Make it a day, an evening or a mini vacation. Any way you mix it up, Northern Michigan cooking classes offer culinary enlightenment and a peek into our explosive food scene. Read on for a taste of a Chateau Chantal Winery and Inn class, paired with the region’s menu of classes and demonstrations. See the original spread in the March 2015 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Bon appétit!
A wintery meringue enfolds the vineyard that rolls outside the expansive and elegant dining room windows at Chateau Chantal Winery and Inn on Old Mission Peninsula. Clouds whipped by 25-mile-an-hour gusts smokescreen the views of the vineyard and East and West Grand Traverse Bays, then part, suddenly pouring lemony sunshine over the entire scene. Inside, colanders of cilantro, cloves of garlic and bowls of chili peppers sit on the stainless steel counter of the gleaming, open kitchen and infuse the air with the promise of the meal to come. As the eight couples seated in a semi-circle in the inn’s elegant dining room agree, this is the right place to be on a winter day.
Longtime friends all, many of whom are dentists, they make this cuisine pilgrimage annually from cities all over Michigan. The tradition began seven years ago when Muskegon pediatric dentist Connie Verhagen gave her husband, Mike Cerminaro (also a dentist), a Christmas gift of a cooking class at the chateau, called I Love Meat. It seemed made for Mike. Friends from Grand Blanc, Dan and Karen Briskie joined them. The class was to be taught by renowned Northern Michigan cooking instructor and author Nancy Allen. At the last minute Nancy had to cancel so her assistant, Lynne Brach stepped in.
The couples loved their experience. But then, what’s not to love? After an afternoon of learning, cooking and eating the fruits of their labor (paired with house wines) the friends tottered back to their cushy rooms in blissful food comas. The two couples spread the word to friends who were also food aficionados, and by the next year they’d gathered a large enough group to book most of the inn’s rooms, and commanded enough clout to choose their own cuisine topic. Connie ticks them off by year: I Love Meat, Winter in Tuscany, Italian Pasta and Sauces, Spanish Paellas, Greek Cuisine, Asian, (all taught by Nancy Allen) and this year, Mexican Cuisine. The glaring hole in this culinary repertoire is French, Connie concedes. But happily, there is always next year.
Unfortunately, today Nancy Allen has had to cancel for just the second time in seven years (although all of the day’s recipes will be from her cookbook, Discovering Global Cuisines: Traditional Flavors and Techniques). But Lynne is here to back up Chef Geoffrey Jones, an instructor at the Northwestern Michigan College’s Great Lakes Culinary Institute. Geoffrey’s assistant for the afternoon, Jesus Garcia, moved here from Mexico to attend the culinary school and also works at Osorio Tacos y Salsas in nearby Williamsburg.
All photos: Todd Zawistowski
Geoffrey’s teaching style is quietly authoritative mixed with a sprinkling of dry humor and a hint of seduction—the latter in the form of the Mexican ingredients he passes around the group for a sniff or taste. There are aromatic bags of dried epazote (also called Mexican tea), hoja santa (sacred leaf), the intense Mexican variety of oregano, chile guajillo and chile ancho, a tub of rich mole and the fresh pungency of nopales (prickly pear cactus) pads. And the pièce de résistance: homemade vanilla extract that Geoffrey made by soaking vanilla beans in a half bottle of vodka. “Pour the rest of the bottle in a glass of orange juice,” he quips.
After a brief history of native Mexican foods and a genuflection to the wonders of lard, Geoffrey demonstrates how to prepare a nopales pad by laying it flat and using a sharp knife to slice off the spines. Next, donning plastic gloves, he shows the proper technique for coring and de-seeding a habanero pepper. Two deft chops later, the ends have flopped onto the chopping board, and Geoffrey is slicing the body quickly down the middle, then scooping out the core and seeds—explaining that gloves are a must given that the seeds are hot enough to leave burns on your skin.
Knowing this group of seasoned culinary class pupils is ready to get their hands dirty, Geoffrey moves quickly to outlining the day’s menu. The steamy lineup of 15 different dishes runs from Camarones (shrimp) con Sundried Tomato Mole, Nopales en Chipotle Adobo (cactus in chipotle dressing) to sweet, crunchy churros (a kind of fried doughnut shaped like barrel cactus). But it’s the goat tacos that Mike, Dan Briskie, Steve Harris and Christina Carlson head to make, when the group divides into four teams to begin cooking the recipes. Wielding a glinting knife at his teammates, Steve makes the requisite You Got My Goat joke, and the adventuresome four are off dicing up a hunk of what Geoffrey had explained was once a huge hind quarter until it was put under the butcher’s saw.
The rest of the group fans out to the other three cooking stations, dividing into teams with an easy camaraderie. The room fills with the murmur of soft conversation and the sounds of chopping, slicing, sautéing and frying. Even after the smoke alarm shrills—set off by chilis roasting on a small portable gas grill—the cooking continues quietly. As the windows fog and the scents from bubbling pots melt into the air, Chateau Chantal employee Maribel Gutierrez moves quietly through the scene, collecting dirty utensils and mixing bowls, wiping counters … performing the ultimate cooks’ luxuries. Meanwhile, the chateau’s wine specialist, Mike Dubois, slips in quietly to open bottles of house wines—Beguile Champagne, Naughty White and Nice Red—to let them breathe in time for dinner. But no wine sipping yet! House rule number one: drinking is prohibited until all the knives are put away.
