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Get stuffed - Hands On

Adventures in gourmet cooking The Whistler Cooking School invites food lovers to laugh, learn, and get their aprons dirty Most of the people to walk through the doors of the Whistler Cooking School in the two weeks since Lauren Piper opened shop have

Adventures in gourmet cooking

The Whistler Cooking School invites food lovers to laugh, learn, and get their aprons dirty

Most of the people to walk through the doors of the Whistler Cooking School in the two weeks since Lauren Piper opened shop have no idea what goes on in there. After a short explanation and a quick tour of the facilities, however, they sign up for a class.

It’s a slow and nerve-wracking beginning for a new business owner, but gratifying all the same – from only a few curious visitors poking their heads in on their strolls through the village, every class has been a sell-out.

"The more people that understand what the school is all about, the more they like the idea," says Piper. "It’s not what they’re expecting, and it’s hard to explain. But once they get the idea, they’re in."

It’s kind of like an art class for food, only you get to eat your creation at the end of the lesson. And instead of learning from the same art instructor every week, your teachers are all the best artists of the Pacific Northwest.

The Whistler Cooking School is modeled after similar schools in the U.S., the most famous being The Cooking School of Aspen. The concept, as far as Piper knows, is the first of its kind in Canada.

The concept is also simple: bring in some of the most famous chefs in the Northwest, from the U.S., Lower Mainland and Whistler, and walk "students" through the preparation of a gourmet meal. Students are broken up into three or four groups of three or four people each and set up with their own stove, pots, pans, knives, cutting boards and ingredients.

The chef then walks the group through the preparation of the meal, sharing their experience and demonstrating the techniques that made them famous in the first place. All the while volunteer chefs walk around and help students. Each group can be making the same dish, or part of a multi-course dinner.

Once the class has finished preparing dinner, the whole class sits down to eat while the chef gives a lesson in pairing wines.

"Some people are keen to learn what they can, while others are just there to have some fun. Most of our customers so far have been couples, with no skills or knowledge whatsoever. And that’s great, because we’re giving people something to do with their evening that’s a little bit different and finishing it off with a gourmet meal. It’s supposed to be fun."

The lesson is generally less important than the delivery – most of the chef’s have been chosen because of their outgoing personalities and penchant for entertaining while they cook.

On Saturday (Feb. 10), the featured chef is Cameon Orel of the Yarrow Bay Beach Café. The lesson is A Personal Tour of Mexican Specialties. The dishes are the Ensalata Ceviche (marinated seafood cocktail), Chayote Rellenos, Pollo en Mole de Cacahuate served with a Mayan Corn Cake, and Flan de Leche for dessert.

On Tuesday (Feb. 13), it’s Chef Gordon Martin of Bin 941 and 942 in Vancouver and Hedonistic Feasting from the Bins — A Tapas Sampling. The dishes are Pan-Seared Duck Breast, White Chocolate-Chili John Cake with a warm Pancetta Frisee Salad, Toasted Basmati Rice-Crusted Salmon with Buttermilk and Fried Cauliflower Whipped Potatoes and Skillet Roasted SeaBass with a Lobster Fumet Potato Stack with a Plum Madagascar Peppercorn Glace – and that’s just a sampling of the sampling.

"It’s all really high-end stuff, and at the end of the lesson a really nice dinner to sit down to," says Piper.

Piper has acts booked straight through the end of April, including cookbook author and wine expert John Ash, Matt Costello of the famous Dahlia Lounge of Seattle, and Vicky McCaffree of the Waterfront Restaurant.

The do-it-yourself gourmet restaurant is only the tip of the iceberg. The Whistler Cooking School also stocks regional cookbooks and high-end grocery items. There’s a display counter stocked with pastry items and a freezer that Piper plans to fill with frozen hors d’ouevre and appetizers.

The school will also offer less expensive lunch sessions with house chef Julie Hauser, and team-building workshops, the first of which has already sold out.

"It’s a bit scary opening a business, but judging by the level of enthusiasm from local and regional chefs, I’m not going to have any trouble finding chefs or volunteers to work with," says Piper.

"That was my biggest concern. They want to sit in for the experience, to watch and learn, and because it’s fun for them too. They also get a bit of exposure for their own restaurants. I think some people do come to Whistler at least partly for the dining experience."

The cost of an Alpine Dinner Series is $129 per person, including the lesson, the food and the wine. At that introductory price, Piper says she is only covering her costs, but feels it is more important to get the word out than to make money at this point – that will come with the growing awareness of what the cooking school is and the unique experience it offers.

"And it’s a lot more fun than catering," says Piper.

After graduating from Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School, one of the oldest and most prestigious in North America, Piper worked as a caterer around New York and Connecticut for 10 years before getting into team training.

As a skier and mountain person, she landed in Whistler three years ago with an idea that she wanted to get back into food in some way or other.

"I’m very into food and regional cooking," says Piper. "I like to use local and organic ingredients whenever I can. I’m also part of the whole Slow Food movement."

The Slow Food movement is based on the premise that fast food is killing regional cuisine and the demand for exotic ingredients, while robbing families and friends of the social and nutritional benefits of home-style cooking.

With the amount of cooking talent she saw locally and regionally, and the number of high end tourists coming through Whistler, she thought it was an excellent place to set up this kind of school.

"I like to have a variety of different chefs, and to see so many different people doing different things out there. And the resort aspect is perfect – people are here to have fun and be entertained. It’s a very social evening."

So far the customers and chefs have been proving her right.

For more information on the Whistler Cooking School or a schedule of chef appearances, visit the Web site at www.whistlercookingschool.com.