"Let me show you how to chop an onion," says chef Bertrand de Boutray in his thick French accent.
"First you cut it in half," he demonstrates on the white cutting board before his expert hands. "Then you make little criss-cross cuts, without cutting through the root end," he says emphatically. A few more swift cuts and — voilà! — perfectly shaped squares of chopped onion. No need to ever cut the ends off onions again!
I am standing in a friend's Laurelhurst kitchen with seven other women who have come together for a three-part "Art of French Cooking" class with Cordon-Bleu-trained de Boutray. Today, our three-course menu features the Basque region, and so two of the women dutifully chop onion for an egg piperade.
Meanwhile, I work with my morning's partner, Lisa, as we attempt to remove bones from a king salmon fillet. Bertrand shows us how to extract the slippery needles from the firm flesh using tweezers he had brought. Another team whisks butter, vinegar and tarragon for the Béarnaise sauce, while the other two women cook custard for the buttery Basque cake that will be our welcome dessert.
As we labor for these two hours, we anticipate with each task our imminent sweet reward: a scrumptious sit-down, three-course lunch with friends and good wine. Not a bad way to spend a Friday.
"You can always go out to lunch somewhere, but it's fun to get different people together and create a beautiful meal," says Graciela Rutkowski, who started hosting de Boutray's group-cooking classes in her home about two years ago. "It seems like chaos when everyone's working on a specific part of the meal, but then everything always comes out perfectly and at the same time."
De Boutray's Seattle business, Bertrand Chez Vous, caters to clients who want a single "cooking together party" or a "cooking together series" in a private home. His classes are hands-on, which means clients actually prepare the entire meal themselves. Other chefs prepare dinner in a home while guests observe, learn techniques and help devour the meal.
Several chefs in the Seattle area offer private cooking classes or group dinner parties. People are increasingly turning to culinary get-togethers for birthdays, anniversaries, book or garden clubs, or other social occasions.
To host a cooking class, you would first choose a chef and work together to create a format and menu. The host is responsible for inviting guests, setting the table and providing beverages. The chef brings all the ingredients, recipes to share, special tools or equipment and occasionally serving dishes.
Costs generally range from $400 to $700 for a party of 10, depending on which chef you use, what kind of menu you put together and whether gratuities are expected. If all the guests pitch in, figure a per-person cost of around $40 to $70. That's a pretty good deal considering you're likely to enjoy a four-course feast with good friends in the comfort and privacy of a cozy home.
Tracy and Roger Lone of Federal Way host chef Regina Mitchell's cooking classes about four times a year with eight of their friends from the Pacific Northwest. "We consider Regina our personal chef," says Tracy Lone. "We're very possessive. She's a wonderful person. We all get along famously."
Mitchell usually arrives at the Lones' house about 2 p.m. to start getting ready. The class begins at 4 when the guests arrive to a greeting of appetizers such as potstickers or salmon roulade. As they sit in the Lones' spacious kitchen (designed with cooking classes in mind), Mitchell demonstrates techniques for two or three of the dishes she will serve that night. She hands out recipes so guests can take notes and ask questions. At about 6 o'clock, the Lones and their guests sit down at a beautifully appointed table for the gourmet dinner. One such menu featured jalapeño crab dip, grilled Cornish game hens, field greens and poached pear Napoleans with caramel sauce.
People come with appetites to learn as well as to eat. "Regina gives us tips for fixing problems, like when you over-whip the cream," Lone says. "She also teaches us how to plate a salad and other nice presentations so we'll know how to do that later."
Education is a big focus for Seattle chef Laura Dewell, whose private cooking classes teach clients how and where to shop, how to choose ingredients, what equipment they need and even how to reorganize their kitchen. "I want people to feel comfortable shopping and know what to look for," says the former chef-owner of the much-missed Pirosmani restaurant.
Before a cooking class, she arms the host with recipes and a shopping list and sends him or her out to hunt and gather. One of Dewell's special holiday menus may include seafood stew with saffron, turkey breast with wild mushrooms, pâte-à-choux gnocchi and a traditional apple tart.
Private chefs are lauded for their flexibility, and will create a class or dinner party according to your specific desires and interests. Of course, some chefs do focus on specific types of cuisine, like de Boutray, who specializes in the art of French cooking. Chef Iole Aguero, who lives in Issaquah, focuses on northern and southern Italian cuisine. She typically teaches three kinds of classes at area stores and community colleges: gnocchi, fresh pasta and pizza. She has even done pizza- and pasta-making classes for children's birthdays. For one of her adult classes, several women whooped it up in a limo and then cooked an Italian meal; their partners arrived just in time to eat.
This month, or even next, you might want to try a decadent twist on the old holiday party: Host a chocolate-making class. Bill Fredericks, who owns a local company called Chocolate Man, teaches truffle-making and "exploring chocolate" classes around town. He will put together a fabulous taste-testing extravaganza (with 45 different samples!) for you and fellow chocolate lovers in the warmth (and secrecy?) of your own home.
In a two-hour truffle-making class, he lectures for the first part, then leads the class in making molded, hand-dipped or cocoa-rolled truffles. Each guest gets to take home a pound of his or her own chocolates. A class of 10 costs about $250 ($25 per person). Fredericks is also available for private classes around Valentine's Day and Easter.
If you love food, the next time you want to get friends together, consider bringing a chef into your home for a creative and fun cooking party. At a time when current events are frightening, some of us feel more inclined to reach out to family and friends. Creating and eating a wonderful meal together can bring comfort, warmth and a whole lot of fun.
Try This at Home
Here are just a few of the chefs who teach in private homes:
Bertrand de Boutray
Classical cooking, French Creole cuisine
Western European & classical cooking
Chocolate and truffle-making
Catherine M. Allchin is a freelance writer based in Seattle.