It's hard to miss the Community Kitchen at the new Eureka Co-op - just look at the back of the store for the giant capital letters spelling KITCHEN, and the slightly smaller "cooking demonstrations."
So far the room has mostly been used for meetings, everything from dental hygienists and Boy Scouts to the Co-op board of directors. Product demos are actually out in the store, so the cooking demonstrations part is a bit of a misnomer. Stephanie Phelps, who runs the kitchen, sees the series of cooking classes that started last week as fulfilling that role.
On a Thursday evening around suppertime the roll-up window into the kitchen is open. Chef Alex Begovic, a Frenchman who is usually found running the kitchen at Jambalaya, is getting ready for his first class in the new space. While frying bacon and reducing a pot of red wine for one of the dishes he'll cook later, he opens cupboards, pulling out utensils and pans, learning where the tools are and arranging them for the coming session. A wooden table, more or less a large cutting board on wheels, serves as his prep area; it's littered with an assortment of herbs and vegetables, a pile of cubed lamb, bowls of this and that.
Stephanie, who will serve as his assistant for the class, is at the sink readying dishes and silverware. She came to the Co-op from Pacific Flavors, the recently closed Old Town kitchenware store, where she'd worked for about a year helping coordinate their well-attended series of cooking classes. For the most part the Co-op has replicated the P.F. model, hiring many of the cooks who taught there, Alex among them.
My old friend Henry Robertson, of Henry's Olives fame, is another veteran of the P.F.C. School, same with Betty Thompson (who, BTW, wrote a cooking column for the Journal years ago). Other instructors include Maria Levy, who grew up in the Philippines and now runs Ms. M's catering, Bryan Hopper sous-chef at Hotel Carter's Restaurant 301, and Leigh Blakemore from the College of the Redwoods culinary program, all of them P.F.C. vets.
The night I attended Alex's class, a majority of the half dozen students had taken classes at Pacific Flavors. Some spoke of the existence of "Alex groupies" and noted that Henry in particular had a strong following. It was easy to see how Alex would inspire repeat students: He has a casual, easygoing way about him, eschewing the more formal chef coat he typically wears at the Jambalaya for a loose blue T-shirt. His way of explaining things was equally casual. He noted, for example, as he showed how to make crostini, that "it's just a swanky, pseudo-French/Italian word for toast."
Then there's the accent. While he's been in the states for a long time, he still talks like someone raised in the Loire Valley. That area was the source for the dishes he prepared for his first class at the Co-op, "French Country Foods."
The menu: Soup a l'onion (French onion soup), eggs poached in red wine with braised winter greens, bacon, croutons and a pomegranate vinaigrette, country lamb stew, and pears poached in red wine with a ginger caramel sauce, not necessarily in that order.
As noted above, some dishes were started before class: He'd already poached a few pears, bacon for the poached eggs appetizer was drained, cooled and chopped. As in a restaurant kitchen, the rest of the dishes were prepared somewhat simultaneously. He jumped from one thing to another at will, talking his way through every step and freely switching topics based on questions from the class. A pinch of kosher salt added to the soup set things off on a tangent about the structure of salt crystals and a book he likes, Cook Wise, which he says "demystifies a lot about cooking" by explaining the chemistry and physics behind culinary techniques.
Along the way we learned a bit about his boyhood in France where his grandfather gathered nettles and taught him how to cook the wild game they shot in the woods. He offered an underdeveloped theory about the connection between French and Japanese cooking cultures (I'll have to get him to expand on it some night over beers at the Jam), and sang the praises of Humboldt County's bounty as he braised some locally grown lamb.
Alex also praised the new space with its large stovetop and stacked ovens. At various times he pulled one pan or another from the stove to show the class a step in the cooking process. There's a basic design flaw in kitchen configuration, at least when it comes to cooking classes, in that the students can't really see what's happening on the stovetop unless they leave their seats (something that Alex encouraged). Stephanie is hoping to have a mirror installed that could alleviate part of the problem, but when that might happen is uncertain. The cooking series is just getting off the ground and undoubtedly the kinks will be worked out over time.
The various teachers have dozens of classes still to come in what's deemed the "Spring series." You just missed Betty Thompson's "Turkish Delight," an Ottoman feast. Alex is back Thursday, Feb. 22, with "More French Country Foods," including potato, beer and cheese soup, roasted beet salad, roast chicken with honey, vinegar, thyme, onions and wild mushrooms and Tarte Tatin, a caramelized French apple pie. (Need I mention that you get a great meal as you learn?)
On Feb. 26, Maria Levy offers "Asian Appetizers" including Vietnamese spring rolls, Filipino Lumpia (crisp spring rolls with shrimp and vegetables), ginger mushroom steamed buns, Korean beef bulgogi and caramelized bananas with ice cream.
Jon Hoeschen, president of the local chapter of the American Culinary Federation, teaches on Feb. 27, working through a menu with roasted red pepper soup, chipotle shrimp and sweet corn cakes, grilled Pacific salmon (the kitchen has a charbroiler), artichoke tartar sauce and a lemon crème brulée tart.
Then on Feb. 28, Henry Robertson leads you through frittata di patate e cipolle (a potato/onion omelet), pappa al pomodoro (tomato soup), chicken Marsala and cantucci, the traditional biscotti of Prato. Yum.
Heading into March there's Betty Thompson's "Let's Cook More Thai II" on March 7, featuring a soup to dessert Thai menu. The next night (March 8), it's back to Alex with "Traditional French Vegetable Dishes." Alex seems to be the most ambitious of the teachers, offering a class pretty much every Thursday through the end of June.
All classes run from 6-9 p.m. at North Coast Co-op's Community Kitchen in the Eureka store at 4th and B sts. All cost $35, $25 for Co-op members. For detailed information about specific classes pick up a schedule at the Eureka Co-op or contact Stephanie Phelps at 443-6027, ex. 102 or email@example.com. You can register in person at the Eureka Co-op Customer Service desk or by calling Stephanie and paying with your credit card.
My suggestion: Put the list of classes online and allow for registration at the Arcata Co-op. Please note: the Co-op reserves the right to cancel any classes with enrollment of eight students or less (a rule that was not enforced when I attended).
As Stephanie emphasized, the space is available for all sorts of community groups. Food For People plans on using the room to teach cooking methods to those enrolled in the WIC program. The Healthy Education Alliance has a diabetic cooking class in the kitchen Saturday, Feb. 24, the second in a series taught by Leigh Blakemore and Beth Schatzman, a dietitian and diabetes educator. They offer a hands-on experience with basic healthy cooking skills and menu planning aimed at those dealing with special dietary needs. In addition to the class this Saturday they have one scheduled for Saturday, March 24. Pre-registration is required, call the Health Education Alliance at 443-0124 for details.