Chef-taught cooking classes offer hungry patrons a new way to dine out

Story by Beth Stallings l Photos by Eric Wagner

Something's burning. The aroma of fig and sweet onion pizza that once filled the room is suddenly replaced by a smoky scent. Figlio and Vino Vino owners Peter and Laurie Danis smell it, too, and they pause from their cooking lesson in the North Market's Dispatch Kitchen to glance back at the oven.

Laurie quickly takes a few steps to the side to pull out a tray of salmon, meant to provide the base for the salsa Peter is demonstrating. Looking at the slightly blackened skin, she shrugs it off with an, "Eh, it's a new oven" chuckle.

The 20 onlookers laugh, even though they know they'll be eating that dish in a matter of minutes. The smiles of the home cooks are understanding--they've been there, too. And relieved--even the pros make mistakes.

"You learn it's OK to flub a recipe a bit," said cooking class student Jennifer Fleishman of the chef-taught class. "And this gives you the confidence to make things you'd never try at home."

Fleishman signed up for the Dine Originals Chef Series to spice up her recipe arsenal, pick up a cooking trick or two and, hopefully, a few great stories to retell at her next dinner party.

Lucky for her, the restaurant owners want the same thing.

"There's a story attached to every recipe and a story attached to every wine," Peter opened, making it clear this isn't just a cooking lesson. It's a view into the Danis' kitchens, both at the restaurants and at home. "We wanted tonight to be a personal and intimate experience."

The Danises shared secrets and told stories. For instance, they haven't bought bread in three years because of the "life-changing" simple recipe Peter will show tonight.

Laurie's grandmother, who lived to be 106, taught her to freeze a mixture of flour and cut-in butter to give a head start on pie crust.

At the restaurant, Figlio's 800-degree, oak-burning oven hasn't been turned off in 20 years. And then there's their lease, with a garlic provision that gives the landlord the right to kick them out if the smell of garlic permeates the office tenants above.

Anecdotes are wrapped in between cooking techniques, forkfuls of food and sips of wine. It's clear the evening is as much about entertaining as it is about education. It's this approach to teaching that attracts people to classes instructed by area chefs. Diners are looking for a new twist on eating out. Chefs are looking for a new, lasting way to connect with their customers.

"It's very satisfying to think that something you've done has a ripple effect and then can be used for years to come," said Peter, who's been teaching classes with his wife off and on for 20 years. "I love when people say, 'I just made your such-and-such.' It's great to think you have an impact on somebody's life in such a meaningful way."

Building blocks

At Spagio in Grandview, classes taught by Chef Hubert Seifert have become an annual staple. The themed, demo-style cooking classes were created after constant requests from diners, and they're too popular to cancel, said restaurant controller Nicole Dinsmoor.

"He was going to do a few, but people love them," said Dinsmoor, Seifert's daughter. "And he loves them so much. It's just a great passion to share with others."

Upper Arlington resident Jim Henson has been attending the classes at Spagio's private dining club, Aubergine, for years. Henson views them more as lifestyle classes--a basic building block, not just to cooking but to entertaining.

"As a chef, you know how to cook. But it's more about taking it to the next level and making it special. It's about entertaining and showing how things go together," Henson said. "That's the stuff you don't get when you go to other classes. It's the whole concept, from sourcing to preparing to plating to presenting the finished product."

It's also about getting there in a relaxed way. Formal cooking school classes follow set regimens and include a specific number of recipes to get through in a small amount of time.

When restaurant chefs run classes, they have the freedom to offer compact menus and smaller class sizes to give an intimate feel, said Susie Cork, general manager at Shaw's Restaurant & Inn.

For four years at her Lancaster restaurant, Cork has been teaching nearly every Saturday in a remodeled space designed for instruction. For the past three she's also taught pastry and sushi courses at Sur La Table in Easton, so she understands the difference.

"We're not just blasting through six recipes," she said. "I emphasize technique for sure. But it's more informal. I hate the formal, don't-talk atmosphere. Shout out a question. Let's have some wine."

Plus, the guarantee with chef-taught classes is you know the teacher knows the basics, said Cork, a classically trained chef. Although, she added, most people aren't coming for a lesson on technique. People come to learn a new recipe or for something fun to do with a friend.

"A cooking class rounds out the experience in a way that reading a book or seeing a picture in a magazine never could. It's a three-dimensional experience. It's fun," said Peter Danis of Figlio. "It sure beats watching TV."

Roll Call

A look at chef-taught cooking classes around town

The Class: One hour of instruction by Spagio chef Hubert Seifert, followed by a four-course meal and wine pairings for $75. Topics range from basics such as roasting and braising to themed classes like the French Riviera and 30-minute meals.
2-4 p.m. Saturdays, April through October
For more:

The Cooking Studio at Shaw's
The Class: A mix of demo-style and hands-on offerings created by general manager Susie Cork. Offerings change with the seasons, with themes like Paris and beer. A served lunch follows. Prices range from $45 to $59.
10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. most Saturdays year-round
For more:

North Market Chef Series
The Class: A two-hour demo hosted by area chefs, mostly from Dine Originals restaurants such as The Refectory, Alana's and Barcelona. Up to 24 guests get three courses and wine pairings for $35.
Twice a month, typically Wednesday evenings, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.
For more:

The Hills Market
The Class: Two-hour classes are half cooking demo, half feast, with a communal-style dinner. Guest chef instructors vary from season to season, and have included Anthony Schulz from the Inn and Spa at Cedar Falls and Rick Lopez from Knead, who will teach on Feb. 15. Prices range from $35 to $50.
January through April
For more:

Franklin Park Conservatory
The Class: A mix of hands-on and demonstration classes with rotating themes, from canning to knife skills to French cooking. Instructors rotate as well, from bloggers to area chefs, plus regular instruction by Local Matters chef Laura Robertson-Boyd. Prices vary by class.
Year-round. Dates and times vary.
For more: