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CHEF FOR A DAY SCOTTSDALE CONVENES TANTALIZING ARRAY OF COOKING CLASSES, DEMONSTRATIONS.

Byline: STORY AND PHOTOS BY ERIC NOLAND Travel Editor

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- They had carefully separated the eggs, simmered the milk, whisked the cornstarch, sugar and egg yolks, then combined everything according to the recipe. They peered expectantly into the saucepan and beheld ... something that vaguely resembled clumps of bright-yellow sand.

Into the garbage can it went.

After passing sentence on this catastrophe, cooking instructor Linda Hunt informed the two discouraged students that they would have to start over on their warm lemon souffle with blueberry sauce. And she stood by to make sure the milk wasn't raised to a boil or poured on too quickly -- or both.

Trial and error can be dispiriting in a kitchen. That's why it's helpful to have an expert at your elbow, which defines the appeal of the Sweet Basil Cooking School, conducted at a demonstration kitchen in the back of a Scottsdale cookware store.

It's just one of several offerings in the region for home chefs looking to broaden their horizons. Scottsdale might be better-known for its resort diversions -- golf, tennis, spa treatments -- but it has a wealth of cooking classes, demonstrations, even opportunities to step behind the scenes and assist in the kitchen of a top-flight restaurant.

Helping hands

The appetizer special was tantalizing on this night at Acacia, the fine-dining restaurant at the Four Seasons at Troon North: a chilled cylinder of Grand Marnier-cured salmon positioned on end, filled with Dungeness crab salad and topped with a sprinkling of micro greens, on a plate crisscrossed with cara cara orange culee.

I'd be making them.

After cook Marcus Maggiore showed me how to cut the salmon a precise width, roll it loosely, uncoil it gently inside a shaping ring, and continue on through four other steps, he said, ``OK. You want to finish the next five?'' And he disappeared.

``Saturday Night in the Kitchen With Chef'' was launched three years ago at this Four Seasons. A participant slips into the Acacia kitchen in the midafternoon and dons a crisp, white chef's jacket already embroidered with his or her name.

After a quick tour of the kitchen and storage facilities, the neophyte is put to work, assisting on items that will soon be whisked through the doors and served to patrons at Acacia. (No pressure or anything.) Then, when the early evening crush begins, out to the restaurant this chef-for-a-night goes, to join family or friends for dinner -- with a wealth of tales to tell, no doubt. The real chef often swings by the table at dessert.

I ventured behind the veil in high season, and found sous chef Michael Goralski fretting over the reservation list. ``We have 110 covers (diners), all before 8,'' he said. This lent a palpable urgency to the prep work -- kind of like those last 20 or so minutes before the door bell rings at your dinner party.

I was worried about getting in the way, but the kitchen staffers were unfailingly accommodating. Chad Lowry waved me over to help him make a Hollandaise sauce. ``We have 17 sauces on the menu,'' he said as he paused, tasted, then added more salt, pepper and lemon juice. ``We're mixing this for the Bernaise chipotle'' (which accompanies an 8-ounce filet mignon).

The next stop was the pastry kitchen, where Scott Gerken positioned me next to a massive baking sheet holding a mixture of cinnamon and sugar. Acacia serves truffles as petit fours at the end of dinner, and Gerken began pulling truffles out of a bowl of milk chocolate and tossing them onto my sheet. I was to dust each one lightly and transfer it to another tray lined with waxed paper.

Gerken talked cheerfully as he worked. And deviously accelerated the pace. I hurried. My wrists began to ache. I couldn't possibly keep up. There was no denying the reality: a genuine Lucy moment!

Later, as the dinner rush set in, I mixed Caesar salads, built salmon towers, zested citrus fruits and marveled most of all at Kalei Kauahi, the young man working the grill next to me. Acacia is a steak and chop house, with such entrees as an 18-ounce bone-in rib eye and a 12-ounce filet. At one point, the grill was completely covered with great slabs of meat. Kauahi tried to explain his system for keeping track of everything at different stages, but I was driven off by the heat.

``The 11-top is down!'' hollered Goralski, referring to a table of 11 that had just been seated. The energy of the kitchen seemed to rise a degree. All of those entrees would have to come off that cooking line at once, perfectly prepared.

