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Paying to cook with a pro

A nicked pinkie, flying lobster bands . . . has the soufflé fallen?

Chef Michael Salmon demonstrates his onion-dicing method for the author and her husband, Jeff Cohen. Salmon and his wife, Mary Jo Brink, purchased the Hartstone Inn in 1998. Chef Michael Salmon demonstrates his onion-dicing method for the author and her husband, Jeff Cohen. Salmon and his wife, Mary Jo Brink, purchased the Hartstone Inn in 1998. (Photos By Fred Field/For The Boston Globe)
By Nancy Heiser
Globe Correspondent / December 13, 2009

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CAMDEN - In October, my husband, Jeff, and I signed up for a private culinary session with Michael Salmon, chef and owner at the Hartstone Inn.

Our job? Help prepare a five-course gourmet meal for 20 in just over four hours, and we could eat when we were done.

We are a little nervous as we enter the kitchen at 1 p.m. sharp. After a quick tour, we don aprons, review the menu, and rate ourselves as cooks. C-plus, I confess to Salmon. Jeff elevates that to a B and gives himself a similar mark. No matter. We came to learn, not impress. No one will tell us to pack our knives and go.

Right away, the chef puts us to work. We hack sweet potatoes in half and set them on cookie sheets in the oven. We’ll use them later in a pureed soup, along with rutabagas and green apples, topped with maple cream. I’m smitten by the mere notion.

“Let’s talk soufflé,’’ says Salmon next. He figures he’s made 40,000 of his signature desserts in his lifetime. We separate dozens of eggs, careful not to allow a speck of yolk in the whites, getting better as we go along. “The more stuff you add to a soufflé, the trickier it is,’’ he says. Ours will be pumpkin, tricky enough. We get the base velvety smooth and refrigerate it. Beating the egg whites comes later.

Time to dispatch the lobsters. We learn how to flip over each crustacean and determine the sex. Next, prods Salmon, I’m to remove the thick bands that clamp the powerful claws shut so the broth doesn’t take on a rubbery taste. In my left hand, I hold the lobster’s knuckle section and snip the bands with my right. They shoot across the kitchen and just miss the egg whites. Laughter. Careful now, those claws are moving, the chef warns. I plunge the lobster head first into the pot, secure the lid, move away.

Jeff and I peel tiger shrimp for the appetizer. Check. Measure corn meal for the funchi (polenta). Check. Peel and chop the rutabagas. Check.

We begin to move confidently about the kitchen, our faces taking on the sheen of mild exertion. Salmon, equally on task, is personable and flexible. He has to be, to let perfect strangers like us in his kitchen. He says he’s had people who’ve “never held a knife in their lives,’’ to skilled amateurs, to a trained chef sign on for his half-day experiences, which he’s been offering for five years.

Has he ever had a student whom he just didn’t trust, I ask.

Yes. “You slow things down and supervise everything,’’ Salmon says.

With renewed determination, we grab the lobsters from the pot with tongs; crack, twist, and bisect them; remove the meat from claws and tail. Our hands are always working, getting red and rough. We reserve tail segments from the lobster shells to garnish the seafood terrine appetizer, a simple and stylish tip from the pro.

“OK, let’s go to Stockland,’’ says Salmon, ushering us back to the burners. We slide lobster heads and legs into a pot (“the bodies don’t need to take up room in your pot’’) along with rough-cut onions, carrot, celery, bay leaf. Check.

I love being behind the scenes, learning new methods, observing the chef’s personal style (for example, the copper pitcher from Naples from which he pours his canola oil), and chatting about his background (trained at the Culinary Institute of America, he was invited to cook at a James Beard Foundation dinner in 2007). He moves about the space with graceful speed, slowing only to instruct or to chat during short breaks.

But by midafternoon, so many things are going on at once, I fail to keep track of it all. Is anyone timing the plum tomatoes in the smoker outside? Doesn’t someone need to stir the polenta?

I think these things, whisper to my husband. Does he worry about everything coming together? Not a bit. “Michael has it all under control,’’ he says, slipping lobster meat into a bowl.

And that is the great pleasure. Someone else masterminds the day, and we just play our part.

Most students experience a few “aha moments’’ during their afternoon with him, Salmon says. Mine are so elementary, they are embarrassing to admit: When stirring, make a figure eight instead of a circle. Mash chopped garlic with the end of a broad knife. And, you can use your hands for almost anything - scraping, mashing, mixing. (Don’t get a same-day manicure.) Each time I remark on a revelation, the chef smiles. Never once does he make me feel foolish.

Time to learn a nifty way to dice an onion. After Salmon demonstrates his around-the-world technique, I mimic it as best I can. Onion tears stream. I nick my pinkie. He shows me again, I retry, almost cut the chef’s finger. He flinches, smiles, perhaps has seen worse. Onions will take practice.

Jeff adapts beautifully to the changing pace of the kitchen. He dices with focus, leisurely tours the inn’s herb and vegetable gardens, probes the complexities of crème anglaise with Salmon (make sure you don’t inadvertently scramble the eggs), and gustily devours the lobster panini the chef grills for the three of us midafternoon (not such a bad coffee break).

About 5:30 we remove our aprons and change clothes. When we sit down to cocktail hour in the parlor (funchi rounds with grilled tiger shrimp and lemon aioli, and it’s our creation), I ask Jeff how he enjoyed his sous-chef status.

“I loved it,’’ he says. “Every minute.’’

And then comes the big payoff. Dinner.

Mary Jo Brink, the inn’s vivacious co-owner and Salmon’s wife, serves our Maine seafood terrine with lobster-chervil cream to diners seated at tables in the three downstairs rooms at the inn. We’re seated in the elegantly furnished enclosed porch with about half of the guests.

Next comes that soup of autumn vegetables, pureed and seasoned to perfection by Jeff. We deem it the best we’ve ever tasted.

A palate-cleansing blueberry sorbet follows. (Disclosure: We did not prepare this. Four hours doesn’t allow for everything.)

When the seared beef tenderloin medallion entrees arrive, which Salmon and his real sous chef seared and plated, the cabernet and herb butter (studded with onion!) is all mine. Half a bottle of cab in there, I say.

When dessert is served, Salmon emerges from the kitchen a second time. “None of your soufflés fell,’’ he says cheerfully (I detect pride in that smile) as he deftly splits the crowns of our soufflés, pours in the spiced crème anglais, and moves on. We even get applause from across the room when he casually points out “the chefs.’’ We like the attention.

And the dessert is extraordinary, if we do say so ourselves. Jeff confesses he couldn’t imagine making it at home (drat), but the funchi with shrimp, well, that’s another story. I would make the soup in a heartbeat, I say. Thoughts of future culinary delights make me giddy. Or is it the wine?

Who cares. We give the dinner high marks, raise our glasses, and toast ourselves for jobs well done.

Nancy E. Heiser can be reached at nheiser@suscom-maine.net.

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If You Go

Hartstone Inn

41 Elm St., Camden, Maine

800-788-4823

www.hartstoneinn.com

Advance reservations are required for Michael Salmon’s four-hour chef for a day program. Salmon will customize the afternoon as well as accommodate guests who prefer to participate less or just watch. First participant is $325, and $50 for each additional one. (Price includes an apron for each cook and a copy of “In the Kitchen With Michael Salmon: Recipes of Distinction from the Hartstone Inn,’’ which also can be ordered at www.hartstoneinn.com/gift.htm for $34.95.)

The price for the five-course dinner (and you will definitely want to eat) is $45 per person.
Rooms and suites include a full breakfast and range from $105 (off-season) to $280 (peak season).