Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Membership Has It's Privileges: Learn to Cook Italian the Fun & Easy Way

Question: What does Italy and France share besides the glamorous Riviera coastline? 
Answer: An invitation from the member’s only distinctly Parisian-sounding Rue La La to a cooking class at Alta Cucina’s Italian epicurean society.

At the New York City Italian cultural mecca, food enthusiasts meet and share a passion for learning all things amore Italiano -- from top-tier chefs in hands-on cooking demonstrations, tasting freshly prepared food and enjoying regional Italian vintage wines.

Recently, chef Eric Francou led a class of Rue La La members.
Francou is an Italian national, born in Sicily, graduated from culinary school, studied with master of cooking, Paul Bocuse, in Belgium, honed his skills in 3-star Michelin restaurants in the south of France, establishing his culinary bona fides in Rome before bringing his regional Italian cooking charm to the Marketplace restaurant in Roslyn, Long Island. He was named a Top-25 Italian chef in America in 2003.
Chef Eric sold the restaurant in 2009 to pursue international restaurant consulting and teaching. 

He is charming, shy, and unpretentious – and with a movie accent that would make a Fellini fan go mad with desire, he dons his teaching toque with Italian pride and confidence based on experience and love of food.  There is an evident dedication to his culinary cultural heritage: a joy in sharing his knowledge, along with his cooking technique and skills.  Chef Eric throws down the gauntlet to try to cook a delicious, fresh from the market Italian meal.   OK, the glove may be made of the finest Italian leather, but it with unabashed enthusiasm that cooking students and foodies can’t resist the tasty temptation.

Chef Eric was introduced to teaching cooking classes along with his restaurant consulting that takes him from Williamsburg (Brooklyn) to Azerbaijan.  He was in there recently for almost a year, advising on opening two restaurants in the largest country in the rapidly changing Caucasus region.  It was a “Fantastic experience’ chef claims.
In this way, he learns from different cuisines – inculcating and absorbing regional cooking customs -- incorporating them into his portfolio of teaching how to cook different cuisines.
His culinary creativity is always inspiring him to create new dishes based on his solid foundation of traditional culinary gastronomy.

His forte is undoubtedly Mediterranean.
He cooks all-regions of Italy; his favorites he admits are the local Abbruzzian and Roman cuisines.  “There is not too much cream and butter in the dishes,” he explains. 
Overall, chef uses seasonal products. And not too much complexity in his preparation or cooking.  Adhering to the adage “One eats with the eyes first,” he states that presentation is key – “It’s the first thing the guest sees.” 
He believes in simplicity of the dish and balance on the plate.

Teaching remains a driving force for him.  Unlike the yelling, screaming, frothy top chef TV hosts, he believes a good chef is inherently an instructor. 
Chef Eric says he likes to share his cooking techniques and his recipes - - no secrets.
He loves what he does!  “I try to give the students a way to recreate the menu at home – using very easy recipes such as seasonal salads and antipasta that have a lot of flavor,” Describing the classes, he says “I try to give them passion for the food.”

Not surprisingly, chef Eric has developed a loyal following of chef wanna-be’s at Alta Cucina.  “We even stay in touch via email.  They may need an answer to a quick question about what food goes with what or cooking times,” he says.  “We’re like a family.”  He says he can judge the success of the class by the chemistry that bubbles up from the group.   Maybe that is the Prosecco….

With students in place around the stocked high-rise table so all can see the Mondrian-colored prepped vegetables including, red pepper, zucchini, eggplant, onions, basil, lemons, celery, parsley, and bok choy, wait with quiet patience.  
There is a hush as Chef dons his toque and begins by telling his story of his Sicilian home, his experience cooking and the never-ending excitement of the kitchen.  

Soon he is cutting the portabella mushrooms – he doesn’t recommend using tips/stems.
He does suggest using them in bouillon for soup stock, along with onion cuttings.  Nothing edible gets tossed away!

He shows how to dice and cut – taking time to demonstrate how to hold a knife, starting with holding the hand out, making a fist, keep ends out so the produce doesn’t fall apart – and place the knife against the fingers, cutting down and away. No chance to cut the fingers this way. “Never cut or carve towards you,” chef cautioned. 
And no wine is served during the cutting portion of class, either.

For the rigatoni, chef explained he prefers crushed garlic with extra virgin oil. He doesn’t like sliced garlic.  Once the crushed garlic is golden color in pan –throw out from pot. 
Likewise, when onions break down, they get sweet, so no sugar needed in sauce!

Once red pepper begins to sauté he adds crushed tomatoes or canned from San Marzano --always crushed by hand, he shows, as cooks want roughness and pieces of tomato in the sauce.

Outside of your Nonni’s kitchen, (and maybe Eataly!
Alta Cucina is the ideal place to learn Italian cuisine, provide information and experience about the products of Italy. Just as the foodie lifestyle was taking root, and not too long before Del Posto received the first Italian restaurant four-star rating from the New York Times, Alta Cucina was launched in 2008 with the sole purpose of promoting all things Italian.
How Bellissimo!

Today, they provide a team of four Italian chefs who develop their own menus to teach cooking classes, demonstrations and conduct seminar.  They also moderate food and wine tastings.

The do most of the food experiences at their new expanded facility in midtown, according to Alberto Paderi, co-owner of Alta Cucina. “We also do huge wine tastings like the one we did at Ciprianni’s, for example,” he adds.  We can do individual demonstrations, small groups or catering.” He says.
Paderi went on to explain “We started to work social networks in order to expand our audience, beginning with Ru La La.  It’s a win-win.  Members of Rue La La save on the cooking classes that normally run $95 to $100 and their members get to experience the Alta Cucina epicurean society and will hopefully become members here.”  

The classes following a laid back, casual format:  the first hour or hour and a half is spent watching the working featured executive chef.  The pre-cut, prepared meal ingredients are laid out; the chef goes through every step of a three-course meal, followed by hands-on food preparation by the students.
A recent class featured a salad with mushrooms, celery, and citrus dressing; pasta picorato with red onions, peppers, topped by creamy mushrooms, sautéed in a light sauce, ladled over fresh cooked rigatoni.  Dessert was a delicious, easy to make flourless chocolate cake.
Alta Cucina provides everything: from aprons to knives. 

Following all the cutting, dicing, and chiffonading, the students retreat to the bar area for a wine tasting while the chef cooks the meal from the student prepared ingredients.  A little like going to the living room for family talk while Nonni is busy in the kitchen.  When the meal is ready, students return to the long, fully set tablescape for the sit-down dinner with the food they have prepped and the chef has cooked.
Good food, good wine, a shared love of Italian slow food lifestyle makes the dinner conversation flow like the wine and bonding happens. No wonder chef Eric thinks of his students like a big family.  

In addition, students get to take home a ready-made gourmet package of Italian products.
Rue La La offered a free membership to enjoy events and discounts as part of this package.  Rue La La, “is an exclusive, invitation-only enterprise where members are offered exciting, premier brand experiences.  Check them out at their online destination hub for the unexpected:

Alta Cucina is located at 22 East 38th Street between Madison and Park Avenues. 646-415-9031

Buon Appetito!

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