The art of cooking
Chef Mark Henry makes a compelling argument for taking a cooking class instead of just plodding through recipes on your own.
"The sensual experience of cooking — smells, taste, touch, the art of cooking — is completely lost in a book. That's paint by number — one cup of this, three ounces of that — the energy is lost," says the owner of Chef Mark's Palate in Latrobe. "When I do cooking classes, I try really hard to emphasize the action of cooking, like how the oil should dance in the pan before you put anything in it, and why you flour something so it reacts to the sauté properly, what needs to be seasoned and how and when.
"It's like looking at a scene through the eyes of an artist and bringing in the highlights and the lowlights to give it the necessary depth. I teach so that you understand why you're doing things," he says
"Cooking just from a recipe is like going to a beautiful place in the Laurel Highlands using your GPS and not looking out the window to enjoy the journey. Even in the way you handle your knife, there's a love, there's an art to every little piece of it. If it's just a mechanical action, following a recipe, you lose so much."
Fun with food
For those new to the kitchen or those just looking to hone existing skills, the area offers a variety of cooking classes suited to individual needs and learning styles.
Henry recently downsized from a 150-seat restaurant to a small café in downtown Latrobe, where he teaches groups of up to 10, but he also travels to do classes at private homes and other venues.
At Gaynor's School of Cooking in Pittsburgh's South Side, the motto is "Have Fun With Food," but director Gaynor Grant says she and her staff are serious about teaching classical French cooking methods as a starting point.
The Kitchen by Vangura in North Huntingdon offers instruction in a 10,000-square-foot demonstration space that just happens to showcase products from the adjacent kitchen countertop showroom. So, you can think about upgrading your kitchen to match your new culinary skills.
An existing loft space was transformed for The Kitchen at Vangura, which opened last year.
"We were looking for new ways to present new products," says Krystal Vangura, the company's director of customer relations. "There are other companies who also use this concept."
The space is divided into a presentation side and a party side, Vangura says. The presentation side, with three chef stations and four student stations, is where actual hands-on classes take place. Cameras and a large projection screen give a better view of what's cooking.
The party side is geared more toward guests watching a chef doing a demonstration.
"It's built like a giant outdoor grill," Vangura says.
A cobblestone floor and other decor is reminiscent of a Parisian street scene, including a storefront that houses La Bonne Cuisiniere, a boutique selling cookware, cutlery, gadgets and small appliances.
Classes exploring a variety of cuisines are taught by visiting chefs, many of whom are familiar to Pittsburgh-area diners, such as Sicilian-born Giuseppe Di Gristina, executive chef of Bella Sera in Canonsburg; Glenn Hawley, fresh fish expert and owner of Off the Hook in Warrendale; and Dorothy Tague, owner and instructor at Chop, Wok & Talk in East Liberty.
Gaynor's School of Cooking was originally an offshoot of the famed Peter Kump's New York Cooking School, where Grant trained after studying catering in her native England.
Keeping it real
While her school offers classes in everything from Asian to European to Caribbean cuisine, along with baking and even mixology, Grant suggests starting with her Art of Fine Cooking series. The series teaches fundamental culinary techniques, along with the essential building blocks of French cookery.
Authenticity is key to the theme of any class, Grant says.
"When we did pierogies, I had to find two authentic Polish ladies from the South Side," she says. "With my accent, I knew that people weren't going to take me as an authority."
While Henry says he is very traditional in his methods, he is known to teach those methods in some off-beat ways and places.
He does cooking classes at kids' parties, pool parties and even bar mitzvahs.
"One that I do, I call 'Stone Soup' (after the folk tale about villagers tricked into sharing food with travelers who claim to be making delicious soup with only water and a stone)," he says. "Every guest brings an ingredient, whatever they want, and nine times out of 10, they're trying to stump me. They're like, 'so what's he going to do with this?'
"For the first 15 minutes, I'll take all the ingredients and group them and think about what needs to be done, and then we'll do a three- or four-course meal.
"Sometimes you'll have very generous guests who come in with a pound of shrimp, and somebody else will come in with a box of scalloped potatoes from the dollar store. And some kumquats and circus peanuts. I had Peeps one time. But you can find something to do with them."
Henry, Grant and Vangura all say that cooking classes are popular for bachelorette parties, birthday parties, couples' nights out, corporate team-building exercises and even, Grant says, "parties for no reason at all."
"Most people want a hands-on, cooking-a-full-meal-type of program," she says. "The nice thing about that is they learn new skills and then they get fed."
Vangura says couples' nights often start with the stereotypical guys-versus-girls vibe, but quickly move beyond that.
"The women drag the guys in, and the husbands all band together to the side," she says. "Then the chefs put them to work and they jump in, and they're really fantastic at it once they get into it."
Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5750, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @shirley_trib.