Eat in Class

The lamb--finally!--came arranged around a scoop of whipped Yukon Gold potatoes and a scattering of haricots verts, carrots, rutabaga, and turnips. To drink we had a 1997 Chianti by Fonterutoli, and since I'd been reading the mountains of press generated by what some call Chianti's "vintage of the century," I was more excited than most. Another well-balanced choice, the wine had a wonderful note of sweet fruit at its center and a gentle finish.

After the lamb there was a break, and I took the opportunity to quiz people about why they were taking the class. One north Minneapolis couple was there for a birthday celebration: "I think if you're going to go out to dinner you may as well learn something," said the wife, who turned out to be--surprise!--a teacher. "The food's enough for me," said her husband, "but it is much more fun that I expected it to be."

Another Minneapolis couple had come because one needed to show the other just how difficult it really is to make a nice dinner--plus they both liked going out to eat. A third couple wanted to try the restaurant because they live in Woodbury and heard it was good. Seems like everyone had been drawn by some combination of interest in food and multitasking, and by the time we all sat down for a modified version of tiramisu and a sweet, lightly fizzy glass of Marcarini's 1998 Moscato d'Asti, we had morphed from a group of individual diners into a class, complete with a lot of laughter and shared cooking-disaster stories.

This relaxed, confident atmosphere was in sharp contrast with the earlier, more hands-on class I took at the Culinary School Cafe. It was a chocolate truffle course, and the instructor--funny, fast-talking Marjorie Porter--had everyone up to their elbows in chocolate in record time, a technique that breaks down barriers but also brings out insecurities. I was surprised to discover the difference among students' levels of expertise: One woman had driven 200 miles from Walnut Grove and seemed to know everything there was to know about chocolate. In the same class a woman from Cottage Grove said she was trying to use up a five-gallon bag of chocolate chips from Sam's Club. (She remained irritated all class after discovering that chips are made to resist melting and thus are just about worthless for truffles.)

Porter, who used to be the director of purchasing for upstate New York specialty food purveyor D'Artagnan, told me that the school is a blessing for midcareer chefs like her. By teaching a few classes a month, Porter, who has two-year-old twins, can keep her name out there and get some extra money in her pocket, all without having to get full-time daycare.

For customers, it seems like an equally good deal: The chocolate truffle class cost $30, and I left with a large box of truffles. The lamb dinner ran $75. Other recent offerings included a sold-out gingerbread-house class, $60; a holiday bread class taught by Goodfellow's pastry chef Joan Ida, $50; a five-course wine dinner led by Muffuletta's chef David Robinson, $65; and a luxurious five-course Italian truffle dinner with foie gras led by local celebrity and former café un deux trois and Bravo chef Andrew Zimmern for $95. (Unfortunately that class, one of the first offered when the school opened, got canceled for lack of enrollment.)

The Culinary School Cafe is owned by two couples, Becky and Greg Cutlan and Emily and Dan Gatto, who got the idea from the similarly structured Aspen School of Cooking during a ski vacation. "We decided in the beginning that we needed to appeal to cooks and non-cooks, men and women," says Becky Cutlan. "That's why we have ample portions, good wines--those that want to take notes can, those that want to just listen and eat and drink can. It's an event for anyone, for the serious and not so serious cook."

When I talked to Zimmern about his now-canceled class, we got to wondering about what could make the Twin Cities a great food town. "It's not going to be because we're validated by some New York or Chicago restaurant opening an outpost here," he said. "We'll be a great food town when little restaurants like Alma and Zander [Cafe] become the norm, when our farmers' market expands, when local cheesemakers stop making cheddar with [the additive] carrageenan and start making their own washed-rind cheeses." And every time a dozen people spend a night thinking about a chef, a style of cooking, and a flight of wines, we get a little bit closer.

Directions from the Twin Cities: Take I-94 east to Keats Avenue; take Keats south to the first stop sign; turn right on Valley Creek Road, and the next right into the strip-mall parking lot.

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