From professional-level classes to a single-menu demonstration by a master chef, the mystery of food preparation for the home cook is being unraveled by the experts.
The glut of celebrity television cooking shows and enticing food magazines are just the tip of the iceberg (lettuce?) that is reflecting the gastronomical passion of the time. With star chefs commanding prime television spots, viewers’ appetites are piqued but left with an unfulfilled yearning for a bit more information. Even the demonstration shows are lacking in the one essential for learning: a bit of hands-on experience and personal interaction.
There is nothing like being in the kitchen with a real chef. My husband is still impressed every time I flip fried eggs over in the pan with a flick of the wrist. It was a trick I learned at a class at the Taste of the Mountains cooking school at the Bernerhof Inn. We all probably had home economics classes in junior high, but how many times can you impress folks with your hot cocoa from scratch? Even if over time you have learned the basics, you may still be left wondering why the sauce curdled. Behind the art of cooking there is a science that needs to be understood.
If you are interested in being a better cook or just looking for new ideas for dinner tonight, opportunities in recreational cooking classes abound. Costs can average $80 to $100 a session and range from single nights to weekend retreats to intense six-week studies.
The first person to say there is no mystery to cooking is Master Chef James Haller. Without official culinary training he opened the Blue Strawbery in 1970 and woke up the sleepy palette of New England. Currently he is teaching evening classes at Attrezzi and The Chef’s Cottage in Exeter. Corradina Arangio, owner of Attrezzi in Portsmouth, enjoys his entertaining style and is amazed at how he creates “unusual dishes that are simple to make.” Kevin Fitzgibbon of The Chef’s Cottage says, “He brings his own fun to the table.”
Haller himself says he is “fearless” in the kitchen and enjoys showing people how simple cooking can be. The class watches Haller as he creates a five-course meal, including focaccia bread with bleu cheese and walnuts, Parisian fish soup, scallops and oysters in a cream sauce, and his latest invention, a chocolate flan he makes in a blender. Participants happily enjoy the meal. Haller, 71, is happy, too. He says, “It is like having a restaurant, without having one.”
Attrezzi has other guest chefs and extensive wine tastings, including wine and chocolate with Susan Tuveson of Cacao Chocolates in Maine.
Look to dedicated cooking schools for hands-on cooking. Fitzgibbon’s The Chef’s Cottage has a few guest demonstration stints like Haller, but owner Fitzgibbon handles most of the classes along with Arie Kidder for pastry. He worked previously in the hotel industry, but always wanted to teach. His classes range from Friday night “Supper Clubs,” where groups sign up for an evening of fun and cooking to more formal session mid-week that teach a foundation in cooking or are thematic, focusing on a specific cuisine. A new class this season will be “A Taste of Canada.” Fitzgibbon hopes to demystify cooking, complaining that celebrity TV chefs don’t really teach that much and some, like Rachel Ray, open too many cans. A few basics that he feels people should know are the different ways to thicken a sauce. A roux (with flour), slurry (with starch) and beurre manie (creamed with equal weight butter) all have their proper place. And making stock from scratch is an essential for flavorful cooking.
Fitzgibbon offered children’s classes in the summer and found that they were “stupefied” when he showed them how to make whipped cream. Hopefully, the next generation will be enthralled with creating food from scratch.
Ron Boucher, formerly of Ron’s Landing in Hampton Beach, opened his Chez Boucher French Cooking School almost five years ago, now located in Hampton.
Boucher feels the foundation of good cooking is in French technique — “If you master that you can understand other cuisines.” After all, the French, with their military occupation, even influenced Vietnamese cooking, and the popular French Brasserie cooking style is a melding of French, Asian, Spanish and Indian influences.
Boucher offers one of the most intense programs available in the area. His new professional series is 16 weeks of food handling, prep and production, plus eight weeks of externship. Most of his students for that program become working chefs, but a few just wanted the experience.
Other programs offered at Chez Boucher include multi-week sessions on French cuisine, pastry and international cooking. He also offers the fun-oriented Supper Club nights and couples cooking classes. New offerings include “Gourmet-to-Go,” where participants assemble meals for the week, similar to the Dream Dinners concept, but with more emphasis on quality. Some of his workshops are available as podcasts or DVDs, including one about holiday hors d’oeuvres.
Another dedicated school, Impressive Chef, also recently moved. Owners Jay and Brenda Regan relocated from Nashua to nearby Hudson, offering the same array of classes along with a storefront of kitchen accessories. Their fall calendar is full of classes, from knife skills to couples cooking to a broad array of ethnic styles. Most are single-evening sessions, featuring a full menu that students enjoy after the hands-on class.
