By Monica Eng- Tribune Staff Reporter
Sizing up potential mates while trying to look cute, sound witty and chew demurely is hard and dangerous work. So you'd think that adding hot ovens, boiling oil and sharp knives to the equation would be a bad idea. Not so, I discovered at a recent Chicago installment of Parties that Cook, a national culinary program that hosts singles cooking classes.
Yes, I did end up slicing my thumb. But in the process I learned which guys were nurturers, which were good in emergencies and which laughed coldly at the sight of a wounded woman. In fact, the whole class was studded with delightful ways to asses the opposite sex beyond the usual - often painful - chitchat about where you grew up, what you do and when you went to school. Plus, even if you don't meet anyone great, by the end of the night you end with a scrumptious meal, a few glasses of wine and some cooking lessons.
Here's how it started: I arrived at the Belden-Stratford hotel (the events move around, check the Web site) and soon was a bit embarrassed. Everyone else seemed to have read the email thoroughly and brought a bottle of wine. Still, that didn't stop me from drinking liberally as I stood in line waiting to get my name tag, which is supposed to list my name and favorite food. Now, I'm a food writer and so that's like asking me to choose my favorite child. I finally blurted "Italian!" and cringed. Oh, how middle of the road of me.
With a tag that said "Monica, Italian," I soon was making name-tag -aided small talk like, "So I see you like calamari. Fried or grilled?" Oddly it worked and quickly I started to sort the men by food preferences, learning which had broad tastes (Italian - OK, like me) and specific tastes (grilled cheese sandwiches).
After this period of chatting and sipping, our instructor, Heidi Bottom, started the show in this huge, gorgeous kitchen by asking us to announce our names along with the place we ate our last great meal. Cool idea. Now I could see which guys were the quirky adventurous eaters (my type) and which like fancy steak places (not my type). When it was my turn, I revealed that my last great meal was at a Pakistani cabbie joint called Kababish on Orleans. I think I scared some guys off.
Next, we were assigned to one of five co-ed recipe teams to make prosciutto puff pastry spirals, lamb kebabs, chocolate chip cookies, crab beignets or caramelized onion pizza. Somehow, I was the only woman on my team (cookies, oy), which was a fine ration for me, but instead of bringing out the competitive vixen in me, it brought out the bossy mom - I guess it's better they know now.
As we creamed the butter and sugar, sipped wine and took in the disco tunes, I noted who knew his way around his mixer, who was resourceful when we ran out of baking soda and who just sat around while everyone was working.
The tight quarters and cooperation also made flirting a breeze, "Excuse me, I just need to reach that pan over your thigh. Whoops!"
In the middle of the class, the instructor asked the guys to move to the next recipe station and I got to meet a whole new batch of fellas who were sweet and forgiving - even when I criticized their cookie-making techniques.
Folks freely mingle with other teams, and there were plenty of opportunities for chance meetings at the oven or refrigerator. By the end of class, we gathered round the table to try our creations with that last glass of wine. That's when I unveiled myself as an undercover reporter and interviewed a few party-goers in this generally smart, attractive crowd. "Absolutely I would do it again," said Cindy (manicotti) of Lincoln Park. "I had a great time... and even though I know to cook, I learned a few things."
Others were a little less sure. "The experience was is certainly different than going to a bar - less distractions" said Greg (roast beef) of Lincoln Square in an email later. "It was fun, but a bit disorganized...In love, like cooking, too many cooks in the kitchen is a recipe for disappointment."
"I enjoyed the cooking part very much, "said John (grilled cheese) of Lakeview, even if at 26, he felt like the youngster. Still, "I felt like the evening was about the food and the cooking not about finding a match, which took a lot of the pressure off - except the pressure that comes from having cookie orders barked at." Now who would have done that?