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Gretchens Kitchen: Learning from the local chefs

Nov 4th, 2012 | Category: Features

by Jessamyn Tuttle

A fixture of downtown Mount Vernon, Gretchens Kitchen Store has been excelling in its role as a “hardware store for cooks” since 1997. Gretchen Pickett, who opened the store, approached caterer Suzanne Butler early on about the idea of starting a cooking school as part of the business. At the time there was no other cooking school in the area and she thought it would be great for the community.

Jim Kowalski of Farm to Market Bakery gives a cooking class. PHOTO BY JESSAMYN TUTTLE

Butler, currently a chef instructor at Skagit Valley College, was working with television chef Graham Kerr at the time. Filming included a lot of down time between shoots, so she took on the project. In the beginning, Butler taught many of the classes herself, but brought in a few guest chefs to teach, including some big names like Greg Atkinson and John Sarich but also popular local figures like Romola Seabury and Inga Hammer, who team-taught lefse and other Scandinavian baking classes at the school for many years.

The response was enthusiastic. “We were feeling our way,” says Butler, but remembers that they had an easy time getting the classes going. “Gretchen loved to party. Her thing was getting people together to have fun.”   Butler ran the cooking school for its first year, then turned it over to other coordinators. In 2007 Pickett sold the store to Donna Toepfer, who recognized that she had a good thing going.  “The school was mature,” says Toepfer. “If it’s working I don’t come in and change it.”

From the beginning, the classes were envisioned as primarily demonstration style, with the chef and helpers working in the kitchen and the guests observing, tasting a sample (sometimes quite generous) of each of the dishes prepared, having a glass of wine and asking questions. Occasional hands-on classes are offered, such as knife skills or pastry, but in general the guests are more comfortable watching. For those looking for a more direct experience with the chefs and food preparation, the school draws from a pool of volunteers to help with each class. These folks help with plating, serving and dishwashing, but they also get to work directly under the chef’s instruction, which can be a great opportunity for a home cook looking to further his or her skills. Despite a long list of potential helpers, fewer than a dozen are in regular rotation, and new volunteers are always welcome.

Popular chefs in current rotation include Peter Belknap of The Market in Anacortes, Mark Iverson of Mark’s on Pine in Mount Vernon, Jim Kowalski of Farm to Market Bakery in Edison, and Nahla Gholam of Mediterranean Specialties in Bellingham. Newcomer Anne Dubert, who teaches traditional French cuisine, comes with a following from her previous cooking classes in Everett and has proven very popular at the school. Most of the chefs emphasize working with local, in-season foods, making the most of the resources here in the Skagit Valley. Sometimes there will be a class where each dish is paired with a matching wine or beer, with the chef and a wine rep working together.

Peter Belknap of The Markets in Anacortes. PHOTO BY JESSAMYN TUTTLE

In January of 2012 Leslie Collings came on board as the cooking school coordinator. “It’s a lot of fun,” she says, and she’s seeing the school continue to grow. When Collings asks, at the beginning of each class, how many new guests are present, she always gets at least one or two hands, if not 4 or 5. She’s always on the lookout for new instructors, and takes recommendations from customers for chefs they like. Just being a good chef isn’t enough, however; a certain amount of showmanship is helpful. The chef also needs to be willing to explain everything they do. “You need to talk about the simplest of details,” says Collings, since while the guests have a variety of experience in the kitchen, many are beginners. “It’s the small details. It’s about the recipes, but also the tips and things they’ve learned over 30 years of being a chef.”

Guests are highly encouraged to ask questions, whether about technique or culinary terms or ingredients. If a guest is too shy to ask a question, Collings will ask it for them.  She also tries to educate guests about tools and products being used by the chefs that are available there in the store. “I try to wrap the store around the school,” she says. “You could spend an hour in the store and not see everything.”

In addition to the regular cooking classes, the demonstration kitchen also hosts private parties and workshops. “People are looking for different or unique ways” to do group events, says Collings, for everything from corporate holiday parties to bridal showers. “We can do party favors from the kitchen, we can do party favors from the store.” Collings offers “start to finish” party planning sessions, and all sorts of suggestions for entertaining. “Everything I make is really simple,” she says, putting the emphasis on having a great party rather than complicated cooking.

Collings says she appreciates the wide variety of cuisines taught at the school. “Trying different cuisines is not difficult.” Guests can taste a new ingredient for the first time and learn where to find it, whether it be an unusual spice, a type of leafy green, or whole baby octopus. “It helps us grow as home cooks and try things we wouldn’t normally.”

Gretchens Cooking School is located at 509 S. 1st Street in Mount Vernon. Call (360) 336-8747 or visit www.gretchenskitchen.com.

Published in the November 2012 issue of Grow Northwest

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