Tortillas, Margaritas and Chilli Masochism: Benito’s Hat Cookery Masterclass Preview

Last month, I attended a press preview of the monthly Mexican cookery masterclasses Benito’s Hat will be having starting the 26th of April.

Hells yeah.

Let’s discuss a few things first: I am such a big fan of fresh Mexican cuisine, it’s just nuts. And I never became so obsessed with Mexican cuisine as I am when I live in London.

Mexican food in most parts of the US is pretty easy to find, although much of it is in ersatz forms in varying levels. American cuisine has borrowed many tips in the kitchen from its neighbour to the south, to the point where burritos and tacos are as commonplace as sandwiches and salads on the menus of  cafés, food trucks, bistros, fast food joints and diners.

I should know–Orlando’s Stardust Video & Coffee, the world’s best café that also occupies a state of mind, has burritos, quesadillas and tacos on its menu. While working shifts as a cook last year, I had to learn how to roll a burrito (although I completely suck at this), put together quesadillas, assemble soft shell tacos and assemble the most ridiculous piles of nachos known to humankind. I even zizzed up salsa in a food processor, although annoyingly I can’t remember the recipe since the scale was so large.

Although tasty and filling, these skills I learnt while being part of the magic that is Stardust do not compare to the Mexican cookery smackdown possessed by Felipe, the executive chef of Benito’s Hat. He was our culinary guide for the evening of the Mexican cooking demonstration and masterclass at their location on Great Castle Street, near Oxford Circus.

When I first got the invite to attend the press preview for these masterclasses, I sort of saw the word “drinks” and was like, “Woo, I’m there!” Little did I know that I would learn a skill that would be life-altering.

Folks, I am talking about making corn tortillas from scratch.

I don’t know why this information has eluded me, but I never knew making corn tortillas could be so easy. Nope. Never had a clue. Perhaps because tortillas are plentiful on the shelves of American supermarkets, I never had the impetus to make my own. However, since I’ve moved to London, tortillas are scarce to find on the shelves of the shops I frequent–predominantly the Turkish-owned shops and grocers and natural/organic food stores. The same could be said for decent salsa, as many of my familiar favourites from the States are absent on the shelves of even the biggest supermarket here in London.

In the face of this dearth of Mexican cuisine flavours to be had at home in Blighty, one has to get properly DIY. And a pretty damn good way of doing so is to be in the basement room of the Oxford Circus Benito’s Hat, watching Felipe in action as he demonstrates how to make tortillas from three simple ingredients and you realise you will never need to buy tortillas ever again thanks to this smiling, bespectacled man in a guayabera.

Seriously, my mind was blown.

What’s more, Felipe also showed us how to make salsa verde, not with a food processor, but with a molcajete because he is that much of a badass (although a larger-sized mortar and pestle will do just fine). Again, life skill. Salsa verde is the jam, and the way Felipe showed how to make it seems dead easy, and it was amazingly tasty.

The cookery masterclass at Benito’s Hat, though, wasn’t just about demonstrations, though. The ten of us attendees split up into two groups and tried our hands at making tortillas and salsa from scratch. We also went at mixing up a cocktail as well, after Ben gave us a great demonstration of fixing up a watermelon margarita.

Ben is the guy who started up Benito’s Hat at its first Goodge Street location, and the one I presumed to be the “Benito” of Benito’s Hat, but actually “Benito” is Benito Juarez per this Metro article. Both Benito and Ben were lawyers, but only the latter has started up a small chain of Mexican restaurants in London. And I don’t know if Benito ever could whip up a watermelon margarita, although I’m sure the man had mad skills when he had to overthrow Maximilian von Habsburg. You can get your brief history lesson on that here.

Back to the class, we had split up into teams to see who could put together the best salsa, tortillas and cocktail. Although four/five people to a team doesn’t sound like a lot, in reality the resulting concoctions from each of the teams were not quite up to Felipe’s awesome skills, likely due to a case of having too many cooks in the kitchen, so to speak. Funny enough, both teams’ renditions of salsa actually turned more into guacamole because, hell, we all like avocado, and, um, it was just sitting there. However, only my team threw in a scotch bonnet into the molcajete. Oh, and a dash of tequila.

The resulting salsa/guacamole (salsamole?) was so spicy, it was just mental. And I loved it. I love spicy food, and I’m pretty sure my eyes lit up as my mouth flooded in a chilli flame. Mexican food in particular is my preferred conduit of spice–that and spicy vegetarian banh mi from Vietnamese restaurants. I should note that I wasn’t the one responsible for putting the chillis in our batch of salsamole. But I was the one responsible for adding in the tequila.

Which probably goes without saying.

Anyway, I had a great time at the cooking class at Benito’s Hat, and that wasn’t just because there were drinks to be had. Felipe and Ben both were very nice, and it was great fun to learn how to make things that are surely going to be handy at the next party I’m invited to. These classes seem like they’d be good fun to book as a birthday celebration or for just the fun of being able to immerse yourself in a different culinary culture. At £15 for a class that runs around two hours with dinner and drinks provided, it’s quite a deal, especially considering you’ll never have to buy tortillas again. That’s saving you bags of money right there.

Just be aware of what a scotch bonnet looks like, unless you’re a chilli masochist like me.

Benito’s Hat –
12 Great Castle Street
London W1W 8LR
020 7636 6560

Read another take on this event from We Love Food: It’s All We Eat, although I contest the accusation that the salsamole was inedible–I took a wee pot of what was left home and enjoyed it with a bag of tortilla chips given to us. It does mellow a bit after a couple days, but it was still beautifully spicy!

PS: There was also dessert.


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