Luckily for cooking enthusiasts, the owners of Savvy Gourmet, Magazine Street's only cooking school/cookware store/caterer and restaurant-in-one, are out to dispel the notion that cooking for your own dinner party and enjoying that get together are mutually exclusive. Among the many classes the business offers is "Dinner Parties Pronto," a recurrent favorite specifically designed to take the stress out of entertaining. The most recent version of that class -- Dinner Parties Pronto With Chef Lawrence: Summer Entertaining -- was taught by Chef Lawrence Dodds, a native of South Africa who's cooked in some of the top restaurants of England, including the Waterside Inn, which was given a three-star rating by the 2006 Michelin Guide.
Though Dodds' menu was ambitious -- an appetizer of chilled tomato consomm, followed by ceviche of salmon with sour cream and chives, an entre of rack-of-lamb (cutlets) with a tian of Mediterranean vegetables, fondant potato and balsamic shallot dressing, and a dessert of red wine and basil jelly with Ponchatoula strawberries and créme fraiche -- each student was supplied with a packet containing a detailed shopping list and a day-by-day break-down of do-ahead steps so they could duplicate the meal on their own.
"You should be able to pull off the exact menu at home and still be able to enjoy the party," says Savvy co-owner Peter Menge. "We want students to go home and put what they've learned to good use."
Founded in 2001 by Dr. Aaron Wolfson, a native New Orleanian with a then-fledgling psychology practice, Savvy began as a series of cooking classes out of Wolfson's home. As word of the classes spread, Wolfson held larger classes taught by some of the top chefs of New Orleans. In 2003, his friend and former classmate Peter Menge became a partner in the business and Savvy moved several times to take advantage of professional kitchens such as Lulu's in the Quarter and the larger Lulu's In The Garden on St. Charles Avenue. Last summer, Wolfson and Menge opened Savvy Gourmet's Magazine Street location, combining cooking classes, catering services, and a retail store in a state-of-the-art facility.
Previously home to Klein's Carpet Cleaning, the renovated, 4,500-square-foot building features concrete floors and counters, sleek track lighting, 18-foot vaulted ceilings, custom-made modular display units, a demonstration kitchen with a roomy island for students, and a larger kitchen originally intended for catering. After Katrina, as demand for restaurants grew, part of the loft-like space was turned into a restaurant that's open for lunch Monday through Saturday and brunch on Sunday. Since then, Savvy's main kitchen has been in perpetual motion. The concept of a combination cooking school and eatery is not a new one. Chef Susan Spicer's now-defunct Spice combined classes and restaurant fare as well. What sets Savvy apart, says Menge, is its focus on fun.
"At some point, I started to think of Savvy as an entertainment company," says Menge, who brought an MBA to the partnership. "It changed my whole outlook. If the goal is for somebody to have a good time, that was something I could relate to." Savvy's most captivating teachers are those who are part talented chef and part showman, at ease in front of an audience. "You have to keep the classes rolling, answer questions and cook food all at the same time," he says. "It's a special talent. It's hard to pull off."
Dodds' award-winning dishes, wry sense of humor, and friendly, non-intimidating interaction with students make him a natural for the genre. As wine was poured during the recent three-hour class, students clearly enjoyed themselves, laughing, sharing stories and observing the chef's culinary finesse. Some classes also include student participation, which, like the emphasis on entertainment, helps quell the fears that go along with trying to recreate an extraordinary dinner party menu at home. After the chef's presentation, students share the meal that's been prepared.
"There's a huge social aspect to our classes as well," says Menge. "In New Orleans, we tend to celebrate the milestones of life over dinner. So we're as much about coming together over the meal as we are about teaching the techniques."
After Dodds' class, students adjourned to a long, narrow wooden table (specially designed to foster conversation) where Savvy's publicist, Liz Goliwas, and her assistant, Erica Normand, created a summery tablescape using cookware and serving pieces sold in the store. Copper pots and wooden salad bowls filled with potted rosemary and dill lined the center of the table, stemless wine glasses doubled as votive holders, and shallow condiment dishes served as containers for tea lights that added a warm glow. At each place setting, a bundle of fresh herbs fastened with raffia and a garden stake was put to use as a place card.
"This is great for a dinner party because it's easy to do at home and because the herbs smell so good," says Normand. Equally inspiring for students looking for a fresh way to entertain was the chef's new spin on dishes typically seen in a more traditional form. Rather than serve ceviche as a chopped appetizer, Dodds served his as a filet; while his version of fondant potatoes, usually barrel shaped and poached/roasted in the oven, were biscuit shaped and cooked on top of the stove in a reduction so that the potatoes were eventually fried, resembling golden-browned créme brulees.
"Things that seem so mediocre in a restaurant seem so much more artistic and beautiful after seeing the chef's presentation," says Michael Harold, a local lawyer who's taken five of Savvy's classes. Dodds teaches that with the right preparation, students can create a dinner just as impressive on their own.
"Nothing I've done was complicated," the chef says. "It's just a lot of simple things done well."
BOX (can be inserted within the story copy if convenient) Savvy Party Planning Tips Decide on your menu, then go shopping. You can revise your menu if you can't find certain items.
Organize your food-preparation schedule according to which items can be made ahead of time. Start making these dishes about two to three days ahead of time and refrigerate or freeze them.
Decorating the table and dining room for your party is fun and really makes a difference. If your dining room can be closed off, set the table a few days ahead of time. Make sure you can keep kids and pets away from the set table.
Most important is to relax and have fun; if you're having fun, your guests will, too. Take time on the day of your party to take a stroll or get a massage, and have a glass of wine before your guests arrive.
RECIPE: Salmon Ceviche 8 oz. salmon, skinned and sliced into thin slices
4 oz. mixed lettuce leaves
2 lemons, juice and zest
2 oranges, juice and zest
1 clove of garlic, minced
1/2 c. dry white wine
2 Tbsp. white wine vinegar
1/2 c. olive oil
2 shallots, finely chopped
1 tsp. sea salt
Make sour cream by whisking 3/4 c. heavy whipping cream in a bowl with salt and pepper to taste until the mixture reaches a ribbon stage. Add 1 Tbsp. chopped chives and a squeeze of lemon juice and continue to whip until almost stiff. Set aside in refrigerator.
Place all ingredients listed above -- except the salmon, lettuce and sour cream -- in a bowl and mix well. Lay the salmon on a tray and cover with the marinade mixture. Cover and leave in a cool place for about 30 minutes. The salmon will change color as the curing process begins to work; the longer the salmon is in the marinade, the more cured it will be. To serve, season a small amount of lettuce, drizzle with some of the marinade and place a small pile in the middle of the plate. Take the marinated salmon slices and wrap around the lettuce. Shape sour cream into an oval using hot spoons and place on top of the lettuce. Drizzle with some more of the marinade.