Instructor Mario Scordato (left) shows students how to make the cut.


Roll up your sleeves, tie those apron strings and get ready to sweat: Chicago's Largest Cooking School now offers culinary boot camps to whip you into cooking shape. 

It’s 10 a.m. on a Saturday, and I am up to my Elbows in filling for ham-and-manchego croquetas.

Nearby, a retired endodontist sears a ­medium-size bird for what eventually will become pollo andaluza, aka braised chicken with olives and peppers. A stay-at-home mom, two private-event managers and a self-proclaimed foodie slice onions and potatoes for tortilla Española. Barcelona-trained chef Lucio Davila hovers nearby while critiquing (in my case, everything), reminding us that chicken goes into the pot “sexy side down” and, at various intervals, shouting, “Allllll riiiiiiiight!” It’s his way of signaling pleasure.

The six of us are spending a sun-drenched weekend in culinary boot camp — specifically, the International Boot Camp courtesy of The Chopping Block, Chicago’s largest recreational cooking school. The concept is simple: Spin the globe, put your finger on one or more geographical areas (the chefs chose Spain and Mexico for this camp) and then spend 16 hours over a two-day period in a 2,400-square-foot kitchen/­classroom learning about and preparing a degustation menu from those ­regions. In short, it’s cooking on steroids. Besides the recipes already mentioned, our first-day creations include brandada de bacalao (creamy salt cod spread, for you amateurs); paella with artichokes, piquillo peppers and clams; and flan. And, believe it or not, we still had time to sip assorted sherries and savor, with Chef Lucio’s help, the differences among Arbequina, Gordal and Empeltre olives.

We are here for different reasons: Brandy aspires to enter culinary school once her children are a bit older; Karla, by her own admission, has logged more than 1,000 hours in various cooking classes and loves regaling her husband with her creations (“Last night I made shrimp annatto!”); Pat, Kristi and Laura seem to know their ways around a set of pots and want to improve their skills.

Then there’s me, a corporate stand-up comedian by trade whose specialty dish is smiley-face pancakes at kids’ sleepovers. But, oh, how I long to dazzle dinner guests with exotic creations, casually trotting out an olive aioli and saying, “This is just a little something I whipped up this afternoon.” So, here I am. But would one weekend be enough to turn me into an accomplished Mediterranean chef?

The answer, I quickly discover, is, Only in your dreams, buddy. By 10:30 a.m. on the first day, Chef Lucio has informed me, both verbally and through a few not-so-subtle eye rolls, that my knife-holding technique is wrong, my cutting direction is reversed (“back to front, not front to back”) and I’m wasting too much “meat” when slicing a plum tomato. Chef Lucio’s assistant, Nate Diss, finds my egg-separating method laughable,­ and he lives up to his name by dissing my egg-cracking skills (“flat surface, Greg, not the side of the bowl”).

I try to defend myself. “This never happens at home,” I say, while my trembling hands scoop bits of eggshell out of my flan-custard base.

Another eye roll.