen. My friends come and we have wine and chat and I cook and experiment." When she travels, she's always on the lookout for new cultural and culinary experiences. "I've been to many culinary capitals like Argentina, Spain, Italy, France, England, New Orleans, New York, Washington ...."
The Fanatic Kitchen concept began taking root in her mind. "I've seen it done in other countries. All the chefs and caterers in Trinidad like the idea." It's not a cooking school by any means; it's more like a lime where everybody has a hand in the pot. Apart from the cooking workshops you can book their Chef's Table, in which the chef prepares their dinner in front of your eyes. It's also available for corporate team building exercises, girls' nights out, even fun, innovative children's and adult birthday parties. "It's whatever you make it," she explains. As we chat, people file in; couples, friends, a mother and her teenage son. There are about ten of us. Soon, Chef Jason Peru of the Trinidad and Tobago Hospitality Institute announces that it's time to start, and we wash hands and gather eagerly around the table. Chef Peru is one of many local and international chefs who are lining up to participate. The Orgasmic Chef, Shelton Alexis, featured in Woman Wise on March 20th, will be their main visiting celebrity. There are plans afoot for special occasions: couples' workshops for Valentine's Day, Indian delicacies at Divali and Eid, and Christmas goodies in December.
The kitchen island is laden with a colourful array of ingredients. Today's menu is pistachio-encrusted rack of lamb, herbed couscous with vegetables, and Nutella ravioli with Bananas Foster, vanilla ice cream and fresh strawberries. He groups us according to the courses, and I immediately volunteer to be on the lamb team. Meat! Meat! Meat! For the next two hours, Chef takes us through our paces, giving us helpful tips and hints. We mull over the mysteries of the tabletop induction cookers, which most of us haven't seen before. We laugh a lot, taste everything, and fool around with shiny, sexy kitchen implements. Team Lamb massages Dijon mustard into the ribs like suntan lotion into a lover's back, and manages to sear them with no major catastrophes. As our racks bake, we join Team Dessert. Nobody's surprised when more Nutella ends up inside us than inside the ravioli. Finally, the meal is done and plated with great panache, and we sit around the table and enjoy. Conversation revolves around food, as people share their culinary experiences: lamb's tails in New Zealand, guinea pig in South America. When it's over, we leave with our tummies full and printed recipes tucked under our arms. A few apprentice chefs have already signed up for next week's workshop...and I can see why. It's good food, warm company and huge fun.