I am a fantastic cook. Correction: I am an OK cook. Correction: I am not so great in the kitchen. No, wait—my dishes are sublime. This is all true. I swear it! The success of my meals (and their failures) is as conspicuous as the peaks and gullies of the Spring Mountains outside my Las Vegas window. My fate is simple: I am uneven.
So when I had a chance to join four locals for a cooking class at Mon Ami Gabi in the Paris Las Vegas Hotel and Casino, I took it. If anyone has the power to reform my hit-or-miss cooking style, I thought, who better than the French? Their superiority in all things culinary is indelibly written into the human record. First there was fire, then there was agriculture, then French cuisine.
“I am not going to recite French recipes,” intoned Executive Chef Terry Lynch, a cheerful man in his forties. “I am here to teach you technique.”
My companions and I—one from Sweden, one from Russia, one from China and another American mongrel like me—uncapped our pens. Terry Lynch meant business. He exuded an easy air of confidence and authority, gripping the handle of his sauté pan as if he were shaking the hand of a cherished friend.
“Who knows why you don’t wash mushrooms before cooking?” he asked.
My arm sprang up, almost against my will. I’ve always been a good student. And besides, I’d recently washed a bunch of mushrooms before cooking and their sad, suppurating flesh was vivid in memory. “Because when you sauté them, you get a bunch of weird, yucky liquid,” I blurted.
His eyes brightened. “Right! It’s better to eat pine needles than ruin the dish with water.”
And so we were off—knives, spoons, burners, bowls. We each took a turn assisting the maestro while the rest of the group looked on. “Make sure the pan is screaming hot,” Lynch directed. “I mean screaming hot!”
My Chinese companion gingerly slid her hand in the air about three inches above the pan and abruptly retracted it.
“The right oil will melt and film. Do you see?” He made eye contact with each of us in turn. He really wanted us to share the vision. “Look: the oil is filming.”
We stared into the pan as if we were looking into a crystal ball. At that moment, the Greek bail-out, the tension in the Persian Gulf, Whitney Houston’s overdose, the welfare of our families and kids—it all faded. The only thing that mattered to any of us in the lovely wood-paneled private dining room at Mon Ami Gabi was great food and the chef who knew its secrets.
French on his mother’s side, Lynch trained in Paris at Le Cordon Bleu, was Executive Sous at the famed Auberge du Soleil (Napa) and the virtuoso behind Mustards Grill (Napa) and The Coach House (Martha’s Vineyard). A partner in Lettuce Entertain You, Lynch currently runs the successful El Gundo Sol in Vegas along with the popular Mon Ami Gabi. A walking repository of world cuisines, he remains loyal to his roots, the French tastes and traditions that formed his palette.
“I remember picking fresh bay leaf with my grandparents in the forests near Lyon.” For a moment, his gaze trailed out the window into the vibrant blue of a Vegas spring sky.
With the clink of a spoon, we were back on mission. “Chop everything in equal, and I really mean equal, size!” He looked at us as if he expected that we were a little sloppy in this regard. “Great food comes from attention to detail.”
And so we worked our way through the menu of four-mushroom soup and herb brioche; sea scallops with butternut squash purée, Brussel sprouts, hazelnuts and brown butter; and warm chocolate pudding cake.
“Rain the spices down on the meat like this!” We watched spellbound as his fingers powdered spices in the air, the particles settling like drops of manna on Mother Earth. Whoever thinks cooking isn’t an art—part precious know-how, part the mystery of genius—probably can’t tell a Rembrandt from a Warhol either.
“I can go to a restaurant and the food may be well-prepared but it falls flat. Why?” The suspense was palpable. “Because the seasoning is incompetent. Rain it down!”
As good students, we had to taste the delicious Louis Latour wines, made especially for Mon Ami Gabi, that accompanied the appetizer and entree. With such a winning meal on the table before us, it was hard to keep up with the finer points of oven temperatures and the problems of pith, although I did manage to jot down soufflé technique between scrumptious bites.
Later that evening, after a provisioning trip to Whole Foods, I made the best steak-au-poivre I had in years.