The first day of Food University at Caesars Palace, about 40 dedicated foodies were busy trying on their brand-new, sparkling-white chef’s jackets, figuring out how to button them, taking bets on who will get theirs dirty first. Food U host Claudine Pepin—her very name is a culinary legacy—welcomed the inaugural class of students whose culinary expertise ran the gamut from established home cooks to those who don’t know their cumin from coriander. Consider this three-day concentration of cooking classes, tastings and tours a foodie fantasy camp for those who want to expand on their own cooking skills while rubbing elbows with some famous culinary talent.
Rich Gore, founder of Food University and former live event producer for Food Network, has overseen more than 300 events for the network. Gore wanted to do something more for the food enthusiast: for audiences to stop being mere spectators and become part of the action, creating an interactive arena where aficionados could have one-on-one time with established professionals.
The first class, as it would be in any culinary school, is Knife Skills. Beautiful, sharp Zwilling J.A. Henckels chefs’ knives sat at each station in the conference room, while Jeffrey Elliot, better known as “the Knife Guy” and author of the Complete Book of Knife Skills, stood in front as we all signed our waivers that say something like, “We promise not to sue if we accidently dismember ourselves.” Which could happen. About 10 minutes in, we needed our first Band-Aid. That’s how hands-on this is.
Following a crash course in how to chop, julienne and chiffonade, the class was split into color-coded groups, which rotated between the day’s classes. The four conference rooms were set up by students from the UNLV culinary school, and decked out with induction burners and new cookware. I popped into Frank Pellegrino Jr.’s Classic Italian class, where the friendly Rao’s owner talked us through not only how to make chicken cacciatore, but also how to prepare it to entertain guests in our homes. Mise en place for the dish—including crushed tomatoes, sliced bell peppers, onions, mushrooms and white wine—waited patiently for us as we enter. Suddenly, I was glad I skipped breakfast to have this as my first meal of the day.
“You look so serious,” the event photographer said to me as I furiously whisked three egg yolks in a metal bowl over the bain marie. “Hollandaise is serious business,” I replied without looking up. I knew that if I took my eyes off them even for a second, I could ruin my sauce in Sauces 101, taught by Alex Stratta, formerly of his namesake restaurants at Wynn and currently at Scarpetta at the Beverly Hills Montage. Like all the other “professors,” Stratta made it a point to examine each student’s work, offering praise or pointers as needed. For the notoriously difficult Hollandaise, it’s a fine line: Pour too much butter in too fast, or if your yolks are too hot when the butter hits, and your sauce will break, creating an oily mess. I heard echoes of “My arm is starting to get tired!” from around the room. This is a severe workout if you haven’t been keeping up with your Shake Weight regiment.
Day Two included learning about chocolate with chef François Payard, but the biggest education came from pastry chef Duff Goldman, owner of Charm City Cakes in Baltimore, and star of the Food Network’s Ace of Cakes. Goldman has been responsible for showing the world some of the most insane cake art ever seen, but on the second day of Food University, he showed us the basics of how to pretty-up our 6-inch round cakes. He did this while offering us his thoughts on the difference between pastry chefs and cooks, whom he affectionately referred to as “meat jockeys.” “Cooks are like guitar players,” Goldman explained as he crimped some fondant circles into the shape of a rose. “Everyone plays guitar. But not everyone can play the drums. Pastry chefs are like drummers. Take any pastry chef and give him some meat and see if he can make a burger. Now give any chef some flour and see if he can make a cake.” And with that, he placed a perfectly sculpted rose on the center of a student’s white fondant-covered sample.
The final day had worked us up to some lessons that proved to be most daunting for home cooks: working with vegetables, building flavors and cooking seafood. Hell’s Kitchen winner and head chef of Gordon Ramsay Steak Christina Wilson showed us how to bang out an intense tuna tartare with an avocado mousse, while explaining how to create foundations of flavor in all our dishes. Chef Patrick “Paddy” Glennon of Santa Monica Seafood proved that it’s totally possible to cook fish in your home without it smelling like fish (a big key? Don’t buy fish that smells like fish).
The two would later face off in a mystery basket challenge while the students cheered them on, only to end in a tie. When the graduation ceremony rolled around, nearly everyone was all smiles, holding up their newly minted certificate designating that they now have an “Enlightened Palate.”
I didn’t exactly get to unleash my inner Emeril Lagasse, but I certainly brushed up on my Julia Child at the direction of instructors who have actually worked with both. Somewhere between the cook-off and the certificate ceremony, Gore and Pepin beamed at each other. “Everything we set out to accomplish, we did,” Gore informed me, “I wanted them to get onto the playground. And into the next level of experience.”