- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 11, 2003

In the old days, there were bars, bowling alleys, sewing bees and house raisings to bring people together. Now there are cooking classes.

And why not? Food has always brought people closer. What better excuse to make small talk and new friendships on a weeknight evening, all while stirring ripe red peppers and tomatoes in a simmering cauldron until they slowly release their essence into a silky brew of a sauce?

“It’s so much fun to cook with friends. Everybody’s doing something. It’s bonding,” interior architect Lisa Toomey says during a three-hour evening class in the downstairs kitchen at Lebanese Taverna in Arlington.

Cooking classes are not only an opportunity to learn a new trick or a better flourish with a knife, but a way for co-workers, colleagues, friends and family members to come together in a different setting.

One can roll up one’s sleeves and stand shoulder to shoulder with bosses, in-laws, sisters or business rivals while creating such Middle Eastern specialties as stuffed grape leaves and shakshouky (a grilled eggplant dish with pomegranate molasses) at Lebanese Taverna or rosemary focaccia and homemade gnocchi at La Cucina, a Tuscan-inspired school.

The usual finale, the meal — whether a buffet feast of spicy, tangy and sweet dishes at a restaurant or a five-course dinner with wine — is extra motivation.

Take the crowd at Lebanese Taverna. Here people will clap for you after you have completed a task, such as coating diamond-shaped squares of baklava with ghee, a clarified butter, or sauteing peppered shawarma in hot oil with cardamom — or just stuffing grape leaves.

As Miss Toomey shows off her “symmetrically balanced” grape leaf, Pedro Nunez, an interior designer from Oakton, rolls a rather overstuffed grape leaf filled with rice, mint and parsley. It’s all in the name of fun, for neither has clients tonight, and that is the point.

Miss Toomey has brought along her friend and co-worker Amy Whitacre, who says she is looking forward to “a real good alternative to a Saturday night. … Bars get kind of boring.”

Soon the dozen or so novices, most of whom have never met before, are laughing at the jokes of chef-instructor Mohammad Homayon Karimy.

Water and wine flow freely during the three-hour meal preparation. Lest stomachs grumble waiting for the dinner of garnished meat pies and salads — set for upstairs at 9:30 p.m. or later — Mr. Karimy offers appetizers including baba ghanoush and cauliflower in a tangy tahini sauce with pita bread at the beginning of class.

Grace Abi-Najm, who co-owns Lebanese Taverna with members of her family, rattles off the categories of classes. There are classes for couples, singles and children, and a seniors class is in the works. Law firms, corporate groups, mother-daughter groups, Girl Scout groups, single friends, matchmaking services and young professional clubs also book classes.

Miss Toomey has learned something new about her friend, too: “I didn’t know you liked to cook,” she tells Miss Whitacre.

• • •

Students in a recreational cooking class nearly always come from diverse culinary backgrounds, from someone who uses a George Foreman grill for his main courses to professionals hoping to develop their technique or learn a few tips from celebrated chefs. A financial services company recently asked Maria Poholchuk of La Cucina about classes it hoped would help managerial team-building.

Mrs. Poholchuk, who taught cooking in New York state before moving three years ago to Gapland, Md., a small town near Harpers Ferry, W.Va., where she runs cooking classes out of her home, has cooking in her blood. Her brother is a chef at a chic Manhattan restaurant; her mother, a native of Tuscany, owns the Tuscany Inn on Martha’s Vineyard and runs a cooking school there. Her aunt and uncle are also chefs.

At a recent La Cucina luncheon class — La Cucina does lunch as well as dinner menus — Michelle Raimist, a free-lance editor from Woodsboro, Md., got to know some friends more deeply than she had before.

“This class was one of the few times I got to know them as women,” she says. While making pepperoni arrostiti (roasted red peppers) and melanzane sott’ olio (grilled marinated eggplant), she was able to focus on her friends amid the tasks, the aromas and Tuscan singer Andrea Bocelli’s crooning in the background.

“You know what we didn’t talk about? We didn’t talk about our children, we didn’t talk about our spouses or what we have on our to-do list that week,” says Lynne Ramirez, a friend of Mrs. Raimist’s. “Did we talk about anything major, important? No, but that was the beauty of it — seeing our friends in a different light.”

Jan Rosen, who owns a telecom billings business, used a class in Mrs. Poholchuk’s kitchen to get a few generations of family members together to celebrate her mother’s 75th birthday this past August. The class gave her a chance to get closer to her sister-in-law, the sister-in-law’s mother and her niece, who is from a “younger generation.”

“It is rare that we can all be physically close together,” Ms. Rosen says.

• • •

The inverse can happen — people from different professional backgrounds can find they have a lot in common.

As Equinox chef Todd Gray’s seasonally themed Saturday class draws to a close one afternoon at Bulthaup Kitchen Design’s showroom in Georgetown, Amy Hughes, an aspiring chef-caterer working as a government contractor for the Department of Defense, and Judy Plavnick, an executive producer who travels a lot for work, find themselves chatting at the table long after they have dispatched their three-course lunch and the wine served with each course.

They have since attended about every one of Equinox’s monthly Saturday afternoon classes together; still ahead are classes in butternut squash risotto with royal trumpet mushrooms and Maine lobster. In Mrs. Hughes, Ms. Plavnick has found someone with perhaps a different style but similar interests.

“The bonus is meeting someone with a similar sense of humor,” Ms. Plavnick says.

When the time came to make late summer tomato chutney in September, they had shared shopping tips and planned concert dates together.

“How can you not be friends with people who love good food and wine and shoes?” Mrs. Hughes says. She later adds, “When you have your hands full of crabmeat, everyone’s sort of at the same level.”