An impressive ballet ensued: four men weaving swiftly and smoothly along a counter, placing different entrees on a row of plates, sidestepping to make room for a ladle of sauce, arranging a cluster of Lyonnaise potatoes, swooping in to position a garnish just so.

No time to admire the work; another imperative loomed. ``Order, fire!'' Goralski called. ``Two lamb, one medium, one mid-rare; three salmon ...''

Trade secrets

In a fine restaurant, sometimes it's not enough to savor each bite of a lavishly prepared item. Your curiosity can get the best of you: You want to know how they did it.

Beau MacMillan, the affable executive chef of Elements restaurant at the Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain, will show you. A few years ago, he launched ``Lunch & Learn,'' offered on Saturdays during the resort's summer low season.

The program might involve comparative tastes of a particular wine varietal, with food to match, or perhaps an introduction to lesser-known heirloom tomatoes. But the most popular events are his cooking demonstrations, given such whimsical titles as ``Dim Sum and Then Some.''

MacMillan, whose animated personality is well suited to this Food Network era (don't ask -- yes, he has, besting Bobby Flay in an episode of ``Iron Chef America''), wears a lapel mike and works at a demonstration kitchen beneath tilted overhead mirrors.

Today's offering was ``Lobster Three Ways,'' and MacMillan, who hails from Maine and still maintains a trace of an accent, worked at a dervish pace, maintaining a running commentary as he went.

``You wouldn't think of heavy cream in soy, in an Asian sauce,'' he said, ``but it gives it a really nice flavor.'' At another juncture: ``I think lobster and sweetbreads are like the honeymooners in that old show.'' When he would plate a final product, he'd say, ``Let's dance!'' or ``We're rockin'!''

And we surely were. During ``Lunch & Learn,'' his staff, working concurrently with him but in an adjacent kitchen, sends out the courses as the demonstration proceeds: Maine lobster salad with blood orange, foie gras and hazelnuts; steamed lobster and escargot wontons, with ginger-caramel sauce and maitaki mushrooms; lobster and crispy sweetbread ragout, with sea bean salad and a creamy-spicy sauce.

``There it is,'' MacMillan said at the finish, ``lobster paired with duck, snails and veal.''

It might be daunting to duplicate this at home, but hands go up, questions are asked. And MacMillan said afterward that he routinely receives a flurry of subsequent e-mails about specifics. Or missteps.

Learn by doing

At the Sweet Basil school, scene of that lemon souffle disaster, the 2 1/2-hour sessions lean toward dishes that might be daunting to prepare for the first time: curries, crab cakes, tamales. Anyone can sign up, and classes are customarily limited to about 15 participants, with people breaking into teams to cook a specific item.

Imagine seven different souffle dishes being prepared simultaneously in one kitchen. It was barely controlled bedlam, though exhilarating. The process is aided by the hovering presence of the instructor, who passes judgment on the stiffness of egg-white peaks and offers helpful tips to head off mishaps.

In addition to 45 minutes of instruction before you begin, there is time at the end to review problems encountered along the way -- as folks sample the finished products. Our plates held two cheese souffles, a seafood souffle and -- count `em -- four desserts.

There were high levels of camaraderie in the cooking teams. Friends attended the class together, as did adult daughters and their mothers -- a fun way to learn something together. Most participants were pretty serious about the instruction, with the hope of duplicating the success for a dinner party at home.

``No spreads, no margarines,'' Hunt intoned about one rich, savory souffle. ``Sorry, this is not the place to save on fats.''

Kids' stuff

Adults shouldn't be the only ones who get to vent their cooking creativity. The Westin Kierland welcomes youngsters to ``Kids in the Kitchen,'' a two-hour program that yields trays of plump, freshly baked chocolate chip cookies.

It's quite a sight. Kids ages 5 to 10 are adorned in white aprons and towering, ill-fitting chef's hats. They receive some instruction about kitchen safety and cleanliness. And, after washing up, they gather around huge steel bowls and begin mixing dough -- with their hands.

``If the hands come out of the bowl, you go back to the sink (to wash up again),'' the hotel's executive chef, Anton Brunbauer, called out.

