Learning to Cook Seafood at the Dirty Apron Cooking School

Learning never tasted so good as it does the Dirty Apron cooking school, which teaches foodies to cook and plate like pros

Credit: Kevin Clark Photography

The Dirty Apron cooking school is the perfect culinary playground for any foodie

Craving a home-cooked gourmet meal? The Dirty Apron cooking school will show you how

If only every night could be a Dirty Apron night. The brainchild of Karri and Nico Schuerman (of Chambar Restaurant and Cafe Medina fame) and their former Chambar Chef de Cuisine David Robertson, the Dirty Apron is what they call a culinary playground – a mecca for curious palates where foodies are taught how to cook and plate like pros.

The Dirty Apron is a beautiful cooking school nestled on the same block as Chambar and Medina, and attached to their gourmet deli. Since it opened about two years ago, it’s taught over 14,000 people. So I figured it was about time I tried myself.

Schooled in the Art of Food at the Dirty Apron

The Dirty Apron classroom / Image: Kevin Clark Photography

The school space is divided between the larger demonstration and cooking area, and a cosy, family-style dining room around the corner. Both sides were gorgeous in their own respects: one gleaming with Wolf ranges accessorised by a dream team of All Clad cookery and Wusthof knives; the other side warm and inviting with long, rustic-modern tables, high ceilings and two magnificent oversized crystal chandeliers.

I attended the Ocean Potion class, which was a packed 4+ hours where we learned how to prep, cook and serve three seafood courses: mussels in a spicy coconut tomato broth (the exact recipe for Chambar’s Congolaise moules frites!), maple-seared scallops on pea coulis with a choritzo and kalamata ragout, and a pan-roasted Halibut stacked on sautéed spinach and crushed fingerling potatoes accompanied by a charred tomato vinaigrette.

Pro Demos

David Robertson demos pro cooking techniques / Image: Kevin Clark Photography

Before we cooked each course, we got a demonstration from David, the consummate chef instructor. With a background in classic French cuisine, he’s definitely got the culinary chops. Combine that with a flair for charismatic, enthusiastic communication, and you’ve got the makings for a truly entertaining and informative evening.

During each demonstration, David deftly prepared each meal, showing us step-by-step how to create it. And if something was particularly detailed – like recognising exactly when a piece of fish was perfectly cooked or how minced garlic should look – he’d pop around to our side of the counter and show us up close what to look for.

And as David cooked, he provided ongoing commentary on techniques and answered questions and passed on tips, tricks and general pearls of culinary wisdom. For example we learned how to properly use a chef’s knife, how to make garlic paste without a garlic press, the difference between crystalized salt and regular table salt, and what to look for when buying fresh seafood.

Foodie Tips from the Dirty Apron

The Dirty Apron classroom bustling with activity / Image: Kevin Clark Photography

Some of my favourite tips and bits of trivia gleaned from that evening include:

  • The higher the milk fat content (MF%), the higher temperature you can cook it at without it curdling. (This is why low-fat Alfredo sauce will never works out.)
  • If you’re using frozen scallops, defrost them on paper towels to help wick away moisture. You’ll never achieve that coveted caramelization if it’s too wet.
  • Use can use olive oil when cooking at a low to medium heat, as it has a low smoking point. For high-heat cooking, use a vegetable oil like grapeseed, which has a much higher smoking point.
  • Freeze leftover ingredients like chipotle paste, stock or sauces in ice cube trays (and then transfer to a freezer bag) so you don’t waste what’s not used and you can defrost exactly what you need the next time you need it.
  • And the most astounding tip I heard that night: It’s perfectly fine to eat mussels that don’t open during the cooking process. That’s right! Unopened = OK! As it turns out, about 11.5% of all mussels have extremely strong abductor muscles that make them stubborn specimens, refusing to open up regardless of how much heat you apply. But they’re still delicious and perfectly safe to eat. David assured us that we’d smell a bad mussel long before we ever spotted it.

Classes are maxed at 22 people, with two people working from each of the 11 cooking stations. While we shared stoves and ovens, everybody cooked their own dish so you could season and alter your meal to your personal preference. And all ingredients were pre-measured and mostly prepped for us, so all we had to do a little light chopping and the actual cooking.

And while we went through the paces, instructors came around to supervise and offer hands-on help. That night, David was assisted by the charming Takashi Mizukami, and both circulated constantly and fine tuned our cooking temperatures, added more oil to pans as needed, and generally made sure nothing was on fire and everything was moving along at a good pace.

Dinner is Served

Enjoying the fruits of our labour / Image: Kevin Clark Photography

After we finished cooking each course, everyone plated their food and headed around the corner to the dining room and took a few moments to enjoy our meal and chat with other students. They provided wine for each course and by the time we sat down for our third demonstration, you could definitely feel that people were getting a lot more relaxed.

Classes there are usually a mix of 60/40, women to men (guys, are you listening?) with students coming in from all around the world and at all ages. They’ve had students from Saudi Arabia, Argentina, Australia and once even a guy who flew in from Saskatchewan for a single class and then flew back home.

The evening I was there, I was working next to a group of ex-pat Quebecois women on a girls’ night out, whose lilting French made it easier for me to imagine I was in Europe. And at my dining table there was a guy who came with his two brothers (seated elsewhere) and unabashedly admitted that his mother sent them all there to learn how to cook. And there’ll always be a smattering of hobby chefs, the repeat students who love to be in a professional kitchen and dabble in the culinary arts. “Cooking’s the new yoga,” David observed. “It’s very therapeutic – calm and relaxing.”

I’m not sure if I was completely relaxed that evening, but I definitely was full. While we did learn a lot and came away with some great recipes, we also ate a Chambar-esque four-course meal (they provided a dessert, which was a caramel and cardamom poached pear piped with ice cream nestled in a pool of dark Callebaut chocolate sauce). The ingredients provided are really quite generous, so I strongly suggest you forgo that afternoon snack before coming to a class. Or bring Tupperware.

Catherine Tse is a freelance writer and editor based in Vancouver. From the Great Wall of China to Sydney’s Opera House to the Blue Lagoon in Iceland, Catherine loves an adventure and loves to share them with her readers.