Saturday, September 4, 2010

A Visit to the Viking Cooking School at Ninety Acres in Peapack-Gladstone, NJ

 Viking kitchen in its final moments of cleanliness prior to class
My sister Sharon recently treated me to a night out in Rome for my birthday. Nice sister, huh? Actually, she took me to a cooking class titled “Girls Night Out in Rome” at the recently opened Viking Cooking School at Ninety Acres. The much talked about “table-at-the-farm” concept restaurant is located on the grounds of Natirar, a Somerset County estate once owned by the King of Morocco.

This renovated Carriage House is home to the
 Viking Cooking School at Ninety Acres at Natirar 

The 50-minute scenic drive north from our starting base of Pennington was capped by a tree-lined winding entrance drive that skirted past a rambling brook and up an incline before revealing our destination: an exquisitely restored Carriage House shared by the school and restaurant.
Outdoor entrance/reception area.
The beauty of the setting can not be overstated. When we proud New Jerseyans defend our state from misguided naysayers by pointing out the state’s many scenic areas, this patch of rolling hills in the middle of “horse country” is exactly what we’re talking about.
The school is housed in what was once the garage section of the carriage house. Warm woods, exposed brick and wall-to-wall multi-paned windows provides a sunlight saturated environment that manages to be both spacious and inviting.

The space is anchored by a u-shaped state-of-the art cooking island and teaching station; rolling stainless steel tables can be arranged as needed for students. When we arrived, the staff had already completed our mise en place for the class.

Cooking tasks for our Roman holiday included: 
Marinated Red Peppers and Olives
Basic Pasta dough, Homemade Spinach and Ricotta Ravioli 
with Tomato-Pancetta Butter
Veal Scaloppini with Prosciutto and Sage
(Saltimbocca alla Romana)
Tartufo (Chocolate Gelato with Cherries Rolled in Chocolate)*
Rossini Cocktails*
* items prepared by Viking staff

An announcement by our instructor Chef Cathy that her standard rule of “no alcohol until the knives are put away” meant that the Rossini’s would have to wait until after our cooking tasks were completed. From the furrowed brows and mumblings amongst the group, it was clear this rule would not be making it back to many home kitchens for implementation. One aspect of our class that would’ve had unanimous support for transfer home was the concept of kitchen assistants. However impractical, we all agreed that having a smiling helper at the ready to whisk away dirty pans and retrieve ingredients would immediately elevate our cooking skills.
pre-set mise en place
Our class consisted of 12 students divided into two teams of six. This allowed for as much, or as little, individual hands on experience as desired by participants. To be clear, a three hour class in this format is not for those aiming at polishing up their knife skills for an appearance on Top Chef. But it is perfect for exploring something new (homemade ravioli) or revisiting a classic preparation (Saltimbocca) in a relaxed, non-threatening environment, and under the guise of a an experienced chef.

In this case our teacher Chef Cathy boasted an impressive resume which included a four-your degree in Education and a successful stint on Wall Street before a move to the Napa Valley, where she found herself working in a gourmet shop. Honing her skills by taking on multiple responsibilities at the shop, she was able to combine teaching and cooking in a post at the Viking School in California where she taught for 71/2 years. She also ran her own cooking school from home, with over 100 students at home and over the Internet.
Cathy’s experience was evident as she proved a steady navigator for cooks of varying expertise and had an innate sense of when flailing amateurs required hands-on help (like when our pasta roller yielded only crumbled bundles of dough) or when verbal advice was sufficient.
Spinach Ravioli & Veal Saltimbocca
Our menu was enhanced by eggs and produce supplied by a 17-acre farm on the estate. When we realized we needed more sage, one of our assistants simply ran to the garden and retrieved a fist full of the velvety leaves. A question regarding what size eggs we were using prompted an unusual response: whatever size the chickens had laid that morning.
Having grown up in a household where fresh pasta was placed on floured sheets for drying, the homemade pasta course was a great reminder of the beauty and simplicity of the process. One small suggestion: the recipes as given needed to be tripled, for those of us not used to recalculating on the fly it could be tricky. My chore was to measure the red pepper flakes, a miss-step there could have been trouble.
Just prior to final cooking duties, and in a nod to the clock as well as our tired feet, Chef Cathy recommended that the students take a seat while she, the assistants and two volunteers from class completed the meal preparation. Her offer was greeted by a unanimous and grateful YES!
Chef Cathy concluded with a review of what we prepared, fielded questions and offered tips on many cooking topics.
Chef's assistant Tony pours Rossinis
As we proudly consumed the glorious results of our afternoon in the kitchen, I was reminded that the true joy of a great meal, no matter how perfectly prepared, can only be realized when sharing your creations with friends.
The school has a variety of classes available, some for the serious home cook seeking to enhance their skills, and plenty other choices with a more casual approach. An afternoon at the school was a great way to celebrate a birthday and would be a fun option for larger groups.

Ninety Acres at Natirar
Viking Cooking School
2 Main Street
Peapack-Gladstone, NJ 07977

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