published Wednesday, February 27th, 2013

Seeking tips, techniques: Cooking classes at local schools see surge in popularity

Amanda Varnell shows a group of women different types of salt during a cooking class at her Dish T'Pass Cooking School.
Amanda Varnell shows a group of women different types of salt during a cooking class at her Dish T'Pass Cooking School.
Photo by Connor Choate.

CLASS SCHEDULE

For complete details, go to the listed websites or call ahead.

Le Chef Amour's Haute Cuisine

8006 East Brainerd Road, 866-566-2781, www.hautecuisinechatt.com

• March 15: Learn to create a bourbon glaze with filet mignon

• March 16: Quick-fix appetizers

• March 22: Italian pasta sauces

• March 23: Barbecue sauces and rubs

• March 26: Boneless hot wings and exotic sauces

• March 30: Oriental spring rolls with Thai chili sauce

Mia Cucina

345 Frazier Ave. 423-265-4474, www.theplaceforcooks.com

• March 1: Couples cook together making gnocchi

• March 2: Fresh pasta fundamentals

• March 3: Sunday afternoon baking

• March 9: Girl's night out

• March 11: French bistro dinner

• March 12: Cajun favorites

• March 15: Couples cook together

• March 16: Italian favorites

• March 19: Thai food 101

• March 25: Meatless Monday

• March 26: Live healthy, eat healthy

• March 29: Steakhouse DIY

Dish T'Pass

302 Sixth St. 423-309-5353, www.dishtpass.com

• March 1: Sensational seafood

• March 2: All About sliders; samplings from a local brewery will also be on hand

• March 4: Kitchen 101 for kids

• March 5: The meatless meal (a class for vegetarian cooking)

• March 8: Classic crepes

• March 10: Parent/child weeknight cooking (No more than 2 children per adult allowed)

• March 12: You grew it, now what? From the Earth to your table

• March 16: Luck o' the Irish

David Hunter is a whiz at computers. At age 28, he owns his own web-design business.

But when it came to taking a pat of butter, mixing it with some flour and milk to make a roux, he was clueless.

Then he took a cooking class.

"I thought it would be good to learn to make something besides ramen noodles," he says.

At Dish T'Pass cooking school, along with learning the tips and techniques needed in the kitchen, he's gained something more: The confidence to open up a cookbook and know that he can make almost anything he reads.

"My girlfriend has been impressed," he says. "I don't think I scare people anymore when I cook."

Cooking classes are offered in several locations around Chattanooga and interest is heating up, says Amanda Varnell, owner of Dish T'Pass, a school on Sixth Street. One reason, she says, is a growing realization of health benefits gained from cooking your own meals.

Marcy Kelch, owner of Mia Cucina on the North Shore, says some of the rising interest comes from increased exposure to cooking shows on TV and chefs reaching celebrity status, but she also is seeing an increasing number of people signing up for cooking classes for economical reasons.

There's a misconception that healthy cooking means expensive cooking without a wide range of ingredients from which to choose, she says.

"We bust that myth and give attendees the skills and tips they need to re-create healthy, restaurant-quality meals at home," she says.

But it's also all about connectivity, Varnell says.

"A cooking class can be all about getting together with friends who also enjoy cooking," she says.

It's about family, too, says Jernard Wells, aka The Love Chef and owner of Le Chef Amour's Haute Cuisine cooking school in East Brainerd.

"I think people are learning to cook to save money and to spend more time with family," he says. "Going out to eat is not always private or intimate. I teach in my class that you are putting some of your personality in everything that you cook, and this is what makes it delicious and unique."

Laurie Wright, a 43-year-old who teaches fifth grade at Westwood Elementary School in Dalton, Ga., turns the tables when she goes to her cooking class at Dish T'Pass, becoming the student rather than the teacher.

"Both of my grandmothers were good cooks, and so was my mom," she says, so she goes to augment what she learned growing up.

"I'm a visual learner, and Amanda (Varnell) demonstrates in front of us, so I can go home and duplicate what she makes for my family," Wright says. "And I'm learning so many helpful hints I never thought of."

"Magic can happen around food," Varnell says.

The cost of individual cooking classes averages from $30 to $60. But multiple classes can become cost-prohibitive, so the the trend toward bartering services now reaches into the kitchen.

"You teach me to cook and I'll teach you to sew," Varnell says. "Or I'll teach you to paint if you teach me how to cook. I see that happening a lot among the younger generation in their 20s."

A lost art

The ability to cook seems to have begun disappearing about 40 years ago, Varnell says.

"People that came of age in the 1970s and '80s don't cook as much because they never really learned. Many of their mothers went back to work, and so the art of cooking was lost," Varnell says. "Girls were encouraged to pursue careers and not learn homemaking skills. So now their children don't know how to cook."

Wells says some of his students are getting married and need to learn to cook. "And I have a lot of parents who buy the cooking classes for their children as gifts," he adds.

There is no "typical" student, Varnell says. She has doctors, attorneys, accountants, teachers; some know how to cook, some don't.

But Wells says one thing his students all have is an energetic desire to learn.

