Watching the kettle: Instructor Jay Harlow (center) gives pointers to aspiring cooks Jeff Williams and Steve Hoeft over a bubbling cauldron of minestrone.

Somethin’ Cookin’

A daylong visit to Ramekins, a visionary new culinary school that caters to kitchen-savvy home cooks and eager amateurs

A MIGHTY HISS of steam billows up from the gargantuan stove as a herd of white-apron- clad students stand about in a loose semi-circle. They stretch up on tiptoes, eyes wide with appreciation as instructor Jay Harlow expertly tosses chicken breasts onto the waiting fire. Knives of all sizes lie about the room, along with the boned remains of numerous chickens.

Bowls of chopped-and-diced-and-julienned carrots, mushrooms, cucumbers, onions, lettuce, potatoes, and chard, alongside several platters of glistening marinated chicken, stand waiting on a table nearby, where one student, a young gentleman with a very sharp knife, is methodically slicing a cucumber, his forehead furrowed in happy concentration. Harlow–the bestselling author of West Coast Seafood and Beer Cuisine–after exhorting the class to “come on back and grab a chicken breast,” glides over to encourage the hard-working knife-wielder.

“Still practicing?” he says, taking in the rising pile of cut vegetables. “Excellent work. Looks good.” Then he’s off to oversee the ongoing chicken preparations and to cheer on his students as they carefully apply all those vegetables to a massive, bubbling cauldron of minestrone. Weaving through the students, he now tackles the making of dessert: a rainbow-colored cranberry and citrus compote. “Stir the fruit gently,” coaches Harlow, peering over as the fruit mixture simmers on the stove.

“If you listen carefully, you can hear the cranberries popping.”

Everyone falls quiet, ears trained forward, listening for the sound of exploding berries. When it happens–a series of soft, liquidy snaps–an audible sigh of delight moves through the room, mingling with the sounds of overhead fans, banging pots, and clanking utensils.

And so goes a typical day at Ramekins Sonoma Valley Culinary School.

A singularly remarkable, noticeably whimsical training facility for experienced home cooks and complete novices, Ramekins–the brainchild of General’s Daughter restaurant owner Suzanne Brangham–opened its spoon-handled doors just 18 months ago, in a unique custom-designed rammed-earth building (based on an architectural method that employs vast amounts of compressed clay and soil, but no wood in its basic structure). From the beginning, Ramekins was a certified culinary phenomenon, attracting students and tourists from across the country, while drawing the enthusiastic praise–and the teaching services–of renowned cookbook authors and four-star celebrity chefs from around the world. This morning’s class, called “Knife Skills with Jay Harlow,” is one of Ramekins’ hands-on classes, in which the students–both men and women, mostly non-professional, ranging in age from fresh-faced teens to seasoned seniors–are invited to work side by side with the instructor, sharpening their skills while preparing a complete meal in the school’s bright, light-filled kitchen.

Harlow’s class–now chopping and slicing and sizzling and simmering its way to an end, just in time for lunch–is today’s morning offering; across the hall, in the gorgeous demonstration kitchen-theater, author Michele Anna Jordan is already at work preparing for her sold-out afternoon session, titled “Risotto for Winter.” As Harlow congratulates his students on a job well done, they return the compliment with a warm round of applause.

Then it’s out to the dining room to taste the fruits of their labor.

In the kitchen: Steve Mailho sniffs a sauce while Jay Bolton looks on.

A RAMEKIN–as any self-respecting foodie will tell you–is a small fluted French baking crock, great for baking but most commonly used, these days, to hold butter and jam. They are inexpensive devices, unpretentious, handy and useful, lightweight and easy to pick up and carry with you. As metaphors go, the simple ramekin was a perfect, if not immediately obvious, symbol of Brangham’s user-friendly vision for the new school. That the funny little word bears an auditory resemblance to the term “rammed”–as in “rammed-earth” architecture–added rhyme and reason to Brangham’s decision to name the place Ramekins.

Located in downtown Sonoma–in the midst of the wine country–the school has seen a dramatic increase in applicants from outside the area. According to culinary director Bob Nemerovski, only about a third of Ramekins’ students are from Sonoma County, with another third hailing from Marin County and San Francisco and “parts south of San Jose.”

The remaining students are, basically, from everywhere else, a development that Brangham and Nemerovski never expected, but prepared for just in case. Along with the school and the classes, priced at $40 and up, Ramekins’ other attraction is a plush five-room bed-and-breakfast operation–including a regal chef’s suite for visiting celebrities–located in the upstairs portion of the building, arrived at via a typical Brangham invention: a stairway with a spindled banister made of green wooden asparagus stalks. Throughout, every detail giggles whimsy as it whispers elegance.

“Well, we believe in treating people well,” says Nemerovski.

The bivalved heart of Ramekins, of course, is the twin kitchen facility, where chefs such as Mollie Katzen, John Ash, Gary Danko, Narsai David, Mark Miller (Coyote Cafe) and Joyce Goldstein have blended their expertise with Nemerovski’s distinct philosophy; namely, that a cooking class should be part education, part entertainment–and should always end with really good food. “Since putting out our second catalog of classes,” Nemerovski says, “there are very few chefs who, when I call to invite them to teach at Ramekins, say, ‘Who? What’s Ramekins?’ Now they just say, ‘When should I be there?'”

“IT’S A WONDERFUL PLACE, a wonderful facility,” says Harlow, getting the buffet line to dish up the chow his class just created: sautéed chicken breasts with Madeira sauce, classic minestrone, and tossed green salad. Dessert will be served later by Ramekins’ attentive staff of helpers, under the direction of assistant manager and host Andrea Koweek, now busy pouring wine, red and white, at each of the students’ dining tables. Harlow, who’s been teaching at Ramekins since it first opened, is clearly enamored of the place. “Some cooking schools, especially those aimed at professional chefs, are very stuffy,” he says. “But Ramekins is organized with the belief that cooking should be fun. Ask anyone who was here today. These people had fun.”

