Unlike most corporate-structured courses, the mood at the Hill Center remained light and chummy. So much so that a few merrymakers thought nothing of spreading some good cheer mid-lecture. “Do you mind if we open a bottle of wine?” the booze-packing pair posed to Catalani. “But of course,” the chef replied, kicking off a flurry of activity as the wine carriers uncorked their private stash while classmates rushed to procure clean glasses for a taste.
After the soupy magnificence reached critical mass, Catalani ladled out steaming portions of the saffron-laced rice for everyone to nibble on. “Some of you are coming from work. You might be hungry,” he teased.
‘Students Then ... Customers Now’
Restaurant Nora chef/founder Nora Pouillon proved equally approachable during her two-hour tutorial.
The grand dame of organic dining let slip a few trade secrets, revealing that she occasionally thickens the butternut nut squash puree with mashed sweet potatoes when cooking at the restaurant, and she introduced the aspiring cooks to the magic of toasted pumpkin seed oil.
“It’s really wonderful,” she said of the silky Austrian specialty item.
Pouillon also provided a behind-the-scenes peek at the Restaurant Nora menu-writing process (it begins with the nightly survey of their most trusted producers and routinely ends with Pouillon personally critiquing staff’s proposed additions), and she admitted that she retains three full-time employees whose sole job is handling all things composting.
After watching her work, it’s hard to believe it has been nearly three decades since Pouillon played show and tell professionally.
“The last time I did a cooking class was in 1974,” Pouillon told Roll Call. Those intimate gatherings took place in her private kitchen in Adams Morgan and were strictly the domain of confidants willing to fork over $50 to glean how to prepare a week’s worth of meals for a family of four. “My students then are still my customers now. So I didn’t poison them,” Pouillon joked of her early attempts at instruction.
Pouillon said Brownlow, whom she had huddled with in the FRESHFARM Markets trenches, ultimately persuaded her to give teaching another go. Though it doesn’t sound like it took too much prodding.
“It’s not like I had to convert an enemy,” Pouillon said of the enthusiastic faces beaming back at her from the demo kitchen stools. “These people came to cook with me.”
‘A Big Experiment’
For now, Brownlow remains committed to booking at least one “master chef” class (average price: $85 a session) per month.
Renowned D.C. baker Mark Furstenberg is stopping by this weekend, in fact. (Sorry, that class is already sold out.) She’s also in negotiations to bring L’Academie de Cuisine instructors and satellite courses to the Hill Center this spring, a coup that would save Hill folks from having to commute to the highly respected culinary arts institution’s Maryland campuses.
Ingraham mapped out plans to foster additional homegrown programs, ticking off regular bacon-and-bourbon-centric “date nights,” wine tastings, kids’ culinary camps and team-building events as possibilities.
“This is just a big experiment right now,” she said.