In the kitchen with Alba

There's more cooking at Westwood Unique Furnishings & Antiques than meets the eye. Wander past the antique chests and art deco lamps to the back of the shop, and customers might be surprised to see a large kitchen fully stocked with pots and pans and plenty of spatulas for serving hearty meals. And that's exactly what the kitchen is used for.

For the past three years, Westwood's owner, Ingrid Melber, has turned over her shop's large back kitchen to her friend and personal chef, Alba Johnson, on Friday nights for Mediterranean cooking classes.


Mostly self-trained, Johnson specializes in the country cooking of Italy, where she was born, and North Africa, where she was raised.

The more rustic the recipe the better. That's why cooking classes in an antique shop are practically perfect.

"This is more like being welcomed into someone's house. It's kind of like having a dinner party, really," says Johnson, who came to the United States as a teenager. She's standing in front of the granite-topped island, washing vegetables as she prepares an antipasto plate of sliced tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and thin slices of mortadella and Genoa salami.

She's expecting eight "guests" for class on this particular evening. People start to trickle in and settle in on the stools around a long table. They won't be seated for long, despite the bread and olives on the table, and frosty pitchers of water with lemon and orange slices bobbing among the ice cubes. Johnson teaches a real cooking class, which means guests take turns slicing the onions and browning the pancetta for one of the night's dishes, a Tuscan meat sauce. She plans to demonstrate three sauces with accompanying pasta, plus make a salad and a dessert.

Her helper students are Dustin and Kimberly Musser, who have begun to make their own pasta and want to learn new sauce recipes. Suki Lee, manager of Howard County Library's East Columbia branch, and her friend Sue Hoyson, from Highland, join the activity. Lee confesses to being a takeout kind of woman, but "I've just started to learn how to cook," she admits.

Hoyson rarely eats out.

"I'm probably the only woman in Columbia who cooks every night," she says. "So I'm always looking for new recipes."

Elaine Parsons, a longtime friend of Melber's, who also helped to get the classes started three years ago, won't escape orders from Johnson. She gets a lesson in just how to small-dice a few Chinese eggplants.

"I always use the Chinese kind," says Johnson. "They don't have the bitterness of the large ones."

Another lesson. The night is full of these little culinary gems, and they slide into the conversation as easily as pasta off a fork.

Questions are encouraged: "How do you know if you have really good olive oil?" one participant asked.

According to Johnson, "Look for unfiltered first, then extra-virgin. Anything after that, don't buy it, because they don't have the omegas that you need from it."

Then she does something that startles a few seasoned cooks in the room. She pours a generous amount of pinot grigio into a bowl of ground beef and pork. After it marinates, someone will brown the mixture in a large skillet on a back burner.

"Don't over-stir the meat while it's cooking," warns Johnson. "Otherwise you're just warming it. The meat or the fish will tell you when you need to turn it."


So that's been the problem all along.

Another question: How do you tell when the oil is warm? "When it starts to look like the ocean," says the chef.

"Technique is what makes the difference between a great dish and a mediocre dish," says Johnson.

There's even a technique to how she drains her pasta, which Dustin Musser perfects during the class.

"I watch a lot of Master Chef," he quips, referring to the intense cable TV cooking show.

Johnson also says that one shouldn't follow the recipe to the letter all the time. Every stove and oven is different.

The first sauce, of arugula, red onions and ricotta, is mixed into some pasta, and everyone serves themselves. It only takes one bite to make Lee commit to more cooking lessons.

"I'm hooked. I'll be back," she says, as she scoops up another forkful of the colorful dish.

"You should be able to taste every ingredient you eat," says Johnson.

Melber, who opened Westwood 18 years ago, handles the registration for the classes with help from her assistant, Teresa Moller. This way Johnson can focus on what she does best -- developing new dishes and writing cookbooks. She promises to never repeat a recipe in the same location.

The chef was recently selected to become a member of the Washington, D.C., chapter of Les Dames d'Escoffier, an international women's culinary-based organization. Julia Child was a member,  and so is Carla Hall, a "Top Chef" finalist and owner of a gourmet cookie company.

Perhaps one day Johnson may also be too busy to cook, but until then she's stirring up food, and friendship, in the kitchen at Westwood.

Johnson's upcoming classes at Westwood include "Contorni Nuovi (new sides) for the Holidays" Nov. 11, "The Feast of the 7 Fishes" Dec. 9 and "The Secret of Spices" Jan. 27.

For more information, go to the shop's website, www.westwoodunique.com, or call 410-531-4831.

Johnson also teaches cooking classes through Howard County's Department of Recreation & Parks. She shares recipes on her website, EasyCookingwithAlba.blogspot.com.