Cooking classes stirring up culinary excitement |

Cooking classes stirring up culinary excitement

April E. ClarkGlenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Post Independent/April E. Clark

To Bruce Berger, a man’s place is in the kitchen.And the gym where he lifts weights.The garden where vegetables, herbs and flowers grow.Or the bustling New York City delicatessen.Berger is a man of many tastes.Blame it on his culinary passion.

Clad in a denim chef coat at the Cooking School of Aspen, where he took his first professional class, Bruce Berger is at home in the kitchen.Students surround him as he instructs how to slice mozzarella for an appetizer. Leading the afternoon’s hands-on Italian foods workshop, he tells how fresh bread crumbs can be made from day-old bread. And the meatballs should have a little crust on the outside after cooking in olive oil.A New York native, this is just his style.The fragrance of rosemary focaccia bread baking in the oven begins to fill the room. Berger is patient as he helps two women with snowflakes on their blue sweaters prepare a Caprese flourless chocolate torte.Moving a few steps over to the counter stovetop, he stirs the marinara sauce, slowly inhaling the aroma of tangy tomatoes and fresh garlic. Berger removes a spoon from a stainless steel container and dips it in the simmering scarlet gravy for a quick taste of Italian goodness.From his reaction, perfection.His demeanor is as relaxed as the fabric of his coat.

Berger’s wife of 47 years, Barbara, encourages his creative outlet. She watches him drizzle olive oil on the focaccia bread. She smiles.”This is about the sanest thing he does,” she says.Berger’s love of food and cooking has been simmering for nearly 60 years.His father worked in a kosher deli on the Lower East Side of New York City.As early as age 10, while other kids played in the street, Berger remembers standing by his dad’s side while he worked. One day Berger would teach the students how to make bread rise and learn to perfect a lemon chicken dish that would become one of his wife’s favorites.

A man in the kitchen wasn’t out of place.”Bruce grew up in a home where men could cook,” Barbara says. “He has a feeling for food, for flowers, for the arts, the aesthetics.”In college, Berger cooked for his roommates. When his two children were growing up on the east coast, Berger made their lunches. On occasion Barbara would elbow her way into the kitchen and cook a turkey or a pot roast if Bruce would let her.Bruce’s culinary reputation soon started wafting through the community.”He used to pack the kids’ lunches,” and the teachers would send home notes asking if they could have a packed lunch, too, Barbara says. “He always loved it, and always cooked for dinner parties.”No peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for Berger’s kids. Everything was homemade.Blame it on his sense of taste.”He definitely has an elevated palate,” Cooking School of Aspen chef-in-residence Glenn Smith says. “He has a genuine interest in food, and where food comes from, which is important. He’s dedicated, with skill.”

Berger, a real estate developer by trade, didn’t take his first formal cooking class at the Cooking School of Aspen until 2000. From there, he began taking cooking classes in Capri and other international destinations. And he was also invited to work in kitchens with top chefs. He was not paid for the jobs, but the experience was priceless.”I became a cooking-school junkie,” he says. “I’ve been all over the world Italy, New York, Aspen to learn through free labor. You learn a lot.”In the cooking classes Berger teaches, everyone passes.And eats.

During his Italian foods workshop in March, students learned to make rosemary focaccia bread, meatballs in marina sauce, lemon chicken and Caprese flourless chocolate torte.”Food, no matter whom you’re eating with or where you’re eating, has a tendency to level everyone,” Berger says.Instead of hitting the world-class slopes of Aspen, Matt and Cassie Graves chose marina sauce over moguls.The couple, visiting Aspen from Jackson, Miss., on business, attended Berger’s class for couple’s time in the kitchen. One of their favorite activities at home is to cook together for breakfast night,” Cassie Graves says.Who knew a ham-and-cheese omelet could do wonders for a relationship?”That’s the one thing we can really do where we can get in there together and cook side-by-side,” she says. “We’ve done that for years.”

Food isn’t a new concept.Of course, neither is eating.But the Epicurean lifestyle one that celebrates gourmet food and the rich culinary arts is all the rage in the United States.The Food Network’s fans eat up 30-minute recipes or $40 meals from celebrity foodie Rachel Ray and Iron Chef cook-offs with Bobby Flay. Even The French Culinary Institute in New York City has expanded its culinary academy and renamed it The International Culinary Center to offer three floors of instructional kitchens for cooking and baking classes, a student center and media/resource center.Locally, those in the culinary industry have noticed the trend.”I think it’s a great thing because people are working in their kitchens, with their families,” says Brian Hollenbaugh, co-owner of Cook à la Carte gourmet kitchen store in Glenwood Springs. “They’re spending time with their families, as opposed to grabbing fast food.”

Located on Grand Avenue, Cook à la Carte offers popular cooking classes that typically sell out. Hollenbaugh says people in the valley are open-minded about cooking and trying new cuisine.”Our classes are filled with people willing to learn,” he says. “I watch and I learn. My wife and I own the shop, and we definitely experiment at home cooking in the kitchen with our family.”Cook à la Carte’s major business derives from the retail end of the spectrum. That’s where knives, spoons, measuring cups and pots and pans play an integral part in expert and novice culinary pursuits.”People are looking for basics that they know their grandmas used, or they’ve seen on TV,” Hollenbaugh says.As chefs at Cook à la Carte, they know the trick to chopping onions before tears start falling like a single bridesmaid’s at a wedding.And how much salt is too much.Or how to braise meat without setting off the smoke alarm.”We really want to help people learn,” he says. “And these chefs, they are amazing.”

