Instead of staying home to watch the Academy Awards last Sunday, I ventured out into the cold to attend a cooking class. The class was being taught by Julien Charvet, an experienced French chef who hails from Avignon in France’s Provence region.
For the past few years, Chef Charvet has been traveling with his white chef’s jacket (and, this trip, his son) to Newport, Rhode Island, to teach cooking classes. The classes are held in late February/early March and August at the adorable food shop Le Petit Gourmet. Maria Chiancola, a lively entrepreneur with tons of personality, hosts the classes. She owns both Le Petit Gourmet and the adjoining Newport Wine Cellar (and also happens to be an English professor). Maria regards her business as not only purveying specialty food and wines but also creating an educational center where people can gather and learn. Chef Charvet’s classes are one of several series offered at Newport Wine Cellar throughout the year.
I learned about these classes, not as you might expect during my travels in New England, but instead when recently in Avignon. There I had the opportunity to observe Chef Charvet in action at the Les Halles d’Avignon food market while he taught children how to cook crêpes with several fillings, how to tweeze bones from salmon, and how to shop in the food market.
His easy-going nature, good humor, and patience make him equally adept at working with children as with adults. He instructs, but he also jokes and encourages. Everyone is expected to participate. Seeing me behind my camera once again, he told me, “This time you’re going to cook!”
The menu he planned for us in Newport was a 3-course meal with a Provençal theme: A first course of fish soup with garlic toasts spread with Marseillaise rouille, followed by sole meunière atop short stacks of steamed potatoes, and ending with a traditional French Galette des Rois. All this was accompanied by a Provençal rosé which was expertly chosen–and liberally poured–by Maria.
His first instruction (which I appreciated) was that all ten of us students should wash our hands. Then we donned red aprons and bellied up to a place at the rectangular wooden table. Able assistants had already lined up the cutting boards and ingredients. A basket was piled high with potatoes, onions, garlic, lemons, and herbs. A couple platters held large whole fish gleaming silver and red.
With a nod to the many sticks of butter and a tall bottle filled with olive oil, Chef Charvet explained that the cuisine of northern France relies on butter and cow’s milk cheeses, while the cooking of southern France reflects the Mediterranean influence of olive oil and goat’s milk cheese instead. Our recipes would incorporate both styles.
We started to chop, dice, and sauté. The small room quickly filled with tantalizing aromas of sautéed onion and garlic. Chef Charvet roamed around to oversee everyone’s progress and suggest cooking tips. Of particular interest to me were his instructions on how to filet a fish.
“Don’t move the knife in a back-and-forth sawing action,” he demonstrated. “Instead, gently push the blade against the flesh with a steady movement, and it slides off easily.” Sure enough, it did.
We traded turns at whisking copious amounts of olive oil into egg yolks and mashed potato to form the rouille sauce. Several of us (okay, mostly me) muttered as our upper arm strength flagged. Of course when he stepped in briefly to take command of the whisk, he made it seem effortless. The wire spokes spun around the bowl at superhuman speed with supreme evenness of stroke. His example fortified us to take another turn and hush the bellyaching.
Chef Charvet managed to keep his eyes on many activities and people at once, which is surely one basic requirement of a chef who needs to multitask. Frequently he would inspect our efforts and erupt with a “Magnifique!” or “C’est parfait!”
He also sprinkled in some of his personal cooking philosophy. He decides what to cook based on which ingredients look freshest and most appealing at the market. For fruits and vegetables, he is uncompromising about eating them only in season. “I wouldn’t even think of eating strawberries in February. Why would I?”
We switched off tasks and could try our hand at whatever we wanted. At one end of the table, students focused on slicing potatoes into even discs. At the other end, we cut rounds of puff pastry, mixed almond flour with sugar, eggs, and butter, and brushed the tarts with a light veneer of egg yolk.
After all the preparations were completed and the knives put at rest, stools were pulled out so we could comfortably gather around the wooden table which transformed from work bench to dining table. All our efforts were well rewarded as we feasted upon the meal that we had created. Each course was delicious.
(I ate the entire Galette des Rois before remembering to take a picture.)
By the time I got home, the Oscars were still on (running late, of course). I didn’t care that I had missed most of the awards and all of the Red Carpet gaping extravaganza, which I don’t like anyway. My head hit the pillow and I dreamt of Provence.
Chef Julien Charvet, known as the “Concept Chef,” leads cooking classes and workshops (for children, adults and special group events) in Avignon.
Newport Wine Cellar and Le Petit Gourmet are located at 24-26 Bellevue Avenue, Newport, RI 02840. Phone 401-619-3966. For a list of their cooking classes, go to their website.