Women cook up new skills this summer

From newlyweds to working mums, women in the capital are studying with a professional chef who knows they have an eye on the clock.

ABU DHABI // If you can't stand the heat, get into the kitchen. That's what a group of culinary students are doing this summer at the capital's European International College, donning aprons, hair nets and food-prep gloves for professionally guided workshops.

Under the tutelage of a professional Moroccan instructor, the amateur cooks tried their hand at creating and then tasting freshly prepared continental cuisine. "We'll go step-by-step," said the chef Abderrahim Lhannaoui, brandishing a vegetable knife as eight women gathered timidly around a stainless steel island distributing aubergines, courgettes and sweet peppers. "I know you all use knives at home, but don't think about timing when you chop. Don't make it fast; make it perfect."

Sosan Rameez's eyes bulged as the implement was handed to her with a red capsicum. "This is the biggest knife I ever used," she said between careful slices. Like the other students enrolled in the month-long August course, Mrs Rameez, 25, a Pakistani housewife, signed up with Mr Lhannaoui to escape the summer slowdown in the capital, when temperatures soar and many expats cocoon in air-conditioned homes or offices.

"I can't go outside for activities right now, so this is a good idea for me," Mrs Rameez said. "I'm not a good cook, but I love baking. And this is a multicultural city and I want to try different types of cuisines and show them to my kids." Mr Lhannaoui, who has worked as a chef for 17 years in Morocco, Germany and Dubai, said the requests for cooking classes for women arose in the lead-up to summer and Ramadan. He runs roughly one three-hour tutorial a day from Sunday to Thursday, with requests now coming for weekend classes.

"They want do something by their hands, by themselves," said the former five-star hotel chef. "It's better than watching a cooking programme on TV, better than reading it in a magazine. "For these women, cooking is something they have a lot of interest in. It's one of their pleasures and this is an opportunity that they can have in the summer, and it's indoors." Along with short lectures on bacteria and hand-washing, Mr Lhannaoui shared tips such as the "meat palm test" - a simple method for checking the doneness of meat by pressing the fleshy part of the palm and comparing the firmness to the piece of meat.

Many students were beginners whose palettes had never been introduced to the tastes and smells of dill, pine nuts, pesto and sesame oil. Some, like Aliaa Sakr, were newlywed housewives who signed up so they could cook for their husbands. Blanchy Dodd, a fashion designer from Ecuador, enrolled in the classes because she planned to host a talk on art history at her home, but lacked a menu to serve her guests.

Afra al Dhaheri, an Emirati student at the college, had completed one set of cooking classes with Mr Lhannaoui as her instructor last semester. The 22-year-old returned this summer mostly in search of fun and to bone up on her cooking skills, bringing along her best friend, Mira Balkis. "She dragged me here. I've never made anything other than sandwiches," Ms Balkis, 19, said of her friend. "She's always talking about how hard it is in the kitchen. It's not so easy."

By the end of the three hours, the students sat at the school's table service area to sample the four salads they had prepared. On the menu: a French-style roasted veggies salad, a Chinese beef with green beans salad, a Spanish prawn ceviche with lettuce, and an Italian pasta salad. Those same dishes priced at a high-end Dubai hotel could cost up to Dh135, said Mr Lhannaoui. Rosa Alamo, 38, was eating out every day and decided to learn to cook for herself.

"I'm doing this is to eat healthier and not in restaurants," the Argentinian accountant said. "This is a comfortable activity. Around this time, I have to stop playing golf because of the heat, but this is nice because it's indoors." The goal by the end of the month, Mr Lhannaoui said, was to teach the aspiring cooks to trust themselves enough to command their home kitchens and prepare meals for their families in half an hour.

"I'm trying to cover as much information as I can," he said. "I want them to go home and understand that if they are clever, they can create 10, 12, 13 other salads from the basics." @Email:mkwong@thenational.ae