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Ratty gourmet: U. chefs teach secrets of the kitchen

Something's cooking in the Sharpe Refectory, and it's not dinner.

A group of 20 lucky undergraduates - randomly selected from a pool of about 90 ­­- are participating in a series of cooking classes taught by several of Brown's chefs. For the cost of three meal credits, these students receive hands-on instruction from Aaron Fitzsenry, culinary manager for retail operations, and Dave Chabot, executive chef at the Faculty Club.

The classes aim to inspire students to try cooking on their own and give them the skills to improve. The Feb. 25 class focused on soups, the March 10 class explored pasta and sauce and the third ­- planned for April 14 - will delve into desserts.

"These are basic things that it's good for people to know how to make," said Anna Rotman '14, an intern for Brown Dining Services.

The class is held in a part of the Ratty kitchen known as the Bakeshop, "a crazy cool thing that many students don't know about," said Lillian Mirviss '12, a sustainability intern for Dining Services who originally proposed the idea for the classes.

"Some students don't know how to saute an onion," she said. "The hardest thing about cooking is starting."

Red, white and ravioli

At the second class, under Chabot's guidance, participants combined eggs and flour to create fresh pasta dough, which they rolled out and cut into thin strips. "The rough recipe is one cup of flour to one egg makes one portion," he told the class.

Meanwhile, Fitzsenry showed another group of students how to make a tomato sauce. He told them the thickness of a sauce should depend on the size of the pasta. "A thinner pasta, like an angel hair, is going to be great for a light, delicate sauce." 

Chabot explained that fresh pasta only takes one to two minutes to cook, while dry pasta takes up to 10 minutes. When the pasta was finished cooking, Chabot instructed the students to "serve it immediately." 

After straining the pasta, Fitzsenry cooked it for a minute in the pan with the sauce. "That way, if you bite into the pasta, it'll taste like the sauce."

"Everybody taste something," he told students. "Each sauce was cooked a little differently."

Students needed little prompting, as they quickly grabbed forks and tasted their creations. 

Fitzsenry then showed a group how to make a white sauce. "It's not a science - it's about what you like," he told the group.

"This is how easy it is to cook from scratch," Fitzsenry said. "If you get a jar of alfredo sauce from the grocery store, it's not going to have that same effect."

Using leftover onions, eggs, flour, garlic, parsley and oregano - as well as five pounds of meat and a big pinch of salt and pepper - Fitzsenry showed students how to make meatballs by hand.

And what were the students to do with the leftover pasta dough? Make ravioli, of course.

Fitzsenry demonstrated the technique: cut two hexagonal pasta shapes, put cheese between them and pinch the pieces together. Then, moisten the edges with water or egg, use a knife to cut hashes into the sides and flash boil.

Intersecting interests

The original menu for the classes was modified after the instructors surveyed the participants about their dietary needs and preferences. After identifying students' dietary restrictions, the soups class was revised to make two nearly identical soups that accommodated everyone's needs.

At the end of the class, Fitzsenry asked the students what they were interested in learning how to cook in the second class. Students in the class indicated an interest in pasta.

"College life and pasta - it seems like a no brainer," Fitzsenry said. 

The final class next weekend will focus on desserts. Originally, the plan was to cook a complete meal ­- including protein, starches and vegetables. But when the instructors asked participants what their favorite foods were, many said chocolate, Fitzsenry said. 

One dish will be a chocolate lava cake, which is "easy to teach, but really cool to do for somebody else," he said.

Fitzsenry also plans to show students how to make "tuxedo-dipped strawberries," which are dipped in white and dark chocolate. "Anywhere you bring chocolate and strawberries, you're going to make friends."

Students in the class have given enthusiastic feedback.

"I think this is one of the coolest things I've found at Brown," said Kim Clifton '14, a former Herald contributing writer.

"Dave and Aaron have so many cool tricks that even if you do know about cooking, you're still learning," Rotman said. "They have great chemistry."

Fitzsenry and Chabot taught students about proper sanitation, knife handling and oven use, Mirviss said.

At the pasta station, Chabot told students that salmonella can be avoided by cracking eggs on the table instead of on the side of a pan.

Fitzsenry reminded students that when adding wine to a sauce, it is important to take the saucepan away from the stove. "Alcohol has vapors that are highly flammable," he said. "Always bring the pan to the liquor, not the liquor to the pan."

'Something fun to do'

The idea for the cooking classes was raised by Mirviss in the fall of 2010, about a month after Fitzsenry began working at Brown, he said. But the p
ush to make the class a reality did not happen until fall 2011, when Mirviss brought up the idea again.

A cooking class program previously existed, Rotman said, which made it easy to convince Dining Services to have a class again.

Mirviss made a survey for people interested in the classes, which were advertised on the Dining Services website and in Morning Mail. They received about 90 responses - many more than Fitzsenry expected. But there were only 20 spaces in the class, so participants were chosen by lottery.

Though he and Chabot lead the classes, Mirviss and Rotman are the ones who deserve the credit, Fitzsenry said.

Mirviss said she hopes these classes are a project that another intern can take over after she graduates this May.

Others at Dining Services have been "very, very supportive," of the classes, Fitzsenry said.

Fitzsenry is enthusiastic about teaching students how to cook. "I feel like I should be thanking them because I get to break up my day with something fun."

Making time for the classes is "a piece of cake," he said. Next week's chocolate lava cake, that is.

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