Now You’re Cooking
In Westchester, too many cooks don’t spoil the broth— there are just more teachers for our local cooking classes.
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According to the National Restaurant Association, this year, on a typical day, more than 130 million Americans will be food-service patrons. But I won't be joining their numbers as often as I did. In the face of new economic realities, I realized I was spending too large a “slice” of my income on frequent dining out.
I decided to investigate local cooking classes as one way to economize. My first instinct was to try the non-credit classes offered by top schools, such as the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park or the Institute of Culinary Education in Manhattan, but an online check showed their priority goes to current students and alums—their most appealing classes fill up almost as soon as they’re offered. And, since I didn’t want to waste a lot of time in transit, I decided to stay local.
I tailored single classes at different Westchester venues to fit my schedule. Classes, of course, had to be reasonably priced—about the cost of a good restaurant meal for one. I sought chefs who I figured, based on word-of-mouth as well as my own perceptions, might be patient teachers and would adapt recipes for non-professionals. I wanted to try a variety of cuisines and experience different methods of cooking. Because there are no prerequisites for enrolling, local classes must be designed for a broad spectrum of cooks. The result should be clear, step-by-step instructions that neither condescend to the novice nor bore the advanced home cook.
To attract new clientele and offer excitement to their regulars, some local restaurants offer cooking classes on a sporadic basis. I learned from friends that the French restaurant La Panetière in Rye has hit upon its own formula. Every month, it offers classes on how to prepare one dish—be it an appetizer, main course, or dessert—daily at 11 am for an entire week. You can select the day that fits your schedule. There are new offerings each month, which may be taught by a distinguished guest chef or by La Panetière’s Executive Chef, Jean-Marc Cabirol, or Pastry Chef Didier Berlioz. After each class, students dine on the preparation of the day, as part of a three-course lunch in the restaurant’s charming, Provençal-accented, downstairs dining room.
La Panetière’s classes take place not in its kitchen but in a large upstairs room. Its floor-to-ceiling windows overlook lovely gardens. Classes easily can comprise 20 or more students who sit around a long table on which the chef does his cooking. And, lest you be daunted because you don’t have the professional accoutrements of a huge restaurant kitchen, instructional recipes are prepared on a small, portable, propane-powered burner. I realized if the chef could whip up a classic seafood risotto on that small device, surely I could do as well on my home stove.
My confidence level dipped, however, when I learned our guest instructor was Tony Esnault, recently named consultant to La Panetière and former executive chef at three-star Michelin-rated Alain Ducasse at the Essex House. I doubted I’d be able to replicate any dish this culinary star could execute. Chef Esnault, however, worked hard to demystify the making of risotto.
To eliminate a dinner host’s anxiety, he advised cooking the Arborio rice to three-quarter’s doneness (leaving plenty of liquid) and then refrigerating it the morning before guests arrive. He advised us to enjoy drinking dry white wines and to save the two- to three-day-old remainders for our risotto. He emphasized the importance of covering our pan as soon as we added the highly flammable wine and praised Espelette pepper from southwestern France for its intense but not overpowering flavor. His best tip was how to remove sand from mollusks: you whisk salt and cool water inside a metal container; place shellfish in it; cover them with water, and put on a lid. Sensing it is night, they’ll open and their sand will drop to the bottom.
Chef Esnault’s sous chef, La Panetière’s Dean Loupiac, carried all the ingredients, at each step of preparation, to each class member so we could see for ourselves how everything should look. For example, when the Arborio rice is sautéed, individual grains must become translucent before wine can be added. The quickly cooked shrimp, scallops, and calamari should have a pale, delicate tint. Chef Esnault’s stylish presentation, befitting an excellent restaurant, featured a perfect circle of rice, flanked by alternating pieces of seafood, topped by fresh-snipped green chives.
The students, predominantly female, were mostly dressed for a fine dining experience. They took copious notes and asked a lot of questions. During our three-course luncheon, most students revealed they were serious amateur chefs and/or ladies who loved to lunch with friends. Since classes begin at 11 am, many working people or mothers of young children can’t attend; however, there were several present with flexible hours and others taking “mental-health days.” Most students were from areas surrounding Rye but some, like Denise di Biasi, a retailer from Darien, Connecticut, traveled farther. “At previous classes, I learned to make terrific mint-infused pea soup and great crab cakes so I’d come for anything La Panetière offers,” she said.