Stop, Cook and Listen

Six months and $20,000 later, student chefs prepare the meal of a lifetime.

Brent Whitson is tall and stocky, with a quiet, solid demeanor. He's 29. He's been a stockbroker and has worked in pharmaceutical sales, but he always wanted to go to cooking school.

Tanner Meshberger is only two years older than Cody. He keeps his eyes down while he speaks. He worked in construction with his father, he says, and didn't like it. He wants to "paint and be creative. I don't really have any goals." His voice trails into silence.

"I grew up in West Virginia, cooking everything from squirrel to brains," says Don Bartlett, a crop-haired and neatly bearded man in his forties. After four years in the Air Force, Don got a degree in respiratory therapy and had a highly successful hospital career, ultimately running two departments. He's the father of two daughters. "I got rooted," he says. But on weekends, he cooked for his friends and dreamed "of a place of my own that people would flock to."

A season of seasoning: Brent (left) and Chef Andy stir the pot.
John Johnston
A season of seasoning: Brent (left) and Chef Andy stir the pot.

Later Don explains with a slight smile that his first wife, to whom he'd been married 21 years, left him to follow the Grateful Dead. A few months before the cooking class started, he married Rhonda, a nurse he met at the hospital and the mother of a small son. He described his vision of a restaurant to her. "One evening she said, 'What would it take for you to follow your dream? If I can double my salary, would you quit your job and go to school?'

"She went into computer tech and in eighteen months doubled her salary," Don remembers. "She got the first paycheck, slapped it down and said, 'Now what's your excuse?'"

One of thirteen children growing up on a farm in South Dakota, Ethel Merrigan, now in her fifties, wanted to be a home economics teacher. Instead, she went into sales. For several years, she owned her own clothing store. "I'd like to run a country inn," she says, "a tiny place with a wonderful kitchen." But, she adds, "whatever comes, comes."

Elizabeth Perrault got a degree in hotel and restaurant management and then went to Mali as a Peace Corps volunteer. One of her projects was introducing soybeans as a field crop. "They're so poor, so incredibly malnourished; they couldn't afford protein," she explains. "I lived in a mud hut for a time and then in a small concrete house. I rode my motorcycle to the villages every day and worked with several different women's groups on growing soybeans and then teaching them how to cook with them. I taught them to make soy milk, because a lot of times the women couldn't breastfeed -- they were off working. We also made these things called soumbala, little fried balls. We'd go to the market and sell them." She smiles. "I had a great time with the women."

After that, Elizabeth worked in the high-tech industry, most recently as a recruiter. But her heart wasn't in it. She took some evening classes at the Cooking School of the Rockies, met her partner at the first class she took there, and fell in love with cooking. "I'm interested in food and travel writing," she tells the class, "and perhaps someday having a lodge/ retreat in the mountains where people can go and get nourished. On all levels."

Introductions over, Chef James runs over protocols and procedures. Every week, one student will serve as kitchen manager, coming in early and making sure that everything runs smoothly. The students will learn by being shown dishes and then cooking them, receiving the written recipes only afterward. One student will always be the designated bread baker, a job that at first requires making only a baguette or two but ultimately involves an array of rolls and loaves. In the afternoons there will be wine tastings, planning sessions or lectures: how to cost out a menu, how to use the Internet, the basics of food writing, developments in the industry. Essay assignments and written tests will be given. The students are to keep their white jackets clean and pressed; they are also responsible for cleaning and maintaining the kitchen. Almost every day, they will prepare a several-course meal for themselves, the dishwasher and any guests who happen to be present, a group that sometimes includes the school's owner, Joan Brett.

Once a lawyer, Brett made her way to the kitchen over a decade ago. She attended Peter Kump's New York Cooking School in 1990 and founded the Cooking School of the Rockies in Boulder on her return, beginning with classes in the kitchen of her own home in the fall of '91. "I haven't regretted my decision for one second," she says. "What I do now is make people happy instead of unhappy. And the stress of running a business doesn't compare to the stress of being a family lawyer."

In addition to the Cooking School of the Rockies' professional program, which has a strong regional reputation (one graduate is currently in charge of specialty foods, including cheeses and olives, for Boulder's Whole Foods Market; others work at Triana, Full Moon Grill, Maggiano's and the Flagstaff House), the school offers dozens of single classes on topics ranging from chocolate to soup and barbecue to ravioli, as well as week-long technique workshops and a month-long professional pastry class.

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