Photos by Jim Pile and David Uhrin
A certain level of deference is owed to a woman wielding a knife. In the case of high-energy Chef Mary Cook, make that three knives. The only three knives you’ll ever truly need in the kitchen, she cheerfully explains while deftly manipulating a trusty chef’s knife before laying it before us alongside a tapered filet knife and a diminutive paring knife on a small table in the demonstration kitchen at the Culinary Institute of Virginia (CIV).
A group of eight students, each of us donning the provided white logoed apron, are gathered on a crisp Friday evening at CIV’s location at City Center at Oyster Point for one of their Casual Gourmet classes open to the public. After a few basics about the best way to chop vegetables and the art of “mise en place,” the French term for thoughtful preparation and organization of ingredients and kitchen tools, Cook dispatches us to our assigned stainless steel-topped prep stations.
There, we begin work on dicing mounds of fresh yellow onions, carrots, celery, peppers and mushrooms, and smashing garlic—a task for which the chef encourages operatic flare. Next, we move on to the pièce de résistance for this “Cooking Fundamentals” class, the deboning of a whole raw chicken. Cook has prepared us for this moment with step-by-step instructions on how to effectively break down a bird into meal-ready parts and use the remainder to create a stock for soups, sauces and braising meats in liquid.
“Now, the first thing you want to do is lay the chicken on his back and make him do a little dance,” she jokes, demonstrating a chicken-legged cha-cha-cha before launching into a painstakingly patient and detailed account of how to efficiently utilize a key ingredient like chicken to create a series of dishes that are both economical and delicious for a family of four or a week full of homemade heat-and-eat meals.
With our ingredients prepped, we are given a place at the stove to make our assigned recipes, all detailed in a take-home packet, including chicken noodle soup, chicken and corn chowder, marinated grilled chicken kabobs, white wine-braised chicken and mushroom risotto. We dutifully chop and stir and whisk and sear as Cook breezes around the increasingly tropical industrial kitchen like a multitasking magician instructing students to “turn up that heat,” “go ahead and add that stock,” or “pop over to the supply table and grab a handful of bay leaves.”
When our efforts are complete, we retire to an intimate dining room to partake in the meals we’ve just made from scratch as the chef answers questions and chats amicably with students. CIV’s Casual Gourmet classes, established in 2009, are held regularly on Fridays and Saturdays at the Newport News and Norfolk locations and are designed for a wide variety of skill levels from novice to seasoned home chef.
“If you are someone who has never held a knife before, you’ll find something you love in these classes,” Cook assures, “and if you are more experienced, I can give you a few tips and tricks you may never have thought of.”
Some classes scheduled for January and February include Cooking Fundamentals, Incorporating Super Foods into Your Diet, Valentine’s Date Night and Global Gourmet – Italian.
At Croc’s 19th Street Bistro in Virginia Beach, cooking tips and tricks come with a generous helping of fun and friendly vibes—and plenty of wine to wash it all down. At a recent cooking class and wine pairing, typically held on the second Wednesday of each month at the popular Oceanfront restaurant and bar, participants are treated to a four-course pairing that includes a salad, appetizer, entrée and dessert along with selected vintages to match each course.
Croc’s owner Kal Habr and personal chef and caterer Jacqui Renager, who also teaches regular cooking classes at Kitchen Barn in Hilltop, trade off offering lively instructions for each food course. Meanwhile, wine rep Jen Alston chimes in with her choices of whites and reds, pours of which are delivered to participants’ tables along with finished versions of each dish brought out from the kitchen.
Guests are invited in groups to prep tables placed alongside tableclothed settings in Croc’s dining room, where they muddle garlic and herbs in extra virgin olive oil or try their hands at browning and braising beef as instructors offer insight on how to choose the right cuts of meat.
This evening’s menu starts with beet salad, tossed with mixed greens and sliced avocado. Next up is an appetizer called eggplant monk, common to Habr’s native Lebanon and named after a group of elusive monks who eat the dish but have taken a vow of silence and live in total isolation—begging the age-old question of how the recipe got passed down in the first place. The night is peppered with stories like the one about eggplant monk and with lots of laughter and camaraderie.
“We recently decided to put a hands-on approach to [our cooking classes] to maximize the participants’ experience as well as added our wine pairing section,” says Renager. “My goal from day one was for the participants to learn, eat great food, get their imaginations flowing, but most of all to have fun. It is the most important ingredient in the kitchen.”
For tonight’s main course at Croc’s, it’s Guinness-braised short ribs with Parmesan herb polenta paired with the full-bodied and mildly jammy OZV Zinfandel. And for dessert, there’s bread pudding with bourbon sauce alongside homemade vanilla ice cream and a glass of the semi-sweet and citrusy Starling Castle Riesling. If not for all the calorie-burning merriment and shenanigans, we might all need to be wheeled out of the restaurant after such a festive, colorful and filling meal. It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it.
Ready to Get Cooking?
These are a few of the cooking classes available to the public around Coastal Virginia.
Casual Gourmet by Culinary Institute of Virginia
It’s like culinary school for a night, industrial kitchen and all. Classes held on Fridays in Newport News and on Fridays and Saturdays in Norfolk. Cost of $70 includes an apron, food, beverages and take-home recipes.
A Chef's Kitchen
Like your favorite cooking shows come to life, a night with Colonial Williamsburg cookbook author John Gonzales is a true dining experience. Tuesday–Saturday classes are $105 for hors d’oeuvres, five courses, paired wines and recipes.
Croc’s 19th Street Bistro
Croc’s takes fun seriously. Come ready to learn, eat, drink and laugh. Classes typically held on the second Wednesday of each month. Cost of $59, includes four courses, generously poured wine pairings and a take-home recipe packet.
Dinner at the Chef’s Table with Matthew May
Join the chef in his very own personal kitchen. Classes held on weekends at the Cosmopolitan Apartments in Town Center. Cost is $75 and includes four courses and wine pairings. January theme is “Cooking with Spirits.”
From super foods and Super Bowl bites with Chef Matt Starcher to fun and flair in the kitchen with caterer and personal chef Jacqui Renager, you’ll discover some new and exciting at Kitchen Barn in Hilltop. Cost is $55.
Chef/owner Deon Foster has been offering intimate cooking classes at this Olde Towne destination for 20 years. Get your gumbo on with a Mardi Gras-themed class coming soon. Cost is $40 an includes a sit-down tasting.
Every other Thursday, you can learn how to become a crepe master at Lamia’s Town Center location. This is a savory and sweet deal at a cost of $40 per person, which includes two crepes to enjoy.
Macaron Tart Patisserie
From macaron tower trees to chocolate truffles and meringue kisses, learning is sweet at Macaron Tart. Savory tarts and croissants might also be on the menu. Classes are kid- and certainly Valentine’s date-friendly. Cost range is $60–$120.
Now You’re Cooking Culinary Studio
For aspiring cooks ages 3–99, Now You’re Cooking offers classes based on a range of themes from desserts to dinner parties, plant-based eats to holiday meal prep. Prices range from $40–$65. Also check out their food-friendly book club.
Pendulum Fine Meats
Literally learn how the sausage gets made. Hands-on demos at Pendulum include topics such as hog butchery, chicken breakdown and charcuterie board making. Classes range from $40–$55 per person.
Leave it to a local culinary institution like Taste to seriously up your cooking game. Their Chef’s Table series at the Larchmont location features a cheese plate served family-style followed by three courses and two wines for $69.99.