“Being able to laugh at ourselves as we struggled with unfamiliar techniques and materials while the chef whizzed through things was a real bonding experience,” she says.

Equinox’s class, with its cold workstation and hot or stove-top workstation, allows participants to go elbow to elbow, spoon to spoon, with Mr. Gray. The setting itself creates intimacy, and class sizes are kept small. One student inquires about a classmate’s hopes for opening a pottery studio, and another entertains questions about his work as a psychotherapist.

“No one is ever standing to the edge. No one is excluded. [We are] peeling, pounding and wrapping until it’s done,” Ms. Plavnick says.

Students can come as they are, don aprons and step right in, hands first, but Ms. Plavnick does suggest wearing comfortable shoes.

• • •

Although cooking classes attract voyeurs — passers-by stare in the street-level windows of the kitchen at Sur la Table on Pentagon Row, where about 16 students are learning cooking fundamentals with a focus on Mediterranean flavors — it is hard to stay shy if one needs help deveining raw shrimp or threading saffron dough through a pasta maker.

Sur la Table, a high-end Seattle-based cookware store, offers a wide range of cooking and technique classes taught by area chefs and authors. At one pasta class, students watch quietly, almost reverently, as guest chef Bonnie Moore creates a flour moat and pours olive oil, egg and saffron into the flour “bowl,” then blends and stretches the mixture into pasta dough. The class begins to hum with chatter as the students divide into groups to make their own dough.

For some students, it’s a dream come true. Jim Bomgardner, known as “chef extraordinaire” in a Tuesday night class at Sur la Table, wanted to take classes for 20 years and recently completed Sur la Table’s four-part cooking fundamentals series.

It’s good he did: The Columbia, Md., marketing consultant is building a new house with a large, modern kitchen to accommodate his new hobby.

“I’m tired of just using my kitchen to make coffee,” he says.

He’ll miss just one thing: the students gathered around high-fiving one another after completing steps for the mis en place for the shrimp scampi.

Basics to gourmet, learn with pros

Equinox

Type: Seasonal American with fresh, local flair. Participation class. Wine pairings in collaboration with Dean & DeLuca’s wine department.

Chef: Todd Gray of Equinox with wife and co-owner Ellen Gray as host and “ringmaster”

Times and location: 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Saturdays, Bulthaup Kitchen Design showroom, Cady’s Alley, 3316 M St. NW, rear Suite C.

Cost: $65 per class plus 10 percent tax plus 18 percent gratuity

Information: 202/331-8118

Everlasting Life

Food for Life

Type: Vegan, mostly demonstration

Chefs: Sister Kitsiyah, Sister Roeeyah

Times and locations: Sister Kitsiyah’s classes 1 to 3 p.m. the first Saturday of every month at 9185 Central Ave., Capitol Heights; 301/324-6900. Sister Roeeyah’s classes 1 to 3 p.m. the third Saturday of every month at 2928 Georgia Ave. NW; 202/232-1700.

Cost: $35 in advance, $40 walk-in per class.

Information: 301/324-6900 or www.everlastinglife.net/food_for_life_cooking_classes.htm

L’Academie de Cuisine

Type: Professional and recreation classes, one-time classes and series, with a wide range of cuisines and styles, from Asian to cooking with cheeses to vegetarian. Hands-on and demonstration classes available.

Chefs: Most of the chef-instructors are graduates of the academy’s professional culinary program.

Times and location: Three- to six-hour recreational classes weekends and weekday evenings at various times of day at 5021 Wilson Lane, Bethesda.

Cost: From $45 for a class on apple pastries and desserts to $325 for a full weekend of instruction on primary skills of cooking.

Information: Manager Amy White, 301/986-9490. E-mail to [email protected], or see the Web site at www.lacademie.com

La Cucina

Type: Northern Italian, Tuscan cooking, lunch or dinner menus. Hands-on. Wine with meal.

Chef: Maria Poholchuk

Times and location: Four-hour classes in Gapland, Md. Call for exact location of the private residence.

Cost: $65 for lunch, $75 for dinner. Half nonrefundable deposit. Six people minimum. Sells gift certificates.

Information: 301/432-7382, www.tuscancookingclasses.com

Lebanese Taverna

Type: Lebanese, Middle Eastern. Hands-on. Wine available throughout.

Chef: Mohammad Homayon Karimy

Times and location: 6:45 to 9:30 p.m. most Wednesdays and Thursdays, plus private classes for up to 14 people, at Lebanese Taverna Market, 4400 Old Dominion Dr., Arlington.

Cost: $55 per person per class. Refunds and rescheduling are not allowed.

Information: 703/841-1502 or www.lebanesetaverna.com/cooking-classes.html

Ristorante Tosca

Type: Contemporary Northern Italian. Includes a wine lecture and wine pairings.

Chef: Cesare Lanfranconi

Times and location: 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays in the kitchen at Tosca, 1112 F St. NW

Cost: $80 per person.

Information: 202/367-1990. E-mail to [email protected] or see the Web site at www.toscadc.com

Sur la Table

Type: Culinary arts and techniques and a variety of classes, from breads and cookie classes to full menus at upscale cookware store. Hands-on and demonstration classes. Wine with the meal.

Chef: Visiting chefs and cookbook authors

Times and location: 6:30 to 9:15 p.m. weekdays, 10:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday at 1101 S. Joyce St., Suite B-20, Pentagon Row, Arlington.

Cost: From $45 for a single class on soups and stews to $260 for four classes on pastry basics.

Information: 703/414-3580 at the store or 866/328-5412 toll-free. See the Web site at www.surlatable.com/stores/store_arlingtonva.cfm


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