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Educated Palates 

As a fine-dining alternative, Loretta Paganini's cooking school easily makes the grade.

Loretta Paganini (center) and friends, over low heat. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Loretta Paganini (center) and friends, over low heat.
How do you outrun an alligator? Who are Thibodeaux and Boudreaux? What's Avery Island's claim to fame? Not your typical Northeast Ohio dinnertime conversation, maybe, but a meal at Loretta Paganini's Geauga County cooking school is a pretty unusual experience all across the (groaning) board. Part instruction, part entertainment, and part feast, Paganini's popular Dinner at the Chef's Table series combines all those elements in an atmosphere both civilized and hauntingly reminiscent of a church supper at Our Lady of the Perpetual Spatula.

"We try to keep it lighthearted and to get everyone involved," says the lovely Paganini, a native of Bologna with an accent as sleek and rich as mascarpone. To that end, a recent Mardi Gras celebration included culinary quizzes ("Name the three basic ingredients in Cajun cooking"), audience participation ("Let's have a volunteer up here to chop that chicken!"), and enough purple, gold, and green beads to pave over Bourbon Street.

And, yes, there was food -- plenty of it, and pretty good, too. While Paganini is the mastermind behind all these feasts, she often turns over the spotlight to staffers, graduates, or visiting culinary talent. For the Mardi Gras blowout, for instance, Louisiana native Stefanie Wene was parade marshal, mustering a menu of gumbo, jambalaya, ´touff´e, king cake, and beignets.

About 40 hungry guests crowded into seats at the long communal tables that Paganini and Co. had dressed in white and gold linens and topped with colorful centerpieces, plastic gators, and stacks of shiny masks. Pitchers of ice water and lemonade stood at the ready to quell the Cajun fires, but since the cooking school lacks a liquor license, it's BYOB for the hard stuff. (Since nearly everyone shows up toting a favorite wine or brew, glasses, corkscrews, and bottle openers are provided.) Participants were issued a tidy little collection of the evening's recipes when they checked in, and although space was tight in the bright, cheerful classroom, nearly every seat had a bird's-eye view of the range top and prep area, thanks to a large overhead mirror.

As friendly, efficient staffers passed seemingly endless platters of appetizers -- corn-and-black-bean fritters, herbed bread, and phyllo cups stuffed with blackened salmon in a spicy r´moulade -- Wene, a former dental assistant transformed into chef at the Mayfield Country Club by Paganini's professional culinary program, shared Mardi Gras lore and tales of the bayou. During the salad course, a sprightly combo of romaine, red onion, strawberries, and caramelized pecans in a sunny orange-and-cayenne-pepper vinaigrette, she reviewed the recipes. And when her assistants began to pass the plates of juicy crawfish ´touff´e, along with giant industrial-sized bottles of hot sauce, she demonstrated the basics by quickly assembling a second batch while diners chowed down on the first.

So it went, through the fish-and-shrimp gumbo, the chicken-and-sausage jambalaya, and the beignets, bananas Foster, cream-cheese-and-cherry-stuffed king cake, and mugs of steaming caf´ au lait. Guests ate while Wene demonstrated, joked, and kept up a constant culinary patois. Veterans of several previous Chef's Table dinners judged Wene's cooking tips to be pretty basic stuff -- use sweet, not salted butter in recipes; cook with flat-leaved Italian parsley, and save the curly stuff for garnishes -- but her enthusiasm and humor set a relaxed and casual mood. And although the participants were for the most part a sophisticated lot who could reel off the recipe for roux (equal parts oil and flour, slowly cooked over low heat) without missing a beat, there was nothing stuffy or formal about their attitudes this night, either. In fact, when a volunteer donned an apron to come up and stir a new batch of gumbo, the by-now well-lubricated crowd greeted him with the gusto usually reserved for an AA meeting gone horribly wrong. "This is Gene," said a smiling Wene. "HI, GENE!" roared the approving student body in unison.

Speaking of liquid refreshment, the course catalog suggests that prospective diners call the school for recommendations on matching wines with the evening's menu. That's what we did, but the assistance turned out to be relatively minor. "Anything you like," was the staffer's egalitarian but not especially informative answer. If precise food-and-wine pairing is an important part of your dining pleasure, and you aren't confident in your own abilities, perhaps a call to your favorite wine store or neighborhood oenophile might lead to more specific information.

As for the indefatigable Paganini herself, the chef, teacher, author, tour guide, and restaurant consultant launched her little empire in Chesterland in 1989. Currently, her state-of-the-art school offers a host of classes aimed at the home cook, as well as a sequence of professional culinary instruction in cooperation with Lakeland Community College. She also operates a jam-packed gourmet book and cookware store in the same building -- where inspired students can pick up anything from a lemon zester to a full set of pricey All-Clad pans -- and leads several intimate gourmet trips to Italy and France each year, with a focus on indigenous markets, wineries, restaurants, and culinary instruction. ("These aren't just tours," one former traveler raves. "These are visits to the Europe you have always dreamed of seeing, with Loretta as your very own hostess!")

The Chef's Table dinners, with their unique combination of food, fun, and instruction, have been part of the cooking school for several years. And as an alternative to more traditional Saturday night dining at an upscale restaurant, the meals make a lively option. While you won't find candlelight or an assortment of before-dinner cocktails (unless, of course, you bring your own), the camaraderie is a fine change of pace from intimate tête-à-têtes, and the friendly instruction and demonstration serve as top-notch entertainment. During this particular meal, it was clear that the rigors of serving 40 diners at once took a toll on some of the items. And of course, no restaurant would be likely to offer jambalaya, gumbo, and ´touff´e all at the same meal. Still, guests can be confident that the food at these dinners will be plentiful, generally tasty, and robustly seasoned with humor and goodwill.

Recent fêtes have included a New England clambake, a Chinese New Year celebration, an English pub dinner, and a holiday celebration from Burgundy, hosted by Jonathan Kish, former chef-owner at Harry Corvairs and occasional guest instructor at the cooking school. Upcoming Chef's Tables will offer a Japanese dinner (March 24), an Italian Easter celebration (April 7), a Lebanese dinner (April 21), and a Cuban dinner (April 28). Price tags range from $95 to $125 per couple, depending on the elaborateness of the menu; you can request a copy of the current course schedule by calling the school or visiting its website at www.lpscinc.com.

Oh, yeah, about those trivia questions: 1. Zigzag -- alligators apparently aren't so great at making sudden course changes, 2. The hapless duo is the butt of a slew of homey Cajun jokes, and 3. That's the headquarters of McIlhenny Co., manufacturer of Tabasco.

And you thought cooking school would be boring.

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