There’s cooking alone in the kitchen, a relative newcomer fending for myself in order to eat, and then there’s cooking with an expert at the helm. These two scenarios, I learned last Thursday, are very different experiences — and they yield very different results. As most of us are following guidelines to stay inside our homes, preparing food at home has morphed from an infrequent, budgetary should to a daily necessity. But that doesn’t mean my skill level has caught up with the frequency that I need to feed myself. If you told me I’d be successfully creating a perfect carbonara from scratch during these hectic weeks, I would’ve laughed in your face.
Enter Chef Greg Arnold of vegan fixtures like Sage Vegan Bistro — now expanded to four locations — and Plant Food and Wine in Venice or Mesa Verde in Santa Barbara. Growing up in California, Arnold learned yoshuku methods (Japanese-style Western foods) from his Japanese mother and grandparents, and began working in primarily plant-based kitchens incorporating much of this cultural knowledge into his style. Eventually, Chef Greg released his own line of condiments and sauces, Dark Horse Organic, to help recreate his umami and fermentation-heavy techniques at home.
Taking it a step further, Arnold teamed with the LA-based events agency Conscious City Guide to bring the Dark Horse Cooking Club to life, an effort to connect with both newbie and veteran practitioners who are cooking in their at-home kitchens. The four-week course is designed to help people like me make the kind of flavorful, energizing food that Arnold is renowned for cooking. And despite his largely plant-based style, last Thursday’s class was one of the few of the offerings that required meat in order to render correctly — bacon fat, in fact.
If you get in on the club for all four sessions, which, I guess isn’t quite possible now since two have passed, the initial price of admission ($150) will also get you plenty of Dark Horse Organic supplies to use in the recipes. From umami bouillon to fermented dijon and black lava salt — the key ingredient for finishing off our carbonara — these items are worth the ticket price alone, amounting to about $75 in value just for the cooking kit.
Drop-ins for the rest of the sessions run about $25 per class, and considering that’s usually about what I pay for a bowl of delicious pasta, learning how to make it myself so I no longer have to order out makes this completely worth it. As an instructor, Chef Greg is both calm and kind, both extremely useful qualities in a teacher and a chef. Forget all the tropes you’ve internalized about angry, bro-y chefs yelling and slamming plates while flames roar behind them, about there is a zen-like quality to Arnold’s flow in the kitchen that translates even via Zoom call.
Though my finished plate was missing the Dark Horse black lava salt, it finished almost as well with some flaky Maldon I had stashed away — and some fresh thyme that Chef Greg adds to his version of carbonara. In his estimation, this is one of the three or four most important pastas in the oeuvre of pasta dishes. “Carbonara is the mother of pasta dishes,” he explained to our class. “If you know how to cook a carbonara, cacio e pepe, a marina and an alfredo, you can riff off those.”
Guided by his precise timing — he’s the kind of chef who praises the use of timers, citing old kitchens that used a different timer for each burner — I managed to turn out some al dente noodles, and learned, for the first time in my life, the secret of pasta water. Oh, also, I learned that cooking bacon on a low temperature lets the fat render out, and that this grease, combined with pasta water and a bit of egg and cheese (which come later on), is all that makes up the silky, salty sauce that has placed carbonara at the top of my pasta list for years. Pasta water and bacon grease, not what I was expecting to be the backbone of this rich, airy dish.
On my own, carbonara is never something I would’ve even attempted, but learning just how much order of operations can impact quality, my dish came out instead of becoming a mess of overcooked bacon and scrambled eggs. On my own, I would’ve cooked the bacon on high and lost half the fat, drained the pasta in a colander in the sink and been left with no water, added the eggs and cheese too early without constant stirring to keep them smooth and ended up with dry noodles, crispy bacon, and fluffy yolks.
So yes, this is a cooking club that has the power to transform your skills, if you’re willing to make some space for your laptop in the kitchen, sign in on time, and pay attention to the 20-30 minute instructions that Chef Greg calmly delivers. Even my Italian roommate, who routinely cooks elegant pasta on her own, tried my rendition and was impressed. Not only did I get a great meal during one night, but I’m fairly confident I will be able to make carbonara from now on, no small feat for a kitchen newbie.
Classes for the next two weeks — including a session later tonight — will feature instructions for miso ramen tonight and a spring herb salad next week, along with a bonus recipe so the final class amounts to a two-for-one. Find more info about Dark Horse Cooking Club here, Chef Greg’s line Dark Horse Organic here, and Conscious City Guide here.