In Keene, Chef Luca Paris has gotten together with Scott Rodgers from Keene High School and together have started the Keene Culinary Academy. It is an eight-week course offered through continuing education for home cooks to learn cooking basics. (www.sau29.org)
Where could you find better-equipped kitchens for a learning environment than at professional culinary schools? Last year, the Atlantic Culinary Academy and the Hospitality program at Southern New Hampshire University began to offer recreational cooking classes in the evening or on Saturdays. Classes are taught by faculty and are either demonstrations or a hands-on experience.
If you want to take your lessons as a part of a relaxing weekend getaway, many B&Bs are offering three-day workshops where guests mingle, cook and enjoy the meals in the friendly and hospitable environs away from home. Most are offered in the “shoulder” season, when inns need to get creative.
Seems cooking in the kitchen is a good metaphor for the pressure-cooker office environment. Impressive Chef and Ron Boucher are offering team-building workshops, focusing on using the listening skills, planning and problem solving necessary in both the boardroom and the kitchen. Yes, Chef!
Other options include traveling abroad with food writers Barbara Lauterbach and Lora Brody. They are planning a week-long trip in April to southwest France with classes and dining. (www.barbaralauterbach.com) Or let the chef come to you. Chef Liz Barbour in Hollis offers an extensive array of food demos in creative food preparation. She customizes menu ideas for groups or individuals in their locations. (www.thecreativefeast.com)
A cooking session may bring new fuel to your creative cooking engine and expand your confidence level. At the very least, it’s a chance to learn the vocabulary of French chefs. Then, even if you can’t make it, at least you will be able to pronounce Cuisse de Canard Confit (kwease de canard confee) correctly when you order it off the menu. NH
Haller’s Incredible Chocolate Flan
Chef Haller experimented with the concept of a chocolate flan the night before he was expecting company. It is simple to prepare and the outcome is truly incredible.
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons Madeira
Slowly simmer the above ingredients over medium low heat, stirring continuously until the mixture darkens to a rich caramel color.
Pour hot caramel into a tall 8-inch soufflé pan, spreading across the bottom to the edges. No need to butter the pan.
4 squares unsweetened bakers’
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 cup sugar
Melt the chocolate with cream over low heat and pour into a blender. Add the sugar, eggs and fill the rest of the blender with milk. Blend on low until the mixture is blended, about 30 seconds.
Pour into the same soufflé dish and set the dish in another larger dish almost filled with water. Bake at 325 degrees for about 1 1/2 hours or until the mix “stops jiggling” or a knife comes out clean.
Refrigerate for four hours or overnight; then carefully unmold onto a flat platter. Pour any remaining caramel onto the top.
When sliced you will notice the flan ranges from pale chocolate to a “light crust” from the top that is now on the bottom.
Keeps for several days in the refrigerator.
Fall Weekend Culinary Retreats
White Mountain Cooking School
Snowvillage Inn, Snowville
Bountiful Harvest Cooking Weekend
Vegetarian Cooking Weekend
Bernerhof Inn, Glen
Taste of the White Mtns. Cooking School
Holiday Entertaining, Nov. 2-4
The Balsams, Dixville Notch
Tastes of The Balsams
Hands-on 10-hour seminars
Manor on Golden Pond
New England Epicurean Cooking School
“Fork in the Road” cooking classes
Colby Hill Inn
“Cooking Inn” series begin in Nov.
“Cooking Confidential” offers an evening working with the chef
'Cook Inn the White Mountains'
Recreational Cooking at Professional Culinary Schools
Atlantic Culinary Academy, Dover
Seasonings Program for recreational cooks
Evening demonstration classes include
Fundamental French Cuisine, Oct. 3;
Mushroom Harvesting and Prep, Oct. 4; Tapas, Oct. 5
Southern New Hampshire University, School of Hospitality, Tourism, and Culinary Management, Manchester
www.snhu.edu (look under Events)
Dedicated Culinary Enrichment
The Chef’s Cottage, Exeter
Chef Kevin Fitzgibbon
Chez Boucher French Cooking School
321 Lafayette Rd., Hampton
142 Lowell Rd. (Rte. 3A)
Hudson, (603) 891-3520
Sunflowers Café, Fitzwilliam
Baking Bread with Kate Thomas, Oct. 15
Liz Barbour, Hollis
This article appears in the October 2007 issue of New Hampshire Magazine