Make Cooking Fun and Easy – with Chef Neil Fuentes
When I got a note that there are some spots available in the Tapas cooking class with Singing Chef Neil Fuentes, of course the first word which got my attention was “tapas” – tapas, or “small plates”, is generally my favorite type of food in any restaurant, Spanish or not – so the invitation definitely attracted my attention. The very next question was – who is Singing Chef Neil Fuentes?
I don’t know what we are going to do if one day Internet will disappear – I know this is rhetorical, but don’t you have a tiny, tini tiny fear deep inside, that this incredible source of knowledge, capable of answering any questions you might, or even might not want to ask, will disappear one day? Oh well, I digress. So I used the powerful Internet to quickly come up with lots of answers about Chef Neil – yes, he is a Singing Chef because he can actually sing and dance, he is fun to watch, and he also competed on Chopped (that might be the biggest influence factor for me – huge fun of the show, and have the utmost respect for every Chef who has enough courage to enter that kitchen). Yep, I definitely want to meet Chef Neil Fuentes.
The cooking class was conducted at the kitchen at Chef’s Equipment Emporium in Orange, CT (a heaven for anyone who is into the cooking, if you ask me). When I arrived there, Chef Fuentes was, of course, already in the kitchen, preparing for the class:
All ingredients around looked very promising too:
And then the class started. I can tell you – Chef Fuentes was a pleasure to watch. He managed to cook, entertain and teach all at the same time, with ease. We found out that Chef Fuentes was born and raised in Venezuela, and he started cooking pretty much from the age of 6, as cooking was important in his family. Hmmm, let me clarify the “important” part. Neil Fuentes grew up on the farm, where cooking was done only with the fresh ingredients (yep, that includes the meat). Later on, Neil became flight attendant for the Venezuela airline, which played an important role in his culinary upbringing. You see, Venezuela airline had only 5 planes, but it was serving almost the same number of international destinations as United Airlines. How is that possible and what it has to do with culinary skills building, you ask? Let me explain. The flights were taking place once a week, so the flight crew had a week of time at their respective destinations. Instead of spending time in the restaurants and bars, Chef Fuentes, who has a great ability to make friends, preferred to visit friends and … yes, you got it – to cook with them! This way, he had an opportunity to learn a lot about world cuisines, and build the skills, which he now gladly shares with others.
After arriving to US, Neil Fuentes started in Bridgeport as a waiter at the Taco Loco restaurant. Then he joined SBC Brewing company, eventually becoming the catering manager, until he started his carrier as Private Chef. Then, there was television. To the date, Chef Fuentes recorded 69 episodes on the Channel 8, and he is planning to start his own Chef Fuentes Live show on the Youtube – with special guests appearances, promotions, and the whole “bam” appeal of Emeril Lagasse show (this is definitely an aspiration). But – remember – Neil Fuentes is the Singing Chef! He teaches musical class on Saturdays, writing musical for kids and loves to perform on stage. Okay, let’s get back to food.
During the class, Chef Fuentes cooked 3 different dishes. The first dish which he started cooking was Tortilla Española, which is a traditional Spanish breakfast dish. To make this dish, you need to first to dice potatoes and onions (we used 3 potatoes and 2 onions), and then simmer them in a light olive oil over a medium heat.
Please note the keyword here – “simmer”, not deep fry. Effectively, you cook the potatoes and onions in the oil instead of water. You simmer the potatoes until they will become soft (will take about 20 minutes), then drain potatoes and onions and put aside to cool off. Meanwhile, Chef Fuentes whisked 12 eggs, then added potatoes and onions to the mix, with salt and pepper, and pour mix into the pan over the low to medium heat, for the next 3-4 minutes.
While the tortilla was cooking, Chef Fuentes started working on home-made mayonnaise. which was made out of the egg yolks, Dijon mustard, lemon juice, pepper, olive oil and Chipotle peppers in adobo sauce – the mayo was accompanying the Tortilla Española.
After 3-4 minutes of cooking, the tortilla was gently flipped, just to cook for another 3-4 minutes, and then it was flipped again – you want to reach a nice consistency of color. And then – voila! Tortilla Española ready, sliced up Tapas style and served with that home-made mayo. Yummy! I would gladly eat that dish for breakfast (and not only) any day.
Remember, I said 3 dishes, right? Next up – Mushrooms with Quail Eggs. Mushrooms is one of my very favorite foods (mushrooms were always an object of craving in my family as I was growing up), I can eat mushrooms every day. I love cooking them, but unfortunately, I butcher them way too often, rendering them super-dry. What Chef Fuentes did with mushrooms was, in my book, literally a masterpiece. A combination of regular white mushrooms with Shitake mushrooms was used in dish. I found it interesting that Chef Fuentes suggested using Thyme with mushrooms, as it nicely complements mushroom flavor (never done it before, but will do now). Mushrooms are sliced, minced garlic, thyme, salt and pepper are heated up over the medium heat, mushrooms are added afterwards. In about 10 minutes, mushrooms will reduce to about half of the size – and this is when they are pretty much ready. Quail eggs are fried sunny side up, and the final dish is assembled on top of the small, fresh and buttery croissant – perfect!
Last, but not least dish – Ham and Cheese Bruschetta. First the minced garlic goes into the pan with medium hot oil, and the small tomatoes are cut in half. Once the garlic heated up sufficiently and released the flavor, tomatoes go into the same pan, cut side down. Slice the baguette into long slices, and prepare cheese slices (Manchego works perfectly well) and Prosciutto rolls. Once the tomatoes become somewhat soft, start assembling the bruschetta. Take slice of bread, take half of the tomato with the oil and garlic, and simply spread it all over the bread ( you will discard the skin of the tomato when you are done). Put slice of cheese on top of the bread, then prosciutto roll on top of cheese and … enjoy!
Just to give you an idea how much I loved that dish – on the way home, I called my wife to tell her that I’m making an appetizer for everybody as soon as I will arrive. Stopped by Trader Joe’s, got baguette, tomatoes, Manchego cheese and Prosciutto, and in 15 minutes family was enjoying this wonderful bruschetta.
So I told you about fun and entertainment, now – what did I learn? A few simple, but very useful things:
1. Don’t use the knife or the edge of the bowl to break the eggs – this is how you get the shell crumbles! Instead, hit the egg lightly at the flat surface – and effortlessly get the egg’s content into the bowl.
2. When you cook the garlic first, don’t do it over the high heat, it will make garlic bitter! Start with medium heat and let the oil to absorb the garlic flavor – without burning the garlic pieces.
3. Well, don’t know if this is universally important, but – mushrooms pair very well with Thyme.
What else can I leave you with? First, lots of information about Chef Fuentes – here is the link to his website, where you can get to know him, and see him sing, dance, entertain, and of course, cook. Note that Chef Fuentes does both cooking classes and private events – if you live close enough to New Haven, Connecticut, you might consider hiring him. Also, Chef’s Equipment Emporium is running a constant slew of the educational classes and events, make sure to check their events schedule here.
As Chef Fuentes said, food and cooking should be fun and easy – and that’s what you definitely get in his class. Thank you, Chef, for the great time and great food! Cheers!