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Charlotte Cooks

Chef's Choice courses at JWU take the cake

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Mary looked at the small white rice encrusted ball in front of her. "These look like those porcupine meatballs we made in cooking class in high school," she noted. Then she popped the Asian Chinese Snowball into her mouth. "It just doesn't taste like anything from high school," she added.

Downstairs near the baking lab class, a participant gushed, "I'm a die-hard Martha Stewart fan. I have learned so much from her television show. But this -- this is incredible. I have never had someone come and "inspect' my pie crust."

The enthusiasm was palpable this early Saturday morning. Sixty area foodies made their way into the state-of-the-art cooking labs at Johnson & Wales University. "I've been waiting for this for two years," one participant told me. "I think I must have been one of the first people to sign up."

On this Saturday, two classes were offered through JWU's Chef's Choice series. Due to intense demand, the culinary class that morning had a second section. During subsequent weeks, many additional sections have been added to allow more folks on the waiting lists to have a hands-on cooking experience.

On the third floor, the 20 "chefs" in Chef Jeremy Houghton's Holiday Cocktail Party class donned their aprons and first-name-only nametags. On the menu were roasted garlic and roasted red pepper hummus; empanadas with mango relish; chicken satay; grape leaves with feta and pistachios; a California sushi roll; spanakopita; stuffed mushroom caps; sliced tomato with mozzarella and balsamic vinaigrette; and the aforementioned Asian Chinese Snowballs.

Houghton commented, "When they (the participants) found out that they were the ones producing the food, they got a little nervous and then very excited. They weren't expecting to actually get their hands that dirty."

Houghton began with instruction on knives, saying he preferred Global. "These knives are very sharp, extremely light, stainless steel and one piece. The handles are hollow and the blades are very thin. They also have a lifetime warranty. You can buy a set of three knives, an eight-inch Chef's Knife, a five-and-a-half-inch vegetable knife, and a four-inch paring knife for under $200. Well worth the price."

In the bright white -- but punctuated with black -- culinary lab, heavy-duty Garland equipment lined a side wall. In the front, gleaming stainless steel prep tables had been assigned specific dishes. Participants quickly assembled their paper toques and chose tables.

One group naturally positioned itself. "We're O.R. nurses," one said. ""We're used to working across the same table." Another was comprised of life-long friends. Cooking skills varied. Some seemed comfortable and competent. Participant Bob is a cooking school junkie and skillfully sliced and diced an onion. One had taken classes at Le Cordon Bleu. Erica, on the other hand, had never seen a clove of garlic before: "I take garlic out of a jar." Another student had been sent to the class by her husband and children. "I just can't cook," she confided. "My family hopes I will learn something. Anything."

One participant cut up the chicken breasts for the satay skewers while another made the marinade. Two groups worked intently on rolling sushi, while another produced empanadas swollen with hard boiled eggs, ground pork, onions and olives. One table bound a feta mixture within a grape leaf. As assignments were finished, the groups intermingled to see what the other tables were doing -- and took small plastic spoons around to sample.

A few participants struggled with the concept of letting go of exact measurements. Houghton noted, "This group felt they had to follow the recipe so exact. They were concerned that the product wouldn't turn out, or be wrong. This is very true in baking formula, but in a culinary formula, recipes are a guideline and a chef can improvise and work with the ingredients in front of them."

But precision made all the difference in Chef Val Ellsworth's class on Holiday Pies. The baking labs are the classrooms fronting Trade Street. In this class, the flour-dusted students lined up on one side of the table, bowls of dough in front. Chef and volunteer JWU students inspected the bowl's contents before the participant was allowed to go to the next step. Two students in the hall compared experiences. "I only needed two teaspoons of water; she needed five," one of them stated. "It really makes a difference to see and feel the dough and know exactly how it should be. I thought it would be hard. But it's not. No more refrigerated pie crusts for me."

The baking class left with hands-on knowledge and a whole pie.

Back in the culinary lab, most of the menu was cooked by noon, and the feast began. The participants shrewdly inspected the dishes, comparing the level of spiciness or the inconsistency of the chopped ingredients. Most had already signed up for additional classes. The ones who had not were regretting it.

"The chef gives so many tips," a student in Chef Robert Brenner's culinary class told me. "I got my $85 worth in the first 10 minutes. Everything else is just fun."

Chef's Choice, Johnson & Wales University, 801 Trade Street. Currently, the Culinary School is putting together the late-winter/spring schedule. Classes are Saturday mornings in the academic center. Registration is $85 per person per class. Class size is limited to 20 participants. For information and to be added to the Chef's Choice mailing list, email your complete mailing address and telephone number to chefschoice.clt@jwu.edu, or call 980-598-1085.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance. Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. To contact Tricia via email: tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com.

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