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A cooking school with a range of ideas.

By Andrea Sachs

One of the greatest compliments to a chef is a table littered with plates licked clean by a room full of diners.

So when one of those diners was a culinary school graduate and cooking teacher, I was about ready to pack up my knives and open a food truck.

The only problem: I didn't own any

professional-grade cutlery.

But now I coveted a set the way a dieter aches for a chocolate truffle.

This yearning was an unforeseen occupational hazard of the Viking Cooking School, the educational arm of the company that produces upscale ranges and other sterling kitchen equipment.

When I signed up for the Meatless Meals course at Natirar (the name of the river spelled backward), a culinary center at a New Jersey estate that once belonged to a Moroccan king and is now owned by Virgin Atlantic founder Richard Branson, I had no idea that the worst burn could be to my wallet.

Though the three-hour lesson cost a respectable $85, any successes in the classroom could lead to a mighty investment in Viking gear.

"Realistically, the purpose of the cooking school is to sell more product," admitted Joe Sherman, president of Viking Culinary Group.

"But if someone isn't ready to buy a Viking range, hopefully they'll at least use the cooking techniques they learned in class."

I could certainly well afford (avocation-wise) some serious cooking lessons.

The morning instruction promised chopping, baking, grilling, mixing, melting, mashing, pastry-making and frequent sampling.

Our instructor, Beth Rutland, hovered like a helicopter mom, ready to guide a knife through an onion or a buttered brush across a sheet of phyllo dough.

"I want people to learn these recipes and cater them to their own tastes," said our ponytailed pro, who provided our group of six (max class size: 12) with five recipes.

"Cooking is nothing to stress over.

I want you to feel more confident and try it."

The company introduced the schools nearly a dozen years after Mississippi native Fred Carl proved that the best way to a woman's heart is through her kitchen: When his wife was unable to find a restaurant-quality range for their home, he built the first of the Viking kind.

The Viking-outfitted schools, which often feature a retail outlet, follow the logic, "If you can test drive a luxury vehicle, why not a Viking range?" said Sherman, paraphrasing the founder.

There are 17 cooking schools in 12 states, with a handful in the Mid-Atlantic: One in Philadelphia and four in New Jersey, including the Peapack venue that was the birthplace of my batch of tabbouleh.

At the start of class, we took our seats in the central kitchen area (the king's former garage), sinking into silver-cushioned chairs high enough to allow clear views of the pots' and pans' innards.

Rutland took her leadership position in the cutout of the dark, horseshoe-shaped counter and asked us to raise our hands for our assignments.

I flagged down tabbouleh, later thankful that I hadn't grabbed spanakopita and its painstaking 24 layers of phyllo, with two fillings and two dozen painterly sweeps of butter.

I paired off with a culinary school hopeful who spent her free time (which was basically all her time) baking desserts.

As Beth helped Team Pasta With Sun-Dried Tomatoes, Olives and Goat Cheese with their garlic cloves, my partner showed me a sportier way to cut herbs (my slow leaf-by-leaf technique on the parsley was quietly killing her).

After we had successfully chopped little piles of greenery and deseeded the tomatoes, my co-chef completed the last step, measuring out the liquid component.

"It was yellow," she said in her defense, after realizing that the label read "chardonnay", not "extra virgin olive oil".

Prep work finished, we returned to the cooking area to usher disparate ingredients into a cohesive meal.

While other students assembled their dishes, I jotted down the tips flying out of Rutland's mouth: To make a sauce for pasta, combine goat cheese and the leftover pasta water; to cook bulgur, pour hot water over the grains and let them soak; and to prevent phyllo from turning into dust, wrap it in cellophane and cover it with a damp towel.

Or take the easy route and follow my classmate's suggestion: Go to the nearest Greek deli and buy a slice.

When the last provencal vegetable was grilled and the spinach pie baked to a crisp, Rutland announced, "Now, we can serve." Her assistants set out white dishes and filled them with our creations.

On a separate plate, they placed a triangle of rustic-glazed apple torte gooey with caramel sauce.

As the clatter of forks and knives ceased, my desire for expensive kitchen gear began to wane.

I had learned so many skills from the class, including one of the most important: To make tabbouleh at home, I didn't need a top-grade range, just a swift and steady hand.


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Publication:The Star (Amman, Jordan)
Date:Mar 28, 2011
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