A sizzling school | AspenTimes.com

A sizzling school

Janet Urquhart
Julie Distefano, center, and other aspiring chefs try their hand at various recipes during a recent class at the Cooking School of Aspen. (Mark Fox/Aspen Times Weekly)

That’s not the standard lunch crowd lining the counter at a tucked-away spot off the Hyman Avenue mall; the apron-clad patrons sampling the day’s multicourse fare also happen to be the chefs.The Cooking School of Aspen is in session, drawing amateur epicures into the kitchen for a culinary crash course mixed with sizzling repartee and a dash of camaraderie, topped with a repast borne of chaotic collaboration.For the dozen or so people who sign up for one of the school’s weekly hands-on workshops, it’s not so much toiling in the kitchen as it is playing gourmet for a day, without the chore of cleaning up the mess when it’s all over. For participants, the $120 session ends with the dessert course, not dishpan hands.On a Monday in February, chef Dava Parr orchestrated the affair, themed “sexy foods,” leading her charges through the preparation of achiote- and chipotle-marinated bison with pumpkin seed mole; truffle salted soft-boiled eggs; endive spears with creamy chèvre, caviar and tomato petals; seared chili salmon with honey, sake and lemon; and chocolate-dipped strawberries and crème fraîche. The appropriate wine pairings are also part of the experience.Most of the workshops, limited to 10 to 12 participants, sell out, according to John Klonowski, a former private chef who signed on as the school’s new director about three months ago. Parr’s class was no exception.Maybe it was the title. One course participant was quick to label the food preparation “foreplay.” Then things really got hot, with Parr presiding over the bustling gas range.

The day’s menu, she explained, featured a selection of known aphrodisiacs.”I think all foods are sexy,” added Parr, a former local chef who now runs Aspen Fresh & Wild, delivering organic produce, greens and meats from Paonia to locals on a weekly basis from May through November. She handles the Monday sessions at the school; various local and guest chefs lead the 11 a.m. courses on other days of the week.For the class on sexy foods, enrollees were mostly women, as is often the case. Dennis Lockney, visiting from North Carolina with his wife, Norma, was the only man in the kitchen. Both were attending their first session at the Cooking School of Aspen, but the Lockneys are no strangers to culinary classes.

“I think the cooking part is fun,” Dennis Lockney said. “It’s fun to create something that is sort of a showpiece.””I think the eating,” said Margaret Lau, eschewing her labors with the endive spears in favor of lunch as the day’s highlight.Honeymooning in Aspen, Lau, of Malaysia, echoed the experience of many – husband goes skiing, wife goes cooking.”I do not ski, so I thought I’d do something different,” she said.Debbie Hebert, visiting with family and friends from Louisiana, was one of about a half-dozen women in her circle who ditched husbands and children in Snowmass for an outing in the kitchen.”We’re having a ball,” she said.

The cooking school’s March schedule features hands-on workshops, evening chef’s table events featuring local and guest chefs who prepare a multicourse meal for attendees, and food fights – when local chefs square off to create an improv meal from a surprise supply of ingredients, raising funds for various charities in the process. (See http://www.cookingschoolofaspen.com for a complete schedule.)The kids classes that former owner Rob Seideman offered have been resurrected, and Klonowski’s long-range goal includes weeklong workshops during the offseasons, when local residents might have time to partake, along with visitors.”We definitely want it to be a much more community-oriented facility,” he said.About a year ago, Rob and Kelly Seideman sold the cooking school to Houston-based Lance and Jennifer Gilliam, a pair of devoted attendees who, according to Klonowski, joke that they loved the school so much, they bought it.

Located in a basement space off “Epicurean Alley,” a small side street off the mall, the school includes the kitchen/dining area and a fine-food market/kitchenware shop that Klonowski is working to stock with hard-to-find items.”We’re trying to do some really unique stuff that you can’t find anywhere else in Aspen,” he said. “We sell all the things I wanted in my kitchen.”Handily, the shop carries items like the tins of roasted paprika, imported from Spain, for which members of Parr’s class were likely in the market after class was dismissed.Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com