That’s how Sarah Naef, of Glenwood Springs, wants to one day be described.Naef is a 26-year-old student of Colorado Mountain College’s Culinary Arts program. In her second semester of classes in Edwards, she’s eating up lessons on the theory, science and foundations of modern cuisine.Slicing and dicing can be a challenge.”I’m learning a lot of the basics, like cutting,” Naef says. “I have a lot of trouble with cutting.”Like Berger, Naef is following a lifelong passion. “I’ve always loved culinary arts,” she says. ” When they say ‘arts,’ that’s what it is for me. It’s my way of expressing myself. It’s always been an artful expression for me.”Naef says helping people and giving them joy through her food has always been a source of happiness. Family get-togethers is where the joy of cooking began for Naef, a mother of three.”In my family, especially when I was younger, there were a lot of special occasions that were based on food,” she says. “Thanksgiving, birthdays, funerals. The women would be in the kitchen and the men would be watching TV it was kind of an old-fashioned thing. Having food there, that’s always been a comfortable, nice thing for me.”As an aspiring chef pursuing an Associate of Applied Science Degree in Culinary Arts, Naef’s expectations are high.”I’d like to be an executive chef and own my own restaurant,” she says. “I definitely want to be in finer dining but along the lines of comfort food. I have the motivation I’m getting there.”

Her career’s star is rising as quickly as rosemary focaccia bread dough.Naef works under mentor Claude VanHorton, executive chef at Russets in Carbondale. And she leaves May 10 for the Cannes Film Festival in Paris. For 21 days, she’ll learn from the best, working continental breakfast stations and cocktail parties for the organization hosting the festival.A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for any student of the craft.But it took some persuading from both Naef’s teacher and her husband.At first, she thought the trip would be too expensive and don’t forget the children, ages 7, 4 and 2. Her husband was 100 percent behind her.”It’s really big,” Naef says. “I’ll be living with 20 film and culinary arts students who are going to be up-and-coming while I’m up-and-coming.”When Naef graduates from CMC, she’ll have finished 850 hours of classroom instruction with 4,000 to 6,000 hours of structured work experience.”It’s been an amazing experience,” she says. “It’s crazy how it’s been one opportunity after another for me.”

Sheryl Gordon has a foodie’s dream job.At any moment of her work day, Gordon owner of The Kitchen Fine Catering in Carbondale might be tasting rustic roasted chicken with a pear cream sauce for a client. Or seeing which wines pair best with the lobster feast she’s planning as a springtime cooking class.”I’ve always been obsessed with food, wine and parties,” she says. “I started out as a private chef and things just accelerated. I realized I was having more fun planning and executing the party.”

Gordon says she doesn’t cook as much as she once did. Executive chef Mark Sturdevant, along with other chefs in the valley, prepare The Kitchen’s dishes and buffets at catered and private-chef events.”We put a lot of effort, a lot of care, and a lot of love and attention into what we do,” Gordon says. “We’re very versatile.”One particular private dinner sticks in Gordon’s mind.”One client was a party for 30 people, in her house, and it was $18,000,” Gordon says. “But she loves the finest of everything.”Luckily for the everyday student of The Kitchen, classes don’t run in the thousands. For around $85 a person, classes offer dinner, wine and instruction.”Some people totally want to learn how to cook,” Gordon says. “Some classes are hands-on and some are like our dinner club, where the chef makes the meals, and people share ideas. A lot of people want to share ideas, or learn a new technique or cuisine.”Cooking classes can help people spice up their culinary skills, or teach those who say they can’t cook at all.After all, soufflés can be intimidating.That’s when Sturdevant trades his chef hat for his coach’s cap.”I think the biggest mistake people make is thinking they can’t cook,” he says. “If you follow the basics, use a little creativity, and keep it simple you’ll come out with something that tastes good. Cooking should be fun and enjoyable.”And the dishes shouldn’t be too salty or sweet.”We always try to tell people to balance the salt and the sweet,” he says.

When it comes to baking, Berger has one suggestion for his students.”Baking is precise,” he says. “When you have baking recipes, follow them.”Baking the timeless French bread brioche makes for good practice. But not so easy for Barbara.”He’s always cooking yesterday he made 10 brioches. I woke up to the smell of brioche,” she says. “It’s hard he doesn’t like fat women. I taste it, but I can’t always eat it.”Temptation can be hard when the couple has dinner company three to four times a week.”Last week, we had 14 people over, and tomorrow night we’re having just one other couple over,” Barbara says. “He’ll just whip something up.”As always, Berger is the chef of the house.Blame it on his upbringing.Blame it on his many tastes.Contact April Clark: 945-8515, ext. 16601aclark@postindependent.comPost Independent, Glenwood Springs Colorado CO

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