Eat in Class

Kristine Heykants

Culinary School Cafe
9900 Valley Creek Rd., Suite 150, Woodbury; (651) 702-4100;
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.  

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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