That is immediately obvious. Throughout the enormous, peak-ceilinged dining room–packed with such Brangham touches as a hearth-side coffee table with many large bananas reclining under the glass top–the energy level is that of a rock concert crowd immediately after the show. “I’m just grateful I didn’t cut myself,” laughs Jeff Williams, one of the “Knife Skills” students, now carrying his plate to a nearby table. “I always feel exhilarated after a class,” says Nancy Vizi, who counts herself as a Ramekins regular. “I love it. Afterwards, I don’t want to stop talking about how much fun it is.”

Brangham stops in to chat with Harlow, and makes sure to quiz the students on their experience. Then she makes a shocking confession. “I love food, but I don’t know how to cook,” she admits with a laugh. “I have a few more projects on the table; then I’ve promised myself I’m going to take a few cooking classes myself.”

Photograph by Michael Amsler

TODAY’S morning class, with its even blend of male and female students, is fairly typical of Harlow’s past offerings. “Jay gets a good mix of men and women,” says Koweek, who elaborates, “We’re getting more and more husband-and-wife teams coming in for classes, though pastry classes still tend to skew female while sausage-making workshops always tend to skew male.”

Adds Nemorovski, “This one guy came in recently and said, ‘All right, I don’t know who you are, I’ve never been here before, but I’m glad my wife is interested in you rather than in Ricky Martin. She left your catalog in the bathroom, she’s dog-eared the pages, and she’s circled the dates. I decided I’d better take the hint,’ and he bought those classes for her. Now they’re both big fans.”

Joanne Weir, host of PBS’ Weir Cooking in the Wine Country, is another big fan of Ramekins.

On-site this week for a special program–in which she worked with a dozen professional chefs, not Ramekins’ main clientele, but a group that was instantly enamored of the school’s facilities–has taught at the school a number of times. “Aside from the staff and the facility itself,” she says, “I always find that the students are almost always just wonderful. They are savvy and intelligent, and they are interested and eager. And they are clearly here to have a good time.”

Weir, who’ll be back in March for a spring cooking class, has seen a strong national trend toward cooking schools, with many grocery store chains installing teaching facilities and running classes on the side. “It’s the next big thing in entertainment,” she says, “and Ramekins knows that.

“Above all, they know how to put on a really good show.”

Photograph by Michael Amsler

IT’S SHOW TIME in the demonstration theater, and the students–the audience–have taken their seats, three to a table, each table preset with cutlery, wine glasses, and packets of recipes and instructions. Every seat affords a clear view of the kitchen “stage”–with video monitors showing the stovetop and an overhead mirror revealing events on the counter–where Michele Anna Jordan, relaxed and happy after hours of prep work–“I tend to be ridiculously ambitious with my classes,” she says–is chatting with incoming folks as the Ramekins staff bustle about offering students iced tea and mineral water. Dean Martin sings from overhead. “Music is a very important part of the cooking process,” she jokes easily. “But you have to choose carefully. Either Dean Martin or Puccini are good for cooking risotto, while the Ramones are great when you have a lot of chopping and prep work.”

And the class begins.

Jordan, one could argue, is the purest embodiment of the food-education-entertainment trinity that rules the Ramekins philosophy. As she deftly prepares one risotto dish after another, from Golden Beet Risotto & Walnuts to Polenta Cakes & Warm Mushroom Vinaigrette to Grilled Pork Tenderloins with Apricot Risotto to Turkey & Cranberry Risotto, she dispenses pages of facts and cooking tips–“Always use an ice cream scoop to make your risotto cakes”–along with numerous witty observations: “Risotto is a Zen-like experience because you have to stand here and constantly stir it. It’s also useful for getting other people to do tasks you don’t want to do. ‘Honey, the cat just threw up. Could you get that? I’m making risotto.'”

Once Jordan has talked us through the making of Golden Beet Risotto, the kitchen staff whisks the food out of the room and promptly returns to serve it up to the students–along with more wine. The room is filled with fervent murmurs of mid-meal appreciation. Jordan loves it. This prep-and-joke-and-serve process is repeated several more times, with each dish she demonstrates, until at last, as the class ends–with the requisite round of applause–Jordan happily announces, “Once you’ve practiced a while, once you really know risotto, once you’ve learned the basic principles, you’ll be able to make risotto without ever looking at a recipe.

“Now . . . go do it.”

Fruits of their labor: Students savor the results of their cooking class.

BY ALL OUTWARD appearances, Ramekins seems to be on its way to further success, with long-distance plans to compile a Ramekins cookbook and a series of videos; there may even be a Ramekins cooking show somewhere down the line. Until then, Nemerovski is focusing on extending Ramekins’ good word of mouth, building on the school’s growing reputation as a full-on, must-experience wine country phenomenon. Nemerovski is doing so, he says, by fine-tuning the day-to-day details of keeping the place running smoothly and by paying attention to customers, every comment, good or bad.

“We’ve run nearly 500 classes in 18 months,” says Nemerovski, “with over 225 instructors. We’ve sold over 12,000 seats, and in that time we’ve had exactly five letters suggesting some little thing that we could do better. And in each case, we’ve made the appropriate changes. The main Ramekins rule is that basic rule of retailing,” he says, laughing. ” ‘Always assume you can do more to make your customers happy.’ And with a place like Ramekins, making people happy is a whole lot of fun.”

From the January 27-February 2, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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