Perhaps, like me, you've passed the cute, ivy-covered bistro-looking place with the Chez Cherie sign on Foothill Boulevard in La Cañada Flintridge and wondered, "Why is this never open? Where are the diners?"
Well, I'm here to tell you, on Tuesday nights, there are diners. Happy, well-fed, well-informed diners. That's because 12 or so lucky people are eating the class project, the result of their participation in a cooking demonstration led by chef and entertainer extraordinaire, Cherie Mercer Twohy.
Chef Cherie is a master of her craft, joining the ranks of Jacques Pepin and Julia Child as a Certified Culinary Professional, but she is also hilariously down to Earth, peppering her demonstrations with funny stories, scandalous asides and dozens of handy shortcuts. Though she's a big proponent of seasonal fare from local farmers markets, Cherie is not above shopping at Costco, Super King and her beloved Trader Joe's. In fact, she's the author of a popular series of cookbooks using ingredients from TJ's. She sells the books, as well as other hard-to-find culinary products, at the school (typically open on Tuesdays, but call any time). Overall, her philosophy is "make good food, simply" so you have more time to enjoy company, conversation and wine.
Speaking of wine, if it's your first time in class, one glass of wine is complimentary. Repeat visitors, of which there are many, know to bring a bottle of their own. "Chief Ambience Officer" Steve, who happens to be Cherie's husband, assists by placing stools on which to rest your glass while taking notes during the demonstration. The kitchen itself is not industrial, but more like a Tuscan kitchen in a swanky home. An overhead mirror and two monitors make it easy to see the action.
The evening I attended, Cherie and her assistant created no less than six delicious dishes. Watching them make a summer squash and tomato tart, I came to no longer fear puff pastry. The tart was done two ways: a complex basket weave design for "Type-A cooks to serve when Prince William, Katherine and the new baby come over" and a more free-form, conceptual design Cherie slyly describes as "rustic" or "artisan." Both came out of the oven looking gorgeous.
Next we were introduced to padron peppers, a specialty pepper that's harvested for only four weeks each summer. These were tossed in hot olive oil, sprinkled with Maldon flaky crystal salt and served with a garlic-smoked paprika creme fraiche. All class members are padron fans now.
With the gorgeous grilled salmon nicoise, we learned a number of useful things, e.g. how to choose a good salmon filet, how to test its doneness, how to properly hard-boil eggs, and how to cut an onion. The onion technique, which I will now use forever, is shown to every class. The tomatoes tapenade was a cornucopia of heirlooms, chosen by "heft, color and smell." The delicious corn chowda salad featured peppered bacon from Sprouts and freshly cut corn. The berry melon salad sparkled with fresh mint, ricotta salata (similar to feta) and that fragrant smoked paprika.
We ate all these colorful dishes in the dining room while chatting with our fellow students. Cherie came out after cleaning up to join in the fun and answer questions. Her easygoing nature engenders questions and her responses are useful to cooks of all levels of experience. Dessert was just a little something Cherie whipped up earlier in the day — bourbon peach ice cream with salted caramel sauce and ginger snaps.
The Chez Cherie website outlines upcoming classes, typically on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. Chez Cherie also hosts corporate team-building classes and leads culinary tours to Europe and elsewhere. But for a culinary adventure right here in town, check out Chez Cherie.
What: Chez Cherie Cooking School
Where: 1401 Foothill Blvd., La Cañada Flintridge
When: Schedule varies but generally Tuesday and Thursday at 6:30 p.m.
More info: (818) 952-7217, chezcherie.com
--LISA DUPUY welcomes comments and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.