It's 6:05 p.m. on a recent Thursday. Sixteen amateur chefs linger around three rectangular tables arranged in the dining room inside Astoria's Duncan Law Seafood Consumer Center. At the head of the table closest to the kitchen, John Newman, the executive chef and restaurant manager at Cannon Beach's Stephanie Inn, holds court, welcoming the throng and explaining tonight's menu, which the amateurs will prepare under his supervision.
Cooking class dinners have become heady affairs at the Seafood Center thanks to Donna Stone, the center's director, who also has arranged for appearances by Cathy Whims, the former co-owner and chef at Genoa in Portland, Seth Tucker from Ambrosia Restaurant in Seaside and Michael Henderson of Astoria's Home Spirit Bakery Cafe. All this in addition to Seafood School chef Eric Jenkins' regular class schedule (Jenkins has seven sessions remaining in 2003).
6:25 p.m. This night belongs to Newman, a 39-year-old chef who sports shaggy collar-length hair and is clothed in traditional cook's garb (white shirt, black slacks, two yellow towels tucked into a white apron). His engaging style makes for easy listening, and he's reviewing the ingredients for prawn risotto, Dungeness crab cakes and mushroom caps topped with Asiago cheese, all recipes from the "Stephanie Inn Cookbook." Some of the fixings - eggs, baby red potatoes, tomatoes, lemons, a small bowl of mustard and a huge block of Asiago - are arranged on another table, and bouquets of flowers decorate the room.
Eventually, Newman has participants pair off and solicits volunteers for varied tasks - chopping garlic, shiitakes, chives and parsley; cleaning and deveining the prawns; grating the Asiago cheese; picking shell bits from the crab meat; and concocting the aioli. He explains that the sequence is important: The garlic requires chopping before the aioli can be made, for example. Celebrated chef though he is, Newman's presence is amiable rather than imposing. "Let's have at it," he says, and everyone heads for the spacious, well-equipped kitchen.
6:45 p.m. Newman requests everybody's attention so that he can demonstrate how to make the aioli. He allows students to crack the eggs, whisk the yolks, squeeze the lemons and add the oil. Anyone who felt intimidated earlier now appears self-assured.
7 p.m. The kitchen's a beehive of activity. Folks who were previously unacquainted are on a first-name basis (name tags help). "Brenda's doing a demo," Newman shouts above the dim as she deveins the prawns. He high-fives Laurie after she wipes off the blade of a foot-long, white-handled chef's knife, then explains to Dixie how to begin heating and reducing two types of oil.
"When you're eating food, texture is key," says Newman. "Frying adds texture," he adds while adjusting the heat levels on the stove. "Want to hand me a couple of basil leaves?" he asks Vern, then cautions everyone to stand back as he tosses one in the saute pan. The basil cracks, pops and hisses as it hits the scalding oil. "I've never seen that," Harriet says. "Now I know what to do with basil before it goes bad," she adds while removing individual leaves from the pan with cooking tongs. "Watch out!" she yells and tosses in another basil leaf.
7:30 p.m. Mollie, Dixie, Jim, Candy, Therese and Harriet sample the reduced balsamic vinegar from a pan beside the cooking oil. "It's like balsamic vinegar taffy," proclaims Harriet. Rita ladles crab mousse into a stainless mixing bowl. Newman helps with the seasonings, adding pinches of salt, pepper and a couple dashes of lemon juice, then places a huge colander filled with button mushrooms on the serving counter. "You guys have done an outstanding job in preparation for cooking," he says.
7:45 p.m. "How much garlic?" Debbie asks as she tosses sliced shallots and minced garlic into a pan. "There's never enough garlic," Laurie responds. "Are we smelling the shallots and garlic? Time to add the prawns," Newman says. He motions Candy over to the stove and asks her to add a little white wine.
"Now we're going to start our risotto with a couple tablespoons of butter in another of our pans," continues Newman. Debbie totes over bags of arborio rice, and Newman has her carefully pour the rice into two pans. "Now we need wine and water," says Newman. "We're going to add three rounds of liquid, and it'll be done." Sharon stirs one pan; Vern another.
8:04 p.m. "Oh that smells so good," Laurie says after taking over stirring duties from Sharon. Meanwhile, Brenda pours more water into Vern's pan. "We're coming to the end here," says Newman, then asks Jim to check the potatoes. Colleen is busy placing prawns on the broiler. Bill watches intently as Debbie scoops crab cakes on to the grill. "When they're thick it helps to contain the moisture," Newman says, "but you can flatten them down if you want."
8:18 p.m. "Take those potatoes out of the oven, then we're going to plate up," Newman announces. He inspects the prawns and pronounces them a tad dry. "We'll put them in a bowl and add a little butter. Now lets throw those crab cakes in the oven," he says and asks for volunteers to spread 18 plates across the counter.
8:29 p.m. "We got mushrooms, we got grated cheese, we got shiitakes," Newman says and scurries to the other side of the counter. "Out of the chef's way," Sharon says while running interference. "Let's plate the risotto and everyone can sit down and eat," Newman says. It's tricky cooking, plating and instructing simultaneously, but he's up to the task. "Faster! Faster!" Dixie shouts encouragingly, then helps gather more plates of mushrooms and arranges them on the three tables. As the mushroom plates disappear from the counter, 18 platters take their place. "Michael Jordan plays above the rim, we play inside the rim," Newman says while filling rimmed molds atop each platter with risotto. Therese dribbles olive oil into the molds, then Newman removes them and garnishes each serving with a prawn.
8:37 p.m. "OK, we gotta get this going," says Newman. Crab cakes come out of the oven, and he demonstrates how to decorate the platters with a squiggle of balsamic vinegar and a squirt of a mustard mixture. "It's gorgeous!" says Mollie as a crab cake is placed on each platter.
8:41 p.m. People are finally sitting down. Newman makes last-minute adjustments to the risotto servings.
8:44 p.m. Newman finally takes a seat - first time tonight. "You guys are outstanding!" he yells. "You should open a restaurant in Astoria." Everyone cheers. He flashes his boyish smile and momentarily excuses himself to attend to some detail. "I think this is a good crowd," he says, then adds, "I like the aspect of imparting info. It's a nice way to get out of the kitchen."
Postscript: "There are folks here from Yakima to Los Angeles," says Donna Stone, the Seafood Center director. "John is so personable. You can tell he likes teaching." Because Newman graciously served us before sitting down again, Stone and I enjoy our own portions of prawn risotto, crab cakes and mushroom caps topped with Asiago.
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