Shallots, discipline and confidence


February 09, 2007|By Janet Gilbert

Daniel Wecker, Elkridge Furnace Inn executive chef and owner, may not even be aware that his words echo an old Latvian proverb: "A smiling face is half the meal."

Small wonder that when he was recently asked by a student in a cooking class to name his favorite meal to prepare, Wecker quickly replied, "Whatever makes people happy."

With more than 600 sauces in his repertoire, it is safe to say that Wecker, 48, has hundreds of culinary options at his fingertips that make people happy - whether dining in his restaurant, attending an event, or, in this case, learning the art of French cooking.

The intimate evening class of seven students had everything ready before them - or mise en place as they say in French cooking - to prepare a sumptuous Valentine's Day dinner menu designed to win over any sweetheart. The students prepared wild berry goat cheese salad with candied nuts and champagne vinaigrette, veal osso bucco, polenta with wilted Swiss chard, oysters, champagne and chocolate pot du creme.

"It can be done in less than an hour," Wecker said.

"I want everyone to have confidence in the kitchen," he said. "French cooking is a discipline - that's why the uniform is modeled after a military one. With preparation and organization, everyone can be successful."

Wecker tossed out tidbits of insight as he demonstrated, which seemed to whet the participants' appetites for more. Throughout the class, Wecker offered advice on everything from whisking technique to food-safety issues to wine selection.

"Neither of us has any cooking experience," said Ryan Planchart, 21, of Overlea before the class began. He and his fiancee, Lauren Norris, 20, received the class as a Christmas gift from Planchart's father. "It might be over our heads - we've only made grilled cheese and scrambled eggs," he said.

Joe Acosta of Abingdon also received the evening's class as a gift - but for his birthday, from his daughter. Acosta said his family gathers every weekend, and he cooks for them about half the time.

"I think my daughter expects me to be cooking this weekend. There's a method to their madness by getting me this gift," he said.

Dan and Abby Horrigan traveled from Washington for Wecker's class. "We spend a lot of time in the kitchen and too much time at the table," Dan said.

Dale and Mardel Kowalewski of Reisterstown enjoy traveling and experiencing the culture and food of other lands. "The preparation is part of the thrill of it," said Mardel.

Wecker began with a brief tutorial on the importance of hand washing, saying that sanitation is very important in home and professional cooking. He instructed class members to put on aprons, tying the strings in front - if they could.

"Tie those strings tight," he said. Wecker explained that the students will hang hand towels from the strings. Again, organization is the key here - everything is ready where and when you need it.

Wecker instructed the class to dampen a towel and place it under the cutting board. "If the cutting board slips, you can get cut," he said.

Next, the class began to peel and chop vegetables into small pieces for the veal entree. But even cutting vegetables is a learning opportunity - Wecker demonstrated proper technique - how the hand is "crouched" on a carrot, with the fingertips tucked and the thumb behind.

"Don't pick up your knife - just roll your wrist. Let the weight of the knife cut through the carrots."

Everyone looked a little tentative at first, but soon the room was filled with confident and percussive chopping. While chopping, Wecker talked about the nuances of the shallot.

"Every member of the onion family tastes different," he said. "Shallots have a delicate, nutty flavor - that's why we use them in French cooking."

Wecker poured oil into each student's skillet, and his prep assistant, Dustin Dixon, 19, of Elkridge fired them up. Dixon spent most of the evening running to and from the kitchen with skillets and whisks, carrying in trays of oysters and platters of veal, making sure everything was mise en place.

"I guess I've been up and down [the steps] about 15 or 20 times," Dixon said. "But I have lots of help downstairs. "There are three dishwashers and six cooks."

The class moved rapidly, from the veal to the pot du creme, then to the fine points of making emulsified vinaigrette for the salad, sauteing oysters just until they have curled, and the many magical forms of polenta.

"Someone read the recipe every now and then to be sure I'm following it correctly," said Wecker, who does not measure.

"Anybody have any idea how much heavy cream we go through in a day here?" he said.

"Thirty-six quarts," he said. "Never trust a skinny chef."

"I haven't eaten in three days," deadpanned Acosta, as class members went to an adjacent dining room to enjoy the fruits - and vegetables, entree and dessert - of their labor.

"My dad sent us an e-mail before he gave us this gift," said Planchart. "He wrote, `This could be a groundbreaking event for you, open new horizons.'"

"He's a wise man," said Acosta.

For information on culinary classes at Elkridge Furnace Inn, go to the "Special Events" page on the inn's Web site: www.


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