One of my first memories of cooking independently in the kitchen was on Mother’s Day circa third or fourth grade. I proudly woke up early, took out the box of Bisquick from the cupboard, and whipped up a batch of light and fluffy pancakes.
Or so I thought.
In reality, they were still gooey in the center, and my dad woke up only to freak out that I was using the stove unsupervised. I have no recollection of whether my mom ate them or not. Needless to say, it was a long time before I ventured back to the stove after that. And my pancakes can still be a little gooey from time to time to this day (I’m much better at waffles).
I have grown to love cooking, however. And I do have sweet memories of licking cookie dough off the beaters with my mom as a youngster. I’ve carried on that same tradition with my four kiddos, and eating meals together as a family has always been a priority. It’s easy to get into a rut with cooking at times, though—especially with a full-time job. And I don’t have friends over for dinner nearly as often as I’d like. But, life is what you make it, so I decided to shake things up a bit recently and invite some friends over for dinner—with a twist.
They say if you give a man a fish, he can eat for a day, but if you teach a man to fish he can eat for a lifetime. In this case, however, if you teach a mama how to make sushi, she’ll have a heck of a good time and be well on her way to becoming a sushi sensei. Well, almost. I’d definitely fumble my way making it entirely solo the first time or two (or dozen), but thanks to chef Joshua Schwencke of The Gastronomy Company, I am well on my way to at least knowing the components of making sushi. As I learned during my recent culinary adventure, a true sushi chef usually isn’t allowed to even touch fish until mastering the art of making sushi rice, which can take as much as three years to get down pat. This first experience was an absolute joy, however, and my friends and I ended the evening feeling inspired by Josh’s passion for food.
I first “met” Mr. Schwencke via Instagram—leave it to social media to bring kindred spirits together in such a way. I then bumped into him live and in person with his beautiful wife and kids at Chalk It Up (one of our favorite family events each year). We reconnected again recently to talk about his growing business, and as someone who loves learning new things, I was thrilled to take his Sushi and Sashimi class in my own little kitchen.
Joshua arrived at my doorstep and entered my home without a thing in his hands, fully prepared to get the lay of the land—my kitchen—before embarking on an evening of culinary delight. His enthusiasm for food shone through brightly as he returned from his car laden with crates full of all the tools and ingredients we’d need for the evening, right down to the chopsticks and plates we’d use for dining. I didn’t know what to expect beyond some hands-on food prepping and delicious sushi, but the experience was a complete thrill and went far beyond my expectations.
After Josh was set up with all of his gear, he got to work showing me how to prepare the rice to have ready once my friends arrived. He explained the process excitedly as he vigorously rinsed the short grain sushi rice in my sink. A large part of The Gastronomy Company’s mission is to teach people how to cook with their own two hands. And Josh has extensive experience as a food educator to make that goal a reality. He previously worked at The Food Bank as the Chief Culinary Instructor, and he told us amazing stories about teaching food-prepping skills to inmates, bringing them a great sense of pride in their accomplishments.
After my friends arrived and we all said our hellos, Josh gave us the rundown on the evening, explaining how his dinner party cooking classes go. We are a laid-back bunch, and the entire night certainly had a party-like atmosphere. We were greeted with our own place settings and slate place cards with our names written in Japanese, aprons for cooking, and our own bamboo mat and chopsticks to keep. He even whipped up some edamame for us to snack on and some of the best green tea I’ve ever had using his awesome coffee syphon and some German rock sugar to sweeten it.
We started off the lesson learning about the basic tools of sushi making, the most important of which is a good, sharp knife. I was called out on putting mine in the dishwasher for cleaning (oops!), but I did get some kudos for having a good knife brand (gold star for me!). We learned the proper way to hone a knife, which is different than sharpening one. And then he busted out the ingredients for our food prep.
We had a selection of tuna, salmon, shrimp, and octopus (I admittedly felt a little squeamish seeing our tentacled friend), along with our sticky rice, avocado, cucumber, cream cheese, tobiko, imitation crab, nori, wasabi, and soy sauce. Josh took us through everything, from how to select the best fish from your local fishmonger to the best way to slice and dice all of your ingredients, and the secret handshake sushi chefs make with the rice to keep it from sticking to their hands. Presentation is a key component to the art of sushi-making, and he demonstrated this with ease. This wasn’t just a sit and watch presentation, so we donned our aprons and rolled up our sleeves right alongside him, doing a good portion of the sushi prep ourselves.
After we had all of our ingredients, he deftly demonstrated how to prepare a Uramaki sushi roll and then turned the kitchen over to us to make our own sushi art. We even did a Facebook Live video of me preparing my sushi roll if you want to see my amateur sushi-making skills in action!
Rolling the sushi was actually incredibly easy, and there really wasn’t any way to go wrong with how we combined the ingredients—it was all about getting creative. Slicing the fish properly was probably the most intimidating aspect, but Josh was nothing but encouraging and instilled confidence in us—which, as I can attest, is crucial for any budding cook.
We each had a go at making our own sushi roll, and then Josh served it all in my dining room as we kicked back with a glass of wine and enjoyed one of the best—and most memorable—meals I’ve ever had. Josh prepared even more varieties of sushi as we ate and enjoyed each other’s company, and even did all the cleaning up.
I have to admit that my first sushi-eating experience was courtesy of HEB less than a year ago (it’s actually not bad), and I’ve grown to love local restaurants like Botika and Sukeban. Still, there’s nothing quite like learning how to do something yourself. I suppose we could have asked any random sushi chef to teach us how to make our own sushi, but I doubt any of them would have had such passion and enthusiasm for food—and teaching—as Mr. Schwencke.
With a background in nutritional anthropology, and studies completed at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, Shiner-born and San Antonio-raised Schwencke has a heartwarming, down-home expert approach to cooking. His main goal with The Gastronomy Company is to impact people’s relationship with food and cooking, making it accessible to everyone, from school-aged kids to retired couples looking to expand their culinary horizons.
Founded in 2003 after catering at an event for a friend’s band, The Gastronomy Company has grown into a full-time endeavor with plans to grow their cooking classes, including a boot camp series and new website, where visitors can select from an online menu to create or gift their own culinary experience.
Private cooking lessons are an excellent way to add some life to your weekly meal planning, help your teenagers learn the basics of cooking, or plan a unique date night with your partner. I, for one, look forward to more of Josh’s seasonal cooking classes and learning more about heritage cooking. And maybe he could show me the ropes on the perfect timing for flipping pancakes.
Disclosure: I received a discounted rate on the cooking class in exchange for writing about my experience.