The public's interest in cooking classes is barely lukewarm in some years. In others, it reaches a rolling boil. Few programs weather this popularity roller coaster, yet cooking classes offered by the Women's Committee of the Walters Art Gallery have managed to make a comeback.
"The Art of Cooking" series thrived from 1964 to 1978, then retired. In 1988, the classes were revived by new members and a newly health- and nutrition-conscious audience. You might think the program's strength lies in the selection of interesting teachers: this year, they'll be author, artist and healthful Italian food advocate Edward Giobbi, and award-winning, Mediterranean cooking specialist Paula Wolfert. But the key ingredients of this event are its behind-the-scenes volunteers.
In kitchens all around greater Baltimore, they are producing some of the gourmet foodstuffs that the chefs will use in demonstrations. Although most of the students won't realize it, the volunteers' efforts turn the class menus into communally prepared meals.
*Prunes have been steeping in armagnac for a week at Vicki Calger's house. They need at least 15 days of soaking, according to Ms. Wolfert's recipe for gascon croustade, a golden and crisp apple-and-prune-filled cake.
*Terry Ulmer volunteered to make the fresh bread crumbs, so much more flavorful than packaged types, needed for Mr. Giobbi's dish called coccoli di patate (potato balls).
*At Eddie's grocery in Roland Park, butcher Clyde Miller promised to make the demiglace called for in Ms. Wolfert's recipe for chicken breasts with wild mushrooms and pine nuts. He will also sharpen the professional-quality knives borrowed for the demonstrations, says event chairwoman Savilla Rohde. And across town, Andrea and Margaret Mastellone are donating pasta, oils, saffron threads and dried Italian porcini mushrooms so the chefs may use authentic ingredients.
*Other volunteers will staff the kitchen as the "prep" cooks. They'll snip chives, peel and pare apples and take directions from the guest chef while the classes are taught.
"The most fun is being in the kitchen," says Mary Carpenter, co-chairwoman of this year's event. "Last year, I learned how to make butter roses. [Chef] Jacques Pepin held the knife in my hand and guided my arm until I could do it right. I made butter roses for my family at breakfast for the next two months, I was so thrilled."
The enthusiasm of the volunteers is just part of the program's recipe for success, says Ms. Rohde. Over the years, the organizers have also learned some chefs are better at cooking than teaching, that students won't try the dishes at home if they can't find the ingredients, and that class sizes must be limited.
"If we were to expand, it would be impossible for everyone to taste what the chef has made," says Ms. Rohde. Growth, therefore, isn't on the agenda for future classes, but there are some innovations. The classes, formerly held in spring, are now held during the harvest season so the best produce is available. This year also, the organizers will sell books written by the chefs and the hard-to-find ingredients and tools needed for the recipes before and after class, such as orange flower water and sausage stuffers.
Also this year, the focus of the program is tailored to appeal to an audience very different from that served by the Women's Committee in the 1960s. Today, most of the students are in two-career couples, many participants are men, and "everyone is concerned about cholesterol," says Ms. Carpenter. "Most of my friends have kids and don't have time to cook a seven-course French dinner on Thursday night."
Keeping up with the demographics, the popularity of regional cuisines and the back-to-the-basics culinary movement keeps class organizers on their toes. For future success and to avoid another hiatus caused by lack of interest, they'll have to select instructors and recipes carefully. "I foresee there'll be more interest in the health angle and the nutrition in the future," says Patricia Barrett, the Walters' membership coordinator and liaison to the Women's Committee.
Proceeds of "The Art of Cooking" series assist Women's Committee projects, including the support it gives to major exhibits and educational efforts at the gallery.
Six different demonstrations are scheduled Tuesday, next Wednesday and Oct. 4 in "The Art of Cooking" series. Each day, a morning session will begin at 10 and an evening session at 7. Each session's menu is different. Some of Ms. Wolfert's dishes are Moroccan bisteeya, oven-steamed salmon and salmon salad with bacon dressing. Mr. Giobbi's dishes include pasta with smoked trout, fresh tuna sausages and linguine with blue crabs. All classes will be held at Church of the Redeemer, 5603 N. Charles St. in Baltimore. The price is $35 per class, or $30 if you take three or more classes. For more information, call the Women's Committee at 547-9000, ext. 305.