'Tis the season that most cooks dream about and restaurant owners dread. With Christmas, New Year's and now Valentine's Day passed, we're on that long, slow slide toward spring, when people cocoon indoors, waiting out the cold. In the dining world, this is the dead zone. No major holidays (excepting Mother's Day, which can be serious business at some places), no big weekends.
When you're a restaurant owner, late February is the time you start to panic, praying that your regulars will keep you afloat until the tourists, foot traffic and what-have-you start coming back. But for chefs, late February is like summer vacation. The stress levels are cranked down a notch. Doing a hundred plates feels absolutely leisurely after that desperate holiday scrambling to feed two, maybe three hundred covers. The heat of the line is still mitigated by the chilly temperatures outside, and stepping out of the cold at 5 a.m. into the heavy, wet heat of a kitchen full of bakers just finishing their day's work feels wonderful. That smell -- that stink of yeast and flour, burbling sourdough starters quivering in the proofing box, bleach and old sneakers -- that you've hated, dreaded, walking into each morning now smells like home.
From February until early April, the cooks who love cooking are really at their best. They have time to fuss over ingredients, experiment with new dishes, take chances they can't afford when the house is full and there's no room for mistakes. They have time to play.
"No one who cooks, cooks alone," wrote Laurie Colwin. "Even at her most solitary, a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past, the advice and menus of cooks present, the wisdom of cookbook writers."
I've been poking around the cooking schools lately, looking for places where, in this quietest of seasons, both professionals and rank amateurs might go for a little reminder of why we love the kitchen so. Proving my theory about the slow months, the Seasoned Chef Cooking School (999 Jasmine Street, suite 100) is dragging six chefs away from their kitchens for one night each to teach demonstration classes. Frank Bonanno from Mizuna (225 East Seventh Avenue) and now Luca d'Italia (711 Grant Street) will be on the floor March 3, from 6:30 to 9 p.m., showcasing rustic Italian cuisine, including sweet ricotta gnocchi and amaretto cookies with balsamic dolci. Steve Rohs of the Painted Bench (400 East 20th Street) will be there on March 6, doing country French with a distinctive Brit slant; he's followed by Sheila Lucero from Jax (1539 17th Street) on March 11, top dog Bryan Moscatello from Adega (1700 Wynkoop Street) on March 17, and Sam Arnold from The Fort (19192 Highway 8, Morrison), along with chef de cuisine David Woolley, doing an American menu with flavors of the Southwest on March 27.
The Seasoned Chef also offers hands-on classes, where you can sharpen your knife skills, learn the specialized alchemy of high-altitude baking or take a guided tour of a Latin grocery. On March 22, Gigia Kolouch will lead students around the Avanza Supermarket at 44th Avenue and Harlan, explaining in detail just what you're supposed to do with that nopalito, chayote and tomatillo; the tour will be followed by cooking demonstrations back at the school. For more information on any classes, visit www.theseasonedchef.com.
Colorado Free University (with offices at 1510 York Street and details at www.freeu.com) has something similar, with an ethnic grocery and bakery tour that will take students on a whirlwind romp through a dozen local spots featuring Italian, German, Vietnamese, Thai, French, Middle Eastern, Indian and Mexican foods under the expert guidance of Dianna Ohlsson, a teacher with ten years of ethnic-cuisine expertise already behind her. The class costs $49 (not counting what you may spend on nuoc mam, schnitzel, beignette, daal and chorizo) and hits the road on Saturday, March 29.
At Pour (100 Superior Plaza Way, Superior), you can learn about your grapes from the pros. February 26 is Pour's pinot noir tasting, with a comparison of varietals from France to California; on March 5, merlot takes center stage. Each class runs $30 in advance ($35 at the door) and includes light appetizers and expert instruction from Chris Rowe, staff educator at Southern Wine and Spirits.
As if his catering business, his weekly supper club and a recent appearance at the Sundance Film Festival weren't enough to keep him busy, James Mazzio is now holding cooking classes at Chef Jam (1200 Miramonte Street, Broomfield). He's structuring the classes as a series of four, held each Sunday for a month, and covering technique, knife skills and preparation. Although you can take individual classes, this is hands-on instruction from an award-winning chef: Why wouldn't you want to take advantage of every minute being offered? Besides, the fourth class in the series focuses on how to create an entire party, with friends and family invited to attend graduation-day festivities. (Sample menus include herb-stuffed oven roasted chicken with white truffle polenta, Belgian chocolate soufflé, vegetable stew with baked goat cheese, or -- I'd imagine -- whatever strikes Mazzio's fancy that month.) Visit www.chefjam.com or call 303-404-2525 for more details.