About three and a half hours into a cooking class at Chateau Chantal in Traverse City, Mich., I'm stirring mushroom risotto with my right hand and finally holding a glass of late-harvest Riesling with my left. "No wine before it's time," the 17 other students and I had been told when we sat down earlier for introductions at the winery's Winter in Tuscany course. And it's not time until all the dicing and slicing is done and the knives are put away. Probably wise.
The wine is a perk of learning to cook on Traverse City's Old Mission Peninsula, where grapevines dot the hilly landscape alongside the area's famed cherry trees. But I'm really here to pick up some pointers in a city that's been hailed one of the best foodie towns by media such as Bon Appetit and championed by its unofficial cheerleader, chef Mario Batali, who has a home here. During a January trip, he tweeted about Frenchies, a tiny yet character-heavy shop beloved by locals for its pastrami.
Class themes at Chateau Chantal change (Spanish techniques and handmade pastas are a couple to come), and mine comprises recipes mostly from chef-educator Nancy Krcek Allen's time in Tuscany. Before splitting us into three teams of six, she gives a quick lesson on the region's cuisine, calling it "less flamboyant than the rest of Italy."
Nervous that my elementary cooking skills will have me lost before we get started, I'm relieved when she shows us basic knife-sharpening and cutting techniques. Good thing, because I couldn't have told you what fennel looked like, let alone how to cut it.
Then, armed with recipes for three bruschetta, three salads, risotto, focaccia, stuffed pork loin and three biscotti, we get started with Krcek Allen and two other chefs there to give tips, answer questions and make sure we don't burn anything. Each team prepares variations of the same meal. On team one, for example, I start by zesting lemons to flavor biscotti while the other teams work on lemon-anise and almond flavors.
I spend the next four hours contributing small parts to my team's dishes, such as working on our mis en place for the pork's roasted vegetable sauce and, as mentioned, stirring the risotto, during which the vocal Krcek Allen pops up behind me to say, "That's kind of a girly way to stir it."
I never make a dish by myself from beginning to end, but I find the team setup more fun and less intimidating. We leave with all the recipes so I can put my sharpened stirring skills among others to the test at home.
In the end, we sit down to enjoy our efforts, made all the better by views to the east and west of Grand Traverse Bay, conversation with some new acquaintances, and of course, a couple more glasses of Chateau Chantal wine.