"I get students who are beginners, and I also get students who are professional cooks but may be looking for a new, exciting technique," he says.

At Mia Cucina, it's men who are doing a lot of the cooking.

"You would be surprised at the number of single men who attend our classes," Kelch says. "Younger guys will often bring friends and make a guys' night out of it. We find this to occur most often when the menu incorporates cooking with beer, grilling or smoking meats."

Varnell, too, is seeing more men in her classes. "It's become more acceptable for them to says they love to cook," she says.

But even with an influx of guys, younger couples make up almost 40 of the attendees at Mia Cucina's classes, Kelch says.

"The majority of them initially attend as a fun alternative to dinner and a movie, then become repeat customers and regular attendees because the experience was fun and they learned a skill in the process."

The different skill levels that come to learn about cooking never surprise Sarah Cate Patten who, with husband Benedetto Scaduto, teaches many of the classes at Mia Cucina. To make things easier for beginners, Patten says, they take recipes step by step.

"We break the recipes down into the simplest steps to help from beginning to end," she says. And she's always impressed when even the most unskilled cooks walk out with just a bit more confidence.

Some even turn cooking classes into a party. Leonora Williamson, a frequent student at Mia Cucina, is planning a 40th birthday celebration around a class on the art of Italian cooking.

"It's a great way to relax with friends -- bring your own wine and then eat what is made," she says. "Plus, there's a lot of hands-on learning."

Chef Jernard's Sensational Chicken Salad

3 pounds skinless, boneless chicken breast halves, cooked and diced

1 cup diced celery

1 cup seedless red or green grapes, halved or quartered

1/2 cup mayonnaise

3/4 cup Chef Jernard's Caribbean Island sauce (available at Whole Foods)

1 (8-ounce) container sour cream

3 tablespoons of brown sugar

2 teaspoons salt

3 teaspoons ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place chicken in baking pan bake and bake for 25 minutes; remove chicken from oven and place on chopping board. Dice chicken. In a very large bowl, stir together the chicken with remaining. Cover and chill 30 minutes to 1 hour. Makes 8 cups (12 to 16 servings). Serve on buttermilk biscuits or crescent rolls, if desired.


Mia Cucina's Prosciutto-Wrapped Chicken with Meyer Lemon Sauce

4 (4-ounce) boneless skinless chicken breasts

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon fresh cracked black pepper or to taste

12 fresh sage leaves

4 slices of prosciutto, very thinly sliced

3 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

1/3 cup fat-free, lower-sodium chicken broth

1/4 cup fresh Meyer lemon juice (regular lemons can be substituted)

1/2 teaspoon cornstarch

Meyer lemon wedges, grilled (optional)

Sprinkle the chicken evenly with salt and pepper. Place 3 sage leaves on each cutlet; wrap 1 prosciutto slice around each cutlet, securing sage leaves in place.

Heat a large nonstick sauté pan or skillet over medium heat. Add 11/2 teaspoons oil to pan and swirl to coat. Add chicken to pan; cook for 2-3 minutes on each side or until internal tempature reaches 165 degrees. Remove chicken from pan, cover and let rest. While chicken is resting, combine broth, lemon juice, and cornstarch in a small bowl; stir with a whisk until smooth. Add cornstarch mixture and the remaining oil to same pan; bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Cook for 1 minute or until slightly thickened, stirring constantly with a nonstick whisk. Spoon sauce over chicken. Makes 4 servings.

Serve with additional lemon wedges, if desired. Side recommendations: wilted spinach, broccoli rabe or wild rice.


Roasted Cauliflower Soup With Crunchy Kale and Chorizo

For the soup:

1 large head cauliflower

3-4 Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled

3 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled

1 yellow onion, peeled and sliced

2 tablespoons olive oil

Kosher salt

1 quart chicken broth

1 cup water

1 cup heavy cream, half-and-half or whole milk

Freshly ground black pepper

For kale and chorizo:

Fresh kale, chopped

Olive oil (2-3 tablespoons)

Kosher salt

1 (4- to 5-ounce) chorizo sausage

Heat the oven to 450 degrees. Cut the cauliflower into small florets and dice potatoes. On a large foil-lined rimmed baking sheet, toss them with the garlic, onion, oil and 1 teaspoon of salt. Roast 25-30 minutes, flipping halfway through, until they are golden and starting to brown.

Once roasted, add veggies to a large pot with the broth and water and bring to a boil over high heat. Lower the heat, then simmer the soup, partially covered, for 30 minutes, or until the cauliflower and potatoes are very tender.

In a blender in batches, or with a hand blender, puree the soup until smooth. Stir in the half-and-half; add black pepper and salt, to taste. Serve topped with crunchy kale and crumbled chorizo.

For the kale: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. On a large, foil-lined baking sheet, toss kale with oil and salt; roast for 8 minutes and toss, then roast an additional 8 minutes or until crispy.

For the chorizo: Remove sausage from casing; brown in skillet and use paper towel to blot excess grease.

Contact Anne Braly at abraly@timesfreepress.com.

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