Recipe for success: Sweet and Savory Classroom teaches cooking and leadership

Sweet and Savory Classroom is a new and exciting addition to the Southside.
Sweet and Savory Classroom is a new and exciting addition to the Southside.

If you go

The Sweet and Savory Classroom45 E. Main St., Suite 112 (entrance on backside of Soho Building)423-661-8750Sweetandsavoryclassroom.com

Side Dish: Standout Chef

James Beard Foundation-awarded chefs are considered some of the creme de la creme in the culinary world. Chef Erik Niel, of Easy Bistro & Bar, may soon be able to add that to his resume. He was nominated for Best Chef: Southeast. A big congrats on making the cut! Niel is the only chef nominated this year from Chattanooga, and this is his first time being a semifinalist. The finalists will be announced at the James Beard Awards on May 2 in Chicago. Visit jamesbeard.org/awards to learn more.

Afew years ago, our friend Mimi stayed with my husband and me for a few days between art shows. A talented fiber artist, she is also an accomplished amateur chef, and to thank us for our hospitality, she decided to cook us a meal.

All I had to do was show her where I kept my cookware and utensils. This is when things started to go downhill. In my kitchen there was one 12-inch pan, a soup pot, a peeler, one badly burned spatula, and two ancient Kmart steak knives that wiggled in their shafts. My stove had only three working burners, one of which was iffy. There was no microwave. And there was certainly no dishwasher. Mimi threw up her hands.

"Someone should film a reality cooking show in this kitchen," she said. "Contestants would have to prepare a meal using only what's here."

But that was then and this is now. In my new house I have a microwave, a dishwasher and a stove with four working burners. Thanks to Mimi's generosity, I also have a professional-grade kitchen knife, a solid oak cutting board, a rice maker and a Le Creuset casserole dish. I've learned a lot about cooking from her, which has made me want to learn more. So when I saw that the Sweet and Savory Classroom had opened in January, I signed up.

Started by husband-and-wife team Jeff and Heather Pennypacker, both 38, the Sweet and Savory Classroom is a new and exciting addition to the Southside. The Pennypackers bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to Chattanooga. After graduating with his culinary degree from Johnson and Wales University in Charleston, South Carolina, Jeff trained with the John Maxwell Team, a leadership certification program for coaches. He then went on to become the youngest chef at the Biltmore House in Asheville, North Carolina, where he stayed for seven years. Other successful ventures have included a furniture making business, an ice sculpting company, a book about how to mentor boys (Broken Boys, Extraordinary Men), and a small business coaching and consulting firm.

Heather graduated from the Indiana University of Pennsylvania Academy of Culinary Arts, and later received her specialization in Pastry. She worked as a pastry chef at Grove Park Inn in Asheville for almost three years before joining Jeff at the Biltmore House, where she was a pastry chef for 12 years. Heather also holds an associate degree in American Sign Language Interpreting from Blue Ridge Community College, which she obtained in order to be able to work with a hearing impaired employee.

A quick perusal of the Sweet and Savory website reveals that there are multiple classes from which to choose, from knife skills to Thai street food to doughnuts to rustic tarts. There are also cooking camps for children and teens. Jeff teaches the savory classes, while Heather teaches the sweet ones.

The Art of Risotto

I decide to take the Art of Risotto because risotto strikes me as a blank canvas onto which I can layer a variety of flavors and textures. Also, I like that it has the word "art" in it.

The Sweet and Savory classroom is professional, spacious and clean. There are seven tall butcher-block tables large enough to accommodate eight to 10 students each (although tonight there are only four of us). Four ranges are lined up against one wall, some with large soup pots of stock already simmering. A grouping of wire racks is stacked with a vast and thrilling assortment of cookware, framing a long trough that is the dishwashing station.

Jeff Pennypacker is wearing a blindingly white, starched chef's jacket and black apron. There are four gleaming silver trays (one for each of us) on which are pre-measured amounts of dry risotto rice, milk, chicken stock, garlic cloves, thick-cut bacon, an onion, five meaty mushrooms and a shallow dish of bright green peas. There are also tiny dishes of chocolate chips, honey and cinnamon, because once we perfect the art of savory risotto, it'll be a short step to perfecting the art of dessert risotto. Beside each tray is an imposingly large knife that would never, under any circumstances, wiggle in its shaft.

Jeff stands behind a small tabletop range at the front of the classroom, facing the four of us. After a brief discussion of types of rice, he explains that the "art" of risotto rests in the chef's ability to coax cooking liquid (in this case, chicken stock and water) into sauce. Risotto making, it turns out, is a slow, practically zen-like process of adding liquid, stirring, testing for sauce thickness, adding liquid, stirring, testing for sauce thickness - six times in all. Any attempts to rush the process (or take time out to watch a bit of Seinfeld), will result in a risotto that is disappointingly dry or unappealingly soggy.

By the time we commence to our own chopping, slicing, garlic crushing and stirring, we are clear about our goal: a sauce that coats the back of a spoon and holds its shape after we drag a finger through it, and how to achieve it. While we stir and test and chat, I can't help but think that a glass of wine would make this a perfect activity. Happily, a wine license is pending.

By the end of class, we are starving. I for one can't wait to dig into the mushroom and green pea risotto I'd created. Having learned from Jeff that "salt shouldn't taste like salt" but like the heightened taste of whatever you are salting, I am delighted to find that my risotto explodes with earthy, briny, mushroomy deliciousness. For our creamy, lightly sweetened dessert risotto, Jeff has demonstrated how to quickly render a berry compote, which we ladle over the top. We eat until we are stuffed, and take home the rest to impress our families.

It is Jeff and Heather's belief in the importance of teaching and leadership that makes the Sweet and Savory Classroom more than just a cooking school.

"Teaching - passing along what we know - is our greatest legacy," says Jeff. "On a basic level, when you teach people the basics of cooking, they become able to make wise food choices. But in showing them the importance of, for example, setting up their cooking station with their ingredients and tools laid out, you are teaching that success [in cooking, and by extension, in business and in life], requires planning and organization."

It's obvious that the Pennypackers love food and cooking, though they'll tell you they're "more teachers than foodies."

"Food is just the medium for us to be able to interact with people," Jeff says.

Which is, I think, the heart of the art of cooking.

Upcoming Events