~Welcome to Le Chat Gourmet, Denene Vincent’s Dream Business ~
Chef adds European flavor to kitchen classes
By Kathleen Lavey
Lansing State Journal March 10, 2004
On a damp and bone-chilling Sunday morning, Denene Vincent’s kitchen is an oasis of warmth.
Gathered around a battered antique pine table that has served many generations of cooks and chefs, Vincent’s students in “Pasta Sauces 101” tie on aprons and tuck towels into the strings.
They wash their hands and eagerly pick up knives to began slicing tomatoes, peeling carrots and crushing garlic for a classic Ragu alla Bolognese, or spaghetti sauce with meat. Before 1:30 p.m., they’ll also complete and eat a vegetable-based puttanesca sauce, a classic creamy Alfredo and a mild, aromatic pesto, picking up kitchen techniques and tips along the way.
This is Le Chat Gourmet, Vincent’s dream business. Last year, she and her husband, Michael, added a 400-square-foot kitchen to their rural Eaton Rapids home. Inside, it evokes a feeling of Tuscany or Provence with its beamed ceiling, polished oak floor and tumbled marble tiles on the walls. Outside, Vincent trims topiaries and grows roses for a European feel and plants herbs and vegetables around the yard.
Five days a week, Vincent, who apprenticed with chefs in the United States and Europe, conducts classes for groups of three to eight. Students may include amateurs and experienced cooks; Vincent also offers kitchen sessions designed to help groups of co-workers develop team skills. She hopes to add a junior chef class for kids and eventually to lead culinary tours to Europe.
“The main focus is the cooking,” she said. “They’re going to enjoy it and leave feeling confident they can recreate these dishes at home.”
Students take turns at the stove. They watch as a too-thin Alfredo sauce is fattened up with more roux, a cooked paste of butter and flour. They observe the brilliant green color of a pesto made with a traditional mortar-and-pestle.
Vincent has been interested in cooking since she was a child growing up in Leslie.
“My mom is a wonderful country cook,” she said. Her grandmothers both cooked and baked, harvesting fresh vegetables from their own gardens.
Vincent graduated from Leslie High School in 1983 and started working on an art degree at Lansing Community College. To support her studies, she got a job in a bakery, then realized her artistic talent was best used in creating delicious and attractive foods. She apprenticed with chefs in the United States and Europe, learning as she went.
Sunday morning, with her curly hair contained under a baseball cap and wearing a black chef’s coat, white apron, baggy pants printed with colorful peppers and red Converse shoes, Vincent laughed often, moved quickly and conducted dozens of mini-demonstrations.
Tammie Lehman of Holt and Judy Ostrom of Eaton Rapids were back for repeat experiences in Vincent’s classes.
“I love to cook, but I’ve never taken gourmet cooking,” Lehman said. She has shied away from classes that require a long-term or time commitment and take time away from family and friends.
“This is perfect, because I can go for three hours once a month,” she said.
Karen McCumber of Lansing has an office job and works part time as a baker at Dusty’s Cellar in Okemos. She met Vincent when both worked at the nearby English Inn.
“This is just a lot of fun,” she said of the pasta class.
McCumber poured olive oil in artistic streaks across a cookie sheet. Then, she and Lehman started to pile tomatoes onto the sheet for roasting.
“Can they overlap?” Lehman asked.
“No, you want them flat,” said Vincent, leaning over the table and deftly re-aligning the slices. “You can pile them a little if you have to fit them all on.”
They tucked eight cloves of garlic onto the corner of the pan and drizzled more olive oil over the top. Then Lehman sprinkled a hearty pinch of kosher salt over the top. They popped them into the oven, and within a few minutes their aroma began to waft through the kitchen.
“You cook with all your senses,” Vincent told her students after one asked why she didn’t set a timer. “You hear things, you see things, you start smelling things and you can tell what’s happening.”
By 1 p.m., the roasted tomatoes and vegetables were pureed and mixed with meats and spices, staying warm on the stove next to two boiling pots of pasta.
Vincent showed Ostrom how to sprinkle fresh basil leaves across the serving platter of green pesto to add to its appeal as she wiped a dab of sauce from the rim of the white serving plate.
“Presentation is important, but ultimately you’ve got to come through with the flavor and the taste,” she said.
Contact Kathleen Lavey at 377-1251 or [email protected]
During a class, Denene Vincent offers plenty of tips and lots of hands-on experience. Some tips from one of her classes:
* When slicing vegetables, hold the vegetable with the tips of your fingers curled in towards you. This reduces the possibility of nicking or cutting yourself with the knife.
* To quickly extract the pit from an olive that’s going to be chopped, crush the olive beneath the heel of your hand.
* For the best-tasting salt, choose kosher salt or sea salt. Regular table salt has iodine added to it, which gives it a metallic taste.
* When using a blender, always drape a folded towel across the top. “In case that pressure builds up and the lid comes off – and it does happen – you’ll contain it,” Vincent said.
* For the safest and most sanitary cooking experience, clean utensils, mixing bowls and cutting surfaces as you go along. This prevents cross-contamination of any foods and keeps piles of dishes to be washed afterward in check.
* Le Chat Gourmet owner Denene Vincent offers small-group cooking classes in the
European-inspired 400-square-foot kitchen in Eaton Rapids on weeknights and
* Upcoming classes include an international sampling, a series on fine cuisine and
St. Patrick’s Day-inspired classes covering traditional Irish fare on Saturday and
“Cooking with Guinness” on Sunday. She also offers corporate retreats and team-
* Prices range from $65-$75 per person, per class depending on the menu selected
and the purpose of the class.
Vincent has a Web site at www.lechatgourmet.com, or call her at
663-7322, or e-mail [email protected]