That time I spent a day in a professional kitchen

Fabrizio Schenardi, then chef at Pelagia Trattoria, explains a technique to Mike Stephenson.

Fabrizio Schenardi, then chef at Pelagia Trattoria, explains a technique to Mike Stephenson.

Recently, I was reminded of something I wrote shortly after my 40th birthday:

Fabrizio Schenardi looked at us and said, “Today, I work for you.”

For the next four hours the executive chef at Pelagia Trattoria at the Renaissance International Plaza proved it.

We filleted fish, seared scallops and stuffed veal. We learned how to tie rollatini, blanch cauliflower and burn sugar on top of a creme brulee.

And we ate. Oh, did we eat.

I’ve taken more than a dozen cooking classes, from Apron’s Cooking School in Citrus Park, the Outdoor Kitchen Store in Tampa and the Rolling Pin in Brandon. I even once hired a chef to come to my house to give me a lesson.

Nothing compares to standing in a professional kitchen with the executive chef guiding you through your buerre blanc sauce. Nothing compares to Fabrizio.

The program is called Book to Cook. Up to six guests at the hotel can arrange in advance for a cooking lesson with Schenardi. It’s expensive ($339 before taxes includes a lesson for one or two and a night in the hotel) and challenging to book through a special sales office at the hotel, but this was one of those milestone birthday presents where a splurge was in order.
Schenardi, 37, is among the most accomplished chefs in Tampa.

After working from Italy to Hawaii, he came to Tampa to open Pelagia, honored in recent Zagat Surveys for its modern Mediterranean cuisine, three years ago because the workload is less intense, allowing for more family time with his wife and 4-year-old son.

But on the Sunday we took the class, his focus was fully on us.

He led us through the kitchen — bigger than you expect but a little too small he says for the demands of a large hotel — offering to use any ingredients we saw.

Soon, he presented us with cooking jackets with our names sewn on the front, a nice touch.

Then we began to cook, making veal scallopine three ways. Our veal saltimbocca was simply a piece of veal pounded paper thin, a sage leaf, some excellent prosciutto, a little flour on both sides and salt and pepper on the side opposite the prosciutto. Cheese? Not in the recipe Schenardi learned in his native Italy, where he started cooking at 15.

After the veal, we moved on to branzino, a fish you’re unlikely to find in bay area markets but similar to a sea bass.

We prepared the fish two ways, baking one stuffed with herbs, lemons and garlic and surrounded by diced tomatoes, clams and mussels. The other we filleted — I did one side while my wife and Schenardi nervously feared I would cut my fingers off — and pan fried, serving it with buerre blanc and a cauliflower dish that even the veggie-challenged birthday boy could eat.

It was fascinating watching the professional kitchen operate around us with trays of bacon in the oven and vats of water cooking penne. At times, it was hard to hear Schenardi over the sounds of the kitchen, but the chef happily accommodated requests to repeat himself.

While Schenardi cruised the kitchen for ingredients, my wife and I looked at the clock, which had covered well over the two hours we had signed up for and we had eaten far more than the pair of dishes we expected to prepare. Still, the chef showed no signs of stopping, and we weren’t complaining.

Soon, he had the largest scallops we’ve ever seen, which we seared and served over a celery root salad that he whipped up with ease.

Finally, we made a cappuccino creme brulee.

Standing with the chef, eating our creamy concoction and sipping a dessert wine from Italy, we thanked Schenardi for an afternoon of gorging.

“Did you want to make a pizza?” he offered.

But we could eat no more.