Raucous laughter from the goat station breaks the quiet. The team’s chopping is done, their knives are put away and it’s time for Mike, Dan, Steve and Christina to toast the goat by raising a glass of cabernet. The other teams aren’t far behind: At station one, the pork butt that will become Tacos de Puerco y Papas al Guarjillo is simmering in its blended and strained chili sauce, and the churros have been deep fried until they are toasty brown and sprinkled with sugar. Team II has chicken stewing in Oaxacan green mole and Team III has chicken and pozole (hominy) soup bubbling and the camarones (shrimp) cooking in a sauce of tomatoes and vinegar flambéed with tequila—all combined with a mix of pine nuts, almonds, sesame seed, two fried tortillas and peppers that Walt Franke, a dentist in nearby Frankfort, has patiently ground using a mortar and pestle.
The group is nearing the goal: the banquet-sized, walnut table set for 16 at the back of the room. By 4:30 in the afternoon, bowls and platters of food are moving from the stations to a side table. A couple of group photos (Say teeth!) and an Irish grace called out by Mark Fitzgerald and it’s time to dig in: “Good bread, good meat, good God, let’s eat!”
Cooking Class Venues
Chateau Chantal, Traverse City
Classes run from 12:30 to 4:30 pm and are $95 per person. Lodging packages that include a cooking class start at $275 per person based on double occupancy.
- April 4: Relish, Chutney or Compote
- April 11: Spring in France
- May 2: Sauces
Crooked Tree Arts Center, Petoskey
Traverse City 231.941.9488
For 10 years, this arts hub of Petoskey has offered a culinary series in fall and winter with area chefs as instructors. The nonprofit organization is also hoping to offer cooking classes in Traverse City when it opens there. Stay tuned for details posted by September 1, 2015.
The Cooks’ House, Traverse City
The Cooks’ House classes are on Saturday mornings and run $65 per person. Private classes for up to groups of 10 run $100 per person.
- April 25: Easy Mexican Foods
- Saturdays, June 6-July 18: Shop with the chefs at the Traverse City Farmers Market, then cook local food back at The Cooks’ House!
The Homestead, Glen Arbor
231.334.5150 (call to register)
The Homestead’s resident, bona fide Italian chef John Piombo gives knockout cooking demonstrations throughout the year. This spring’s demonstrations will focus on fruits of the winter melt—leeks, morels and asparagus. Reserve a room and make it a weekend. May 2 and May 9. Demonstrations are $50.
Fustini’s, Traverse City & Petoskey
Traverse City: 231.944.1145
The purveyor of imported artisanal olive oils and vinegars naturally loves to share ways to cook with them. Find classes in Traverse City and Petoskey stores. Kitchen renovation in progress! Check back for the spring lineup.
March 28: Greek cooking demo, 2-4 pm followed by an interactive demo at 4 pm.
Grow Benzie, Benzonia
Find cooking and cooking/gardening classes throughout the year. Check out the calendar.
Les Cheneaux Culinary School, Hessel
This new cooking school on the Lake Huron shore offers a summer of 3-hour classes that run from $40 to $50 an hour. Here’s a taste:
- May 24: Knife Skills
- May 25: Italian Pasta Making
- May 31: Summer Cocktail Party Appetizers and Drinks
Martha’s Leelanau Table, Suttons Bay
Classes are scheduled upon request at this cozy Suttons Bay bistro that Mario Batali has called out as one of his favorite Northern Michigan restaurants. Themes generally come from Martha’s travels in France, Spain, Italy (most recently Sicily) and other destinations. This year Martha is headed to Greece to learn about their culinary culture. Classes range 6–12 students at $125 per person.
Oliver Arts Center, Frankfort
This renovated former Coast Guard station on the Lake Michigan shore in Frankfort is within walking distance of lodging, shopping, dining and one of the best beaches on the Great Lakes. The 2015 lineup looks red hot (restaurateur Joe Muer is cooking June 24 and July 22!) Classes run 2K hours and are $55 for nonmembers ($45 members).
- Every third Tuesday, April 21–Oct. 20: Global Cooking
- June 24 & July 22: Fish and Seafood
- July 15: Hors d’oeuvres and Michigan Wine Pairings
- July 29: Indian Appetizers
- August 19: Sauces
Northwestern Michigan College Extended Education, Traverse City
NMC’s extended ed classes are taught in a fabulously equipped kitchen in the Oleson Center, tucked into the college’s wooded campus near downtown Traverse City—lodging and entertainment abounds nearby. Most (but not all) classes meet for two hours on weekday evenings and run $65 to $89. Here’s the March 2015 lineup:
- March 25: Street Food at Home
- March 28: Sushi Rolls
Oryana Natural Foods Market, Traverse City
Traverse City’s longtime bastion of organic, healthy eating is doing its part, educating classes of up to 12 students with its roster of talented instructors. Classes take place Friday evenings at Grace Episcopal Church, 341 Washington St. The cost is $35 ($30 for members).
- April 10: The Route to India
- April 17: Juicing for Health
Red Mesa Grill, Boyne City
231.582.0049, email for more info: firstname.lastname@example.org
Chefs from Northern Michigan’s longtime hub of Latin cooking demonstrate how to make signature dishes. Classes are Saturday afternoons, $15 per person.
- March 28: Tamales
- April 23: Mexican Sauces