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A Stirring Experience

It was a little like a triple-bypass operation performed by third-graders using foot-long scissors.

But teaching a knife-skills class to a group of adults who'd obviously been using dull steak knives for slicing and dicing all their lives didn't faze chef Conni Gallo, not even when a blade slipped through an orange and into a student's hand. "Okay, that happens," Gallo said, deftly bandaging the injury. "But it would have been much worse if the knife hadn't been sharp. When the knife is dull and it cuts your skin, it shreds it rather than making a clean cut."

The mishap became just another part of the lesson at The Seasoned Chef, a cooking school for people who dream not of becoming professional chefs, but merely of cooking like them. Sarah Leffen opened the school in 1993; registered dietitian Susan Stevens bought it in May of this year. While Stevens has continued to offer many of the classes Leffen introduced, she's also trying to involve well-known local restaurant chefs as instructors. And she's introduced more classes with a healthy focus, in keeping with a background that includes a master's degree in nutrition, a stint as director of nutrition for HealthMark and several well-regarded cookbooks on eating healthfully.

"We always knew people should eat less fat, and people will say they know that," says Stevens, who also taught low-fat and health-oriented cooking classes at Emily Griffith Opportunity School for five years. "But if you can't tell them how to make it taste good, they won't eat that way. So that's what really got me interested in cooking at first--trying to put flavor in low-fat and fat-free food."

But "cooking light" classes make up only a small portion of the Seasoned Chef's repertoire because, as Stevens says, "people still want their fat." The school lists about forty classes each three-month "semester," and many of them revolve around the season and holidays, with a few quirky subjects such as making dog treats or pasta from scratch. Like most cooking schools, the Seasoned Chef offers hands-on workshop classes (here they're $45 per person, per class) and demonstration classes ($35), where the students simply watch the instructor make foods and then everyone eats them.

Conni Gallo's class was cooking in every sense of the word. She spent the first 45 minutes of the class demonstrating chopping, dicing, mincing, slicing, chiffonade and julienne techniques in front of fifteen people who wanted to talk and laugh and kept forgetting the weapons in their own hands. Then the group divided into teams and set about trying to make one or two of the eight recipes chosen for the class. My team attempted a creamy baked ziti that was eye-rollingly delicious (see Mouthing Off for the recipe) and duxelles-stuffed chicken, which is billed as a perfect company dish but is way more work than most of my friends are worth. As we cooked, Gallo, a Scottsdale Culinary Institute graduate, walked around critiquing knife technique, authoritatively answering questions and making comments such as, "One of my pet peeves is that people leave their spoons sitting around in the pan."

Well, one of my pet peeves is that I'm not Gallo. She not only makes fabulous food--the recipes we learned were either her creations or her adaptations of others' creations, which she credited--and lives on a boat in the Caribbean for part of the year, but judging from her efficient work in the Seasoned Chef's austere, almost clinical kitchen, she's the type of person whose house is always clean, too.

I also took a Seasoned Chef demonstration class called "The Vegetarian Gourmet," taught by Gigia Kolouch, who has worked as Alfalfa's cooking-school director and as a purveyor of natural foods. Kolouch has an easygoing, almost self-effacing manner, and as she made us such delectable items as cilantro-lime corn chowder and quinoa pilaf with mangoes and green chiles, she peppered her demo with tips on everything from tofu to how to determine when fruits and vegetables are ripe.

The facility backing up these capable, communicative instructors seemed just as proficient. In cooking, the mise en place--which literally means "everything in its place" but refers specifically to measuring and readying the ingredients for a recipe before you proceed--can be critical. At both of the classes I attended, the Seasoned Chef took a smart approach to mise en place: It had been done in advance only to the extent that the items were assembled and clearly labeled. At Gallo's hands-on lesson, we were required to deal with the cutting and measuring necessary to understand the subject at hand; during Kolouch's demo, we got extra technique tips as we watched her deal with unusual items, such as pomegranates, while she prepared the ingredients.

On a broader scale, everything at the Seasoned Chef was always in its place. We never had to go looking for a needed item--all of the knives, spoons, bowls and pans were ready and waiting. And those same dishes and utensils we used were whisked away for washing almost as soon as we put them down.

I had only one complaint--and it was a very minor one--with the Seasoned Chef: The plates on which we ate the finished products were Styrofoam. It didn't bother me during the daytime class, but in the evening, I missed sitting down to a spiffier setting after a hard day of work. Stevens has a good explanation for the plates, though. She chose them because of her knowledge of food-borne illnesses. And in fact, her understanding of all things having to do with nutrition is an incredible asset to the school. Not only were counters, dishes and cooking implements kept spotless and disinfected, but Stevens herself added depth to our discussions. For example, she stepped into Kolouch's demo to talk about amino acids, something the average chef doesn't always remember from her own school days.

