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Chowdown With Chowhound

By Curtis Cartier

IN A LARGE window-lit kitchen in Aptos, seven apron-sporting men and women survey a banquet of fresh ingredients in front of them. Farro grains, shallots, rhubarb, chicken breasts, chanterelle mushrooms, scallops, strawberries, butter, heavy cream and a handful of spices fill measuring cups and ramekins. Interrupting the happy din of the chatting guests, the owner of the home, a short but commanding brunette named Denise Ward, addresses them one by one.

"Solmaz and Lisa, I want you two over here," she says, pointing to a countertop with crushed almonds and chicken breasts on it. "Mike, will you chop these? Curtis, can you squeeze the lemons?" In short order we're chopping, slicing, dicing and sautéing with assembly-line efficiency. For most of the attendees, this isn't the first Chowhound cooking class they've taken with Ward. But for me, a great lover of victuals but a blank slate in terms of formal culinary training, it most certainly is.

For around $80 per class, Ward promises to teach students how to cook "simple food that is beautiful, fresh and, most of all, tasty." Though the preparation work begins promptly upon arrival, the pace is decidedly relaxed, as guests are immediately equipped with tumblers of chardonnay along with their kitchen knives, ladles and tongs. Ward is a flurry of activity, gently correcting rookie mistakes while making sure that the end product—a four-course meal for 10—is done on time. On the menu tonight: pan-seared scallops with chanterelle and parsley farro, almond-crusted chicken breast with spinach and for dessert, strawberry rhubarb crumble.

After proving my worth squeezing lemons, I'm given the enviable task of sautéing the farro seed, which is a type of wheat that cooks into a mealy starch not unlike risotto. My stirring methods are subpar, however, and an eager student soon snatches away my spatula. Right about then, though, the wine arrives. Jerold O'Brien, a tall, wizardly man with a toothy smile and a thunderous laugh, is the owner and founder of Silver Mountain Vineyards near Los Gatos. An occasional partner with Ward and her Chowhound class, he has brought wine to accompany each dish, plus a few extra bottles for good measure.

Dinner eventually comes out in four delicious courses, including a cheese plate. And after the two hours it takes to consume the food, the wine and the progressively animated stories of O'Brien, I head home, slowly digesting the first-class grub and the first-rate lessons I've been served.

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