He's a natural at this. ``Should we break some eggs?'' he cried, holding two fistfuls above one bowl. And, when the gooey dough was mixed: ``Do you think we should try some?''

Before going into the oven, the trays are marked so that kids will be able to eat one of the exact cookies they crafted. But when the baking is complete, the excitement is so high that the budding chefs don't seem to pay much attention.

In the garden

The Hyatt Regency Scottsdale preserves local Indian culture with a learning center and a native-seed garden. Hopi interpreter Moontee Sinquah, who grew up on a reservation in northeast Arizona, provided a tour of the latter, gently showing off sunflowers, jalapeno peppers, red chiles, lima beans and numerous other plants.

``My great grandfather taught me to plant corn four paces from each other,'' he said, ``and he taught me to sing to them, to talk to them.''

From time to time, hotel executive chef Eric Howson harvests some of the garden's bounty and fashions a ``First Nations Cuisine'' appetizer at the Hyatt's three-meal restaurant, Squash Blossom.

On our visit, the creation was a seared scallop dusted with dried red chiles, topped with a salsa of sweet corn, bell pepper, tomato and cilantro, and accented with black-bean quenelle, sun-dried tomato slice and a splash of scallion oil. Fabulous.

Sinquah smiled. ``The traditional Hopi foods were pretty bland,'' he said. ``They would have been hard to market.''

eric.noland(at)dailynews.com

(818) 713-3681

IF YOU GO

KIDS IN THE KITCHEN: At the Westin Kierland, 6902 E. Greenway Parkway. Session is offered from 9 to 11 a.m. every Saturday during the summer, through Sept. 2. Cost is $25 per participant; hotel guests only. Recommended ages 5 to 10. www.kierlandresort.com; (888) 625-5144 (reservations), (480) 624-1242 (Kids Club).

LUNCH & LEARN: At the Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain, 5700 E. McDonald Drive. Sessions will be held Saturdays beginning July 8, and run through August (the last session will be on Sunday, Aug. 27). Cost is $55 per participant (except the July 8 benefit session, which will cost $85). www.sanctuaryaz.com; (800) 245-2051.

NATIVE HERITAGE SEED GARDEN: At the Hyatt Regency Scottsdale, 7500 E. Doubletree Ranch Road. Native American and Environmental Learning Center is just off the lobby. The Native Heritage Seed Garden lies alongside one of the pools. www.scottsdale.hyatt.com; (480) 444-1234.

SATURDAY NIGHT IN THE KITCHEN: At the Four Seasons Scottsdale at Troon North, 10600 E. Crescent Moon Drive. Held from midafternoon until early evening. Cost of $500 includes dinner for the participant and three guests in the hotel's fine-dining Acacia restaurant, including a bottle of house wine and a personalized chef's jacket. Available to anyone, not just hotel guests. www.fourseasons.com/scottsdale; (480) 513-5085.

SWEET BASIL COOKING SCHOOL: 10749 N. Scottsdale Road, Suite 101 (in shopping center at the northeast corner of Scottsdale Road and Shea Boulevard). Three-hour cooking classes, offered throughout the week, are priced from $45 to $50 per person. One-hour lunch-and-learn sessions cost $22. Discount on store merchandise for class participants. www.sweetbasilgourmet.com; (480) 596-5628.

CAPTION(S):

7 photos, box

Photo:

(1 -- 3 -- color) Cookie production is a two-fisted endeavor for youngsters at the Westin Kierland in Scottsdale, Ariz., above. A kitchen neophyte at the Four Seasons' Acacia restaurant might assist on a smoked salmon appetizer, below. Chef Beau MacMillan, bottom, whips up lobster in a cooking demonstration at the Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain.

(4) Instructor Linda Hunt sets a cheese souffle on a rack to cool as students of a Sweet Basil cooking class look on. The classes help to demystify the process of whipping up challenging dishes.

(5 -- 6) At left, Moontee Sinquah, a Hopi interpreter at the Hyatt, examines chiles in the hotel's Native Seed Garden. Above, Chad Lowry readies an order at the Four Seasons' Acacia.

(7) Scallop appetizer at the Hyatt Regency Scottsdale features ingredients from the hotel's Native Seed Garden.

Eric Noland/Travel Editor

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Title Annotation:Travel
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jun 11, 2006
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