The Seasoned Chef isn't the only school offering cooking classes in the metro area. With interest in cooking at an all-time high, new schools keep cropping up. Cooking for Life was started this past May by Dave Dischner, a graduate of programs at both Peter Kump's School of Culinary Arts in New York and the Cooking School of the Rockies in Boulder; he's also the longtime owner of several Wendy's Old-Fashioned Hamburger restaurants as well as the Claremont Inn in Stratton, Colorado, a B&B that offers weekend cooking seminars. When he decided to expand that emphasis into a school, Dischner, who admits to having battled a weight problem much of his life, contracted former Greenbriar Inn owner Michael Comstedt to develop low-fat recipes. But Comstedt has since moved on (see Mouthing Off for information on what he's up to), and so Dischner has been left trying to decipher the recipes. Judging from the two classes I took, he hasn't been entirely successful.

Cooking for Life promotes itself as the "recipe for healthier living," but there were several ingredients missing from that recipe at the two classes I took, "Dazzling Desserts" and "Everybody Loves Shrimp." (Almost all classes are hands-on and cost $45.) Neither offered any more basic information on the subjects than could be gleaned from a good cookbook; a few problematic recipes (two different cooking times for the same step, for example) left students confused and, in one case, rather frustrated.

Leslie Hudson, also a graduate of the Cooking School of the Rockies, was the instructor at the dessert class, and she did try hard. But first we had to hear a sales pitch from the store manager, who wanted us all to buy pressure cookers. (Cooking for Life has two outlets, both in shopping plazas, and sells cookware and cooking-related items in the front while the classes go on at the back.) After that, the manager went back to dealing with the front of the shop, leaving Hudson and her dishwasher alone with the class.

We were left pretty much to our own devices and spent a lot of time trying to find the items required for our recipes, cherry souffle with Kirsch and chocolate sorbet. The mise en place was already set up, presumably to save time, but it didn't work out that way. The guy in our group accidentally put cornstarch in the bowl instead of cream of tartar--which we only realized after I had been manually whipping the living daylights out of the egg whites for about ten minutes and was getting nothing but soup. As a result, our souffle never quite achieved its potential. Neither did several other dishes, including an unbelievably bland Mexican chocolate angel food cake that also fell.

We did get to laugh a lot and drink several glasses of a nice white wine and a musty, corked red one. I'd taken two neighbors (both of whom are self-described food morons) to the class, and they had a blast--but said they didn't learn anything.

The second class was run mostly by Dischner, with Hudson helping, which at least meant questions were answered faster. Unfortunately, the answers weren't always correct. For instance, Hudson told us that the easiest way to flambe a dish was to put alcohol in a ladle, take the shield off a burner next to the dish being cooked, and stick the ladle into the flame to ignite it. When I asked why they didn't just put the alcohol in the pan with the food, warm it and then light it with a long-handled lighter or match, she and Dischner looked at me like I was crazy. The recipe our group was assigned to make was "shrimp a la Nice," which called for two large red peppers to be peeled and julienned. We asked Dischner if we could go ahead and roast them, but he said he thought we should use a peeler. Well, anyone who's ever tried to peel a pepper with a peeler--although I can't imagine why anyone would, since roasting works so much better--knows that it takes forever. I'd brought another neighbor to this class, and she got the thankless task (I think I heard her weeping at one point) while another guy and I made the rest of the dish, which turned out fine.

The cocktail sauce created by another group was better than fine--I've never tasted one as good. And a dish of shrimp wrapped in spinach and drizzled with curry sauce was so fabulous that my neighbor and I both made it in our own kitchens a few days later. But the mushroom-stuffed shrimp wrapped in leeks was tasteless, as was the cucumber shrimp dip made with a homemade yogurt cheese that contained cottage cheese and thus had an unappealing, curdy texture.

Bad recipes and bad information weren't the only problems with these classes. When I asked for something to put my mise en place in, I was handed a pile of supposedly clean bowls that had crusted leek bits all over them. We repeatedly had to ask for more knives, bowls and pans to get our job done. And then there's the fact that these dishes may not be as healthy as advertised.

Cooking for Life doesn't employ a dietitian or nutritionist, and there wasn't much health-related discussion at either class I took. Neither Hudson nor Dischner bothered to tell students that there are nutritional factors to be considered in eating low-fat; that fat is not the only factor in weight management; and that no matter how much fat you eat, consuming 3,500 calories more than you burn will add a pound of fat to your body. Such a casual approach to "healthier living" is not necessarily helpful. And Dischner is even more casual in his calculation of fat grams in the recipes, which isn't based on any system currently in use, such as the one created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"We've just computed the fat grams by adding up the ingredients and dividing them by the portions," says Dischner. "Our purpose is to make this user-friendly. We've never claimed to be dietitians; if you will, we're just cooks." Cooks with an eye to making a buck: Dirschner says he thought combining his personal interest in healthier living and his passion for food might be "an interesting retail concept," one he'd like to franchise.

Fat chance. Cooking for Life may have its heart in the right place, but the blood isn't flowing to the brain. Taking a class there is a little like watching third-graders helping other third-graders perform surgery.

The Seasoned Chef, 999 Jasmine Street, 303-377-3222.

Cooking for Life, 8727 East Dry Creek Road, Englewood, 303-779-8671; 7150 Leetsdale Drive, 303-331-0195.

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