Eat in Class

Culinary School Cafe
9900 Valley Creek Rd., Suite 150, Woodbury; (651) 702-4100;
www.culinaryschoolcafe.com
Store hours: Monday-Friday 10:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m.; Saturday till 5:00 p.m. Dinner hours vary according to class schedules; call for more information

Everybody knows that hunger is the best seasoning, but how to create a roomful of hungry diners has been less obvious--until now. Here's the secret: Seat your guests in a ring around a gourmet range holding an enormous pan of searing lamb racks, a pan sizzling and smoking with the delectable scent of garlic and rosemary--and for the next two hours keep them from tasting the meat. Let them drink wine and eat two other courses, all while you keep searing new batches of lamb.

It doesn't matter how good those other courses are. Let one of them be a delicious, nutty, Italian wheatberry soup paired with a summery Tuscan wine the color of dusk's slanting sunshine, and the other a sculpturally composed pear-arugula-roast-beet salad served with a deep, thick, unforgettable Primitivo (a red wine from the Italian region of Apulia). No matter how tasty the food, delightful the wine, or engaging the conversation, there's something about being nose to nose with a set of lamb chops that is utterly riveting.

I made this discovery one recent Tuesday at the Culinary School Cafe, a cooking school with a twist, located in a Woodbury strip mall. The twist is this: The school is also a gourmet shop and prix-fixe restaurant where diners can sup on multicourse meals imagined and prepared by a different chef nearly every night. Each dinner is served with a run of wines chosen by one of a rotating group of sommeliers.

The night I was there, the kitchen was helmed by Michael Ferraro, a longtime chef at the White Bear Yacht Club and most recently executive chef at the Edina Country Club. The wines were selected by Paul Ragghianti, who works for wine-distributor Grape Beginnings, and the meal's theme was: "A Cozy Evening." What made it cozy? The lamb, I guess. Those chops were delicious, cooked to a perfect medium rare, in that restaurant way where the chop is the same shade of pink throughout, not brown on the outside and pink only in the very middle. And now I know why: It's all about tempering, explained chef-of-the-evening Ferraro. Tempering means easing the meat from cool to hot--slowly bringing it to room temperature, then searing the outside, letting it return to room temperature, and finally finishing it in a 375 degree oven.

Ferraro was full of other gems: I learned that kosher salt is half as salty as iodized table salt, and fleur de sel, fancy French hand-harvested ocean salt, is three times saltier than table salt. That whipped potatoes should be started in the Mix Master with the paddle attachment, and that no liquid should be added until the potatoes are all smushed together.

And no matter how much information I absorbed, it wasn't like being trapped in a classroom for dinner, as I had feared. Since the demonstration kitchen is nicely designed with fancy maple tables, glittering settings and reasonable, nondemonstration lighting over the chairs, the general sense is a cross between watching a live food show and eating at a fancy restaurant. Diners are free to chat quietly or, more loudly, ask questions of the chef--a nice split between public and private experience.

In practical terms, a typical dinner unfolds like this: The chef introduces a dish, such as our Italian wheat soup, "zuppa di farro," and goes over a tastefully designed recipe handout. Then a bevy of helpers--including, on my visit, two of the venture's owners, Becky Cutlan and Dan Gatto--help plate the food. When the chef gets too busy to talk, the wine guy jumps in to discuss the bottle of the moment. After four or five courses it's over and everyone leaves--sated, happy, and quite a bit smarter.

Personally, I was especially absorbed by Ragghianti's wine selections. "There's nothing like this anywhere in the world," the Sonoma native gushed in introducing the first bottle, an Italian 1997 Vernaccia di San Gimignano made by Teruzzi & Puthod. "This is a grape that only grows in the steep hills around the ancient city of San Gimignano. This is a wine that goes back 600, 700 years. It's recorded as being Michelangelo's favorite wine." The pale, straw-colored wine was swift and well-balanced, with a very distinct, clean taste. It went well with the thick, salty, nutty soup, and when a helper swung past with a basket of warm bread, I realized that this alone could qualify as the most pleasant meal I'd had in weeks.

We progressed to advice on roasting beets, and soon all the helpers were composing salads. Ragghianti told us all about our second wine, the dark-red Primitivo, and we learned that the Primitivo grape has been found to be genetically identical to the Zinfandel grown in this country. Indeed, the wine has the viscous mouth feel, the intense, spicy taste and dry finish of an old-vine Zinfandel. But Ragghianti pointed out that at $11 a bottle, it's a good deal cheaper than those all-the-rage thick zins.

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