The art of cooking is about the journey and the destination, to tweak a famous quote about life that downplays the latter. And it's also about who's guiding you along the way.
So when David and Michelle Byrnes discovered one of their favorite chefs was offering private cooking classes in his Columbia home, the Sykesville couple immediately contacted Ben Tehranian to set up a session.
And they weren't the only ones to seek him out in recent months: Two couples co-hosting their children's small wedding at home decided they wanted him to teach them to prepare the food for the reception, and six girlfriends chose a class as a unique theme for a bachelorette party. Single men often take a lesson to surprise their loved one by preparing an entire meal.
While 80 percent of the sessions take place in Tehranian's houseplant-filled kitchen, which is stocked with stainless-steel Jenn-Air appliances, the chef says he's also willing to teach in clients' homes if they prefer.
"It's all about having fun and doing something different," says the chef, whose website is simply called Cook with Ben.
Love of cooking
Chef Ben, as he prefers to be called, took an interest in preparing food when he was a high school student in the mid-1960s in Iran, where he grew up with four sisters and a brother.
"I would come straight from school in 10th grade and watch my mother cooking and tasting food and ask, 'How did you come up with this?' "
When his father asked what he wanted to do with his future, he told him he'd love to cook.
"You have to love it. And when (a love for) cooking gets inside you, it stays in you," says Tehranian, who is 65.
He went on to earn a bachelor's degree in culinary arts from Westminster Kingsway College in London in 1977. He then earned a second degree in hotel and restaurant management from the University of Baltimore in 1982 after moving to Maryland four years earlier.
Within months of graduating from his two-year college program, Chef Ben opened a restaurant in Parkville, but soon sold the property to a car dealership looking to expand. He next moved to Towson, where he operated a seafood restaurant before selling it in 1991. The following year he opened Wharfside on Frederick Road in Catonsville, but closed it in 2003.
It was there that the Byrneses became acquainted with Chef Ben and his entrées of stuffed rockfish and crab cakes, which quickly became two of the couple's personal favorites.
"We were sad to see Wharfside close," says Michelle Byrnes. "Their seafood was to die for."
"It was a very successful business," Tehranian says of the eatery, which is now the site of Matthew's 1600. Though he no longer owns a restaurant, he retained the catering arm of the business, which is now part of Cook with Ben Inc.
But as his career path repeatedly demonstrates, Tehranian wasn't content with the status quo, so he decided to augment his catering with cooking lessons.
"The foundation of what I'm doing remains the same -- food business is food business," says Tehranian. "Word of mouth about what I'm doing now remains the best advertisement."
Classes cost between $80 and $95 per person, depending on the size of the group. The fee includes all the groceries to create a four-course meal of appetizer, soup, entrée with side dish, and dessert, all of which are chosen by the clients. Tehranian even supplies the aprons.
"The selections are based on a gourmet restaurant menu, especially French and American (cuisine). But I've worked with Persian recipes, and I get requests for sushi here and there," he says. "I can be very, very flexible."
With a chosen menu of shrimp-stuffed avocado, lobster bisque, Mediterranean salad, filet mignon with bordelaise sauce, roasted garlic mashed potatoes and glazed peaches with cream caramel sauce, David Byrnes admitted at the start of the couple's recent lesson that he was a bit unsure about preparing everything correctly.
"He's a much better cook than I am," interjects Michelle, telling her husband that he shouldn't be worried about technique.
After a quick primer on the different knives used by chefs, advice on frequently tasting the food you're preparing, and some helpful tips on assessing the difference between rare and medium rare beef (Hint: You have to compare the firmness of the cooking meat to the palm of your hand), instruction began.
"Ninety-nine percent of what I do comes from up here," Tehranian says, touching his index finger to the side of his head. "Sometimes I follow a recipe, but mostly I just wing it."
Other available menus are designed around such entrées as duck a l'orange, roasted quail, rack of lamb, salmon Florentine, monkfish tournedos, fettuccine Alfredo and grilled Cajun tuna.
More nuggets of advice were interspersed throughout instruction on recipe-specific techniques. Since the milk contained in butter can burn quickly, heat the butter first before adding it to a recipe to separate out the milk. Sharpen knives once or twice a week to keep them in optimum condition. Spending a lot on a bottle of wine doesn't necessarily mean it will taste better.
Three hours after they started, the Byrneses were ready to sit down in Chef Ben's kitchen and enjoy the fruits of their labors. As some restaurants do, Tehranian has a large fish tank running near the table to add a relaxing element to the setting.
Since cooking is "very much about the presentation of the food," Chef Ben adds a few flourishes to the dishes as he presents the courses to the couple.
Afterward, both diners gave glowing reviews.
Says David: "It takes a certain level of knowledge to not overpower a dish, but to complement it and let the meat or fish shine through."
While Michelle agreed that the entrée was tender and tasteful, she loved the last course best. "Dessert was wicked good," she says. "It was one of those desserts that makes you want to lick the plate."
Would the couple take another lesson from Chef Ben?
"We would absolutely recommend this experience. He's just so friendly. He doesn't intimidate," Michelle says. "And you can tell his heart is in it, and that he must do it because he loves it."