Barcelona, Spain — “Chicos, YOU are the chef,” said Chef Candido Cid Doniz, emphasizing that at Barcelona Cooking, a cooking school on the fashionable promenade known as La Rambla in the heart of Barcelona, participants don't sit and passively observe. They don an apron, pick up a spatula and whip up some of the Catalonia region's most distinctive dishes.
And that means doing the dirty work, like gutting and slicing cuttlefish and de-bearding mussels for seafood paella, that saffron-scented, rice-based dish that has evolved from farm laborer fare to elegant comfort food.
The British couple in charge of this unenviable task struggle at first, but with Doniz's guidance, they show those mussels who's boss and get the job done. They present the cleaned mollusks triumphantly, not unlike kindergartners proudly showing their teacher a completed assignment and expecting a gold star.
I confess I was enormously thankful to be on chopping duty, dicing onions and garlic instead of digging the intestines out of a cuttlefish.
Truthfully, I'm a bit of a slacker in the kitchen, always looking for shortcuts. When I prepare this dish at home, I plan to buy seafood that is ready to throw in the pot without all fuss.
Of course, the point of this hands-on learning style is to ensure that everyone can replicate the recipes when they return home to the United States, Canada and England. Since instruction is in English, these nationalities often comprise the majority of the class.
Because classes are small, everyone gets plenty of one-on-one time with the chef, who quickly puts cooks of all levels of experience at ease with his humor and laid-back charm.
Soon, the kitchen is a flurry of mixing, pouring, chopping, whisking and sautéing.
Doniz seems to be everywhere at once, keeping an eye on his “chicos” as they work in pairs, preparing not only the paella, but refreshing, mint-infused strawberry gazpacho, a sweet and tangy cold soup that originated in the southern region of Andalusia, and a hearty Spanish omelet loaded with chunks of fried potatoes. Everyone is looking forward to a grand finale of crema Catalan, the Spanish version of crème brulee.
In an accent as soothing as a glass of tempranillo, Doniz announces we have earned a break and passes around a plate of pan con tomate, bread rubbed with garlic and tomato. Simple but delicious, it is commonly served as an appetizer or eaten for breakfast.
Our short break gives everyone a chance to ask questions about the iconic Spanish dish we will be sharing. There are probably as many variations of paella in Spain as pizza in the U.S. It can be cooked with rabbit, pork or chicken, depending on availability of ingredients, but on the Mediterranean coast where fresh seafood is bountiful, seafood paella is by far the most popular version.