Under Your Nose: Unexpected Kitchens

Museums Serve Up Classes With Chefs, Foodies

Posted July 3, 2008 at 2:56pm

First in a two-part series.

Not so long ago, foodies derided the District’s restaurant scene as lagging far, far behind other hipper, trendier cities. But these days, Washington is awash in upscale, palate-pleasing eateries. Of course, they aren’t cheap.

[IMGCAP(1)]But if you don’t have the dough to foot the bill at one of the new hot spots, try finding their celebrity chefs elsewhere around town — for free.

Some local food experts are offering their knowledge at no- or low-cost cooking classes throughout the city. (And it’s likely the food’s better than the ethics-rules-approved lobbying lunches and ice cream socials you’ve been scouting out around Capitol Hill.) Here are some examples.

Bountiful Garden

Just steps away from the Capitol, the Botanic Garden hosts several cooking classes a year, which is surprising for an institution that doesn’t even have a kitchen.

A recent culinary program showcased the newest exhibit, which explores sustainability in more than 40 ways, called “One Planet — Ours!” The class focused on the fruits and vegetables available at local farmers’ markets.

During a recent class, chef Ris Lacoste diced her way through a demonstration on the perfect panzanella salad using produce purchased that morning at the Penn Quarter Freshfarm Market. She also threw some food science into the process — but what else would you expect when taking a cooking class at what’s essentially a museum?

[IMGCAP(2)]Lacoste, of Clyde’s 1789 fame and who will soon be opening her own restaurant in the West End, taught students how to properly emulsify a vinaigrette (start with your acids and slowly add the oils or else cells could rupture) and hydrate greens (soak them in icy water for 10 minutes), and she also explained how onions oxidize (so cut them at the last minute or they become bitter).

Clearly comfortable in any kitchen setting, Lacoste went on for nearly an hour and a half about area farmers, where to buy what foods and her favorite brands.

“Experiences allow you to create food combinations in your mind you know are going to work,” the seasoned chef said. “Your mind brings taste to your palette.”

Lacoste said she created the recipe, which is available at freshfarmmarkets.org, knowing that tomatoes and blue cheese work well together and that blue cheese goes well with walnuts. Then, thinking how tomatoes and basil, oil and oregano team well, and also with olives, she knew before she started putting it all together that it would be a great salad. And it was.

The next class, on July 31, will showcase Thai cuisine, including cheesy fried wontons with fresh mango and herb sauce, as demonstrated by Aulie Banyarataphan of Bangkok Joe’s Thai Restaurant.

The classes are free; register at usbg.gov or 202-225-1116.

The Botanic Garden is teaming with Freshfarm Markets to host these cooking programs a few times a year, and the markets — with locations in Penn Quarter on Thursdays, H Street on Saturdays and Dupont Circle on Sundays, among others — regularly host chefs demonstrating cooking techniques with the week’s fresh ingredients. (Stop by Dupont Circle at 11 a.m. Sunday for a demonstration by Vidalia’s RJ Cooper.)

Native Foods

As the Smithsonian’s newest addition to the Mall, the National Museum of the American Indian boasts one of the best cafeterias in town. And its executive chef, Richard Hetzler, puts that food on display with cooking demonstrations several times a year.

Usually in conjunction with a holiday or exhibit, these programs delve into the history of the cuisines and origins of the foods.

For Hawaiian cultural awareness in May, he brought in a native Hawaiian to talk about the traditional techniques for cooking, preparation and background. Then, in the outdoor fire pit, they cooked lomi lomi salmon and lau lau with butterfish flown in from Hawaii. They also made a luau-favorite, kalua pig, which baked for 12 hours in an imu, or underground oven, with lava rocks.

Unfortunately, we are going to have to wait a bit for the next outdoor cooking opportunity. But if any of the entrees sound interesting, stop by the museum — Hetzler said he tries to add items from the programs to the cafeteria’s menu.

In honor of the Day of the Dead in late October, the museum is setting up a big offering display and will have food demos, including pan de muertos and some variation of traditional mole.

A couple weeks later, on Nov. 15, there will be a chance to sample food of a different sort. For the “Through the Eyes of the Eagle” exhibit, which puts a spotlight on a growing diabetes problem among Native Americans, Hetzler plans to cook healthier foods and host a demo that “will revolve around the harvest.”

Crossroads of Sixth & I

The only venue on this list where you get to do the chopping, the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue offers cooking classes that run the gamut of cuisines, with past lessons including Indian, Turkish and Chinese fare, and even a bagel-making class.

Run by the Jewish Study Center, the classes — held in the synagogue’s impressive full chef’s kitchen — usually have some aspect tied to Judaism, but they are open to anyone, said Rachel Miller, JSC executive director.

“People just want to take a cooking class, and it’s cheap, and it’s convenient,” Miller said, adding that most classes sell out.

“We get a great mix of people,” she said. “It’s a great way to meet new friends. … You’re getting dirty and gross with them by digging your hands in. It’s way better than meeting people at a bar.”

The JSC also offers both wine and spirit tastings, and Miller said these lessons go beyond your average tasting and venture into the history and specific vineyards.

The most recent class, taught by lobbyist and local libations guru Joshua London, focused on summer drinks made with clear spirits — vodka, rum, gin — and the group also made a fruit-filled sangria.

The next class will be more traditional fare and will be taught by a group of Jewish grandmothers. “Sephardic Cooking from Those Who Know” will feature dishes from Morocco, Tunisia and Iran. There is a fee for the class, and registration is required at sixthandi.org/classes.htm.

Other Kitchens Around Town

There are other similar programs offered around D.C. The National Museum of the Marine Corps, for instance, recently had a class on cooking with spice.

But one of the area’s greatest resources for educational events is the Smithsonian Resident Associate Program (residentassoci ates.org). Though not a cooking class in the traditional sense, a recent dim sum brunch hosted by the program at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel had a history lesson on the origins of the Cantonese fare, which dates back to the 10th century. And a five-week Beer Gazetteer course starting today allows participants to delve into different brewing processes with several brewmasters from all over North America — samples are offered, of course.

The Resident Associate Program also features “meet the chefs” events, dinners at embassies and neighborhood food tours — the next one is a roving culinary adventure through Adams Morgan with stops at Ghanaian, Middle Eastern, Ethiopian and Peruvian restaurants on Saturday.

Next time: Want to learn how to make your favorite restaurant’s signature dishes? Learn from the executive chefs themselves.