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Breaking (and baking) bread



I genuinely enjoy cooking, though I lack any formal training. But as long as I have a recipe and the help of my trusty friend Google to answer any questions that may arise, my experiments in the kitchen usually yield decent results. I even enjoy baking, though I usually stick to the basics: cookies, cakes and muffins.

But bread always seemed to be beyond my reach, a precise science that involved the perfect blend of ingredients and precise temperatures, with little room for improvisation. I'll admit it, I was intimidated. That is, until I discovered a new local culinary treasure: Whistler Cooking School, taught by none other than Roland Pfaff.

Pfaff was the owner/operator of Val d'Isère, one of Whistler's longtime fine dining establishments that closed just two years ago. His culinary career is impressive, starting at age 14 with an apprenticeship in his hometown of Alsace, France. He moved to Whistler with his lovely wife, Susie, almost 20 years ago, opening his restaurant shortly afterwards. But just a few short weeks ago, he launched his latest culinary endeavour, dubbed Whistler Cooking School.

As a longtime chef, Pfaff was certainly no stranger to the art of teaching others the tricks of his trade. But to round out his extensive industry experience, Pfaff also opted to complete the Provincial Instructor Diploma at Vancouver Community College so he could learn how to share his wealth of knowledge with others in an easy, accessible way.

Now, Pfaff is offering three main programs through the school: the Baker Programs, which include Breads and Baked Treats, Welcome to the Sweet World of Pastry, Chocolate Decadence and Room for Dessert; A Cook in the Making, which includes How-to Sessions on a wide range of topics; and Themed Sessions of Get to It, Do It Like a Chef and Super Host. But people can also request special lesson plans, like tapas sessions, or programs designed for bachelors.

I, personally, was delighted at the invitation to be taught the art of bread making by a pro.

"Baking and pastries and all that is pretty much a precise science," Pfaff said. "You get out what you put in, whereas cooking - it's an evolution."

It was clear from the beginning of our class that Pfaff knew his stuff. He immediately delved into the history of bread (where it comes from) and the science that yields the delicious, springy loaves. He carefully explains each step as he demonstrates, getting us to do the work, while patiently answering our questions.

There's no question that bread is a difficult art to master. It's quite the process - ten steps, in total, which include mixing, kneading, proofing and much more - but its not complicated.

Our four-hour session yielded a beautiful (and delicious) batch of baguettes and fougasse and Pfaff even used the rest of our dough to create an Alsacian specialty, Tarte Flambe (basically a delicious, thin-crust creamy pizza), which we happily enjoyed along with a glass of wine.

While I'm fairly certain that my first few attempts to bake bread independently won't result in the beautiful loaves we were able to produce with Pfaff, I'm excited to put the techniques and skills I learned through Whistler Cooking School to work at home. See, the real beauty of Pfaff's approach is that participants truly gain an understanding of the food they are trying to prepare through the supervised, hands-on instruction and clear explanations. And since Pfaff comes to your own home to teach the classes to you and up to three friends, it's easy to apply what is learned to your own environment.

A four-hour session, which can include up to four participants, costs $280 plus the cost of ingredients, which truly is great value for your dollar.

An extra scoop

Whistler's top sommeliers have had their noses in the books lately, busily preparing for the community's first Sommelier Challenge.

The best of local fine dining will be represented at the event, with competitors from the Fifty-Two 80 Bistro, Quattro, Bearfoot Bistro, Trattoria Di Umberto, Ric's Grill, The Den at Nicklaus North, La Rúa and La Bocca on-board to compete. They'll face off with their counterparts in a friendly competition that includes events like Wine Jeopardy, blind tastings, and sabrage, which will be judged by yours truly, Nicole Fitzgerald of Shaw Cable, master sommelier Mark Davidson, Guitar Doug of the Hairfarmers and Bruce Stephens, a wine writer for Western Living.

The event is hosted by the Four Seasons Resort and the competition is sure to get tough (and maybe a bit tipsy) when it all goes down on Tuesday, Aug. 18. All aspiring wine aficionados are welcome to come out and watch!