This article is the online exclusive Business Wise column for the September 2010 issue of Chef.
The chef has become omnipresent in today's food-obsessed American culture, with an influx in recent years of celebrity chef appearances, cooking shows, chef-authored cookbooks and culinary products. The exposure has made many previously unknown chefs into household names and has undoubtedly helped fill seats at their restaurants. But the majority of chefs spend most of their days behind the stove rather than on camera, and--aside from an occasional pass-through in the dining room--few of them get the chance to regularly interact with customers. Cooking classes are a great marketing tool for those busy chefs looking to capitalize on the food movement and bring in new customers.
At Markethouse, a contemporary American restaurant that opened at the Doubletree Hotel in February 2009, executive chef Scott Walton started offering free cooking classes this summer to create buzz around his fledgling restaurant situated in a sea of distinguished Chicago eateries. "We did it to draw attention to the restaurant," he says. "Being a new restaurant in [the Streeterville neighborhood] and not having a lot of identity, we were trying to build our customer base in the neighborhood."
Chef Scott Walton shares some of his tips for preparing pork during one of Markethouse's complimentary summer cooking classes.
An education in farm-to-table
The three demonstration and Q&A classes covered pork selection and preparation, buying and cooking fresh seafood and working with seasonal produce from Markethouse's rooftop garden. Walton created the educational series to reflect the restaurant's farm-to-table cooking style, which celebrates Heartland flavors through a largely locally sourced menu. During the pork and seafood classes, he brought in the respective purveyors with whom he regularly works to answer questions about selection and preparation techniques--showing guests the importance of knowing the source of their food. For the gardening class, Walton took attendees to the roof to tour and sample from the restaurant's edible garden. More recently, Markethouse has been offering the classes for $45 alongside a five-course seasonal wine pairing dinner, where Walton prepares seasonal items from the restaurant's garden and answers questions throughout the meal. See below for chef Walton's recipe for Creamless Creamed Corn, from his "Taste of Our Garden" cooking class, with wine pairing by Chef wine consultant Marlene Rossman.
"People sometimes don't understand what we do in the restaurant as far as the style of cooking we do and the farm-to-table aspect," Walton says. "I know a lot of restaurants like to talk about farm to table, but when it's really true, it's cool that you can just take them upstairs and show them where their dinner is coming from and the ingredients that have taken five months to grow."
His own spokesman
Walton wasn't expecting the classes to be so popular, noting that many of them filled less than a day after he posted them. "The response has been great--it's really surprised me. We had to turn down people every time because we were full," he says. "One time I opened the class to 65 people, which was way too big. I want to keep it to the point where I can do the Q&A and walk around and touch everybody. Once it gets too big, you lose that effect."
Chef Walton working in Markethouse's rooftop garden, which has been the subject of several of his cooking classes.
He says the exposure he's gotten from teaching the classes has not only boosted restaurant traffic, it also has raised his profile in the community. "We see a lot more repeat customers at Markethouse who have come to the class. And I've run into some of the people who've taken my classes. When I did a cooking demonstration [on Sept. 11] at the Windy City Wine Festival, there were some regulars there who had attended my other classes."
Walton says his favorite part about teaching classes is the chance to interact with guests because he and they share a passion for food, albeit in different ways. "I'm not as visible in the restaurant as sometimes I'd like to be and I'm not able to talk to guests because we're busy," he says. "I like letting them understand how I feel about food. They're there because they're passionate about food, too. And we just share it in a different way--I mean, I live it every day and they don't get a chance to because they work in an office or whatever it may be. So it's their chance to come out and really ask questions and get honest answers. Then they get to see it and touch it and I'm right there with them."
Moreover, the chance to act as his own spokesman has allowed him to communicate openly with guests who would otherwise get much of their food information from third parties and the media. "The educational factor of getting across to people and to really touch them in a different way from what they read in the paper or watch on TV is great because it's so personal. I can really answer their questions honestly without another source--it's me and them."
Scott Walton, executive chef, Markethouse restaurant, Chicago;
wine pairing by Marlene Rossman
wine pairing by Marlene Rossman
Yield: 8 servings
15 ears of fresh sweet corn
3 yellow onions, chopped
10 black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
15 sprigs fresh thyme, divided
1 Vidalia onion, small dice
3 T. olive oil or butter
1 T. truffle peelings, divided
Salt and pepper, to taste
Mixed seasonal fresh greens, for garnish
Extra virgin olive oil, for garnish
Method (1) Cut all the kernels off the cobs. Using the back of your chef's knife, milk the cobs to get all the extra juice out; reserve the cobs. (2) Combine cobs, yellow onion, peppercorns, bay leaf, 5 thyme sprigs in a large pot, and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil, and reduce heat to simmer for 1 hour. Strain, and reserve. (3) In a sauté pan, heat oil or butter and sweat Vidalia onion. Add the corn kernels and remaining thyme, and cook until just tender (you don't want any browning). (4) In a blender, blend half the sautéed corn and truffle peelings with corn stock, as needed, until smooth. In a pot, combine the whole kernels back in with the purée, and heat through. Season with salt and pepper to taste, top with remaining truffle shavings, seasonal fresh greens and extra virgin olive oil, and serve.
Wine pairing: Schug Chardonnay "Sonoma Coast" 2008 (California)