Who needs Rachel Ray to teach us how to cook via the tube when we have Ashleigh Hutchison offering live cooking classes in San Luis Obispo? In fact, you get to work beside her and help cook the dishes the entire class will enjoy. Or you can just sit and watch, if that’s what you want and simply enjoy the resulting feast. This is one classroom that’s totally open to the desires of its students. But it’s hardly surprising that most of the aspiring chefs are eager to chop odorous onions, slice ripe peaches, and devein fresh prawns.
Not only is Hutchison just as perky and as cute as Ray, her charismatic personality and enthusiasm make even menial tasks like chopping onions (they always make me cry) and bell peppers seem like great fun. That was certainly the spirit at the Garden’s Kitchen, Hutchison’s new kitchen studio in industrial SLO, where I joined some foodies for a lesson in Spanish tapas. Besides being served a meal that was way bigger than anyone could finish, we were pampered by vintner/winemaker Mike Vihuela (Vee-way-la) and his national sales manager, Eric Farag, who made sure we always had the right wine in our glass for every dish Hutchison served.
“I love teaching and cooking for people. I try to teach people how to understand certain flavors,” Hutchison explained about how she started offering cooking classes. It started with friends and the word quickly spread. She admitted: “I learn something new from each one of these classes from the people who attend them.” What I appreciated most was her honesty about cooking. She provided us with recipes and then explained that they were not meant to be followed rigidly; the amount of every ingredient is up to the interpretation of the cook.
“Everything I cook is determined by what’s fresh in the garden, hence the name, the Garden’s Kitchen,” she noted. Not all of her classes include wineries, but she said she always serves good wine. She invited me to attend this class because she had the people behind the wines serving them. Mike Vihuela explained that his brand Vihuela “revolves around a Spanish music theme,” and that the name roughly translated refers to a Spanish Renaissance guitar that appears on his labels. The duo enjoyed the class as much as any of us while impressing us with their delicious, value-priced wines. Farag explained to us: “We offer ultra-premium wines purchased from cream-of-the-crop vineyards and sell them at a $16 to $30 price range. Most wine distributors tell us we should be selling them for more than we ask; we want to provide ultra premium wines at an affordable price.”
The Garden’s Kitchen is a large but cozy studio that has a living room-like area with couches, chairs, and tables. In the back you’ll find the inviting L-shaped bar for guests overlooking the open kitchen. Hutchison chose tall bar chairs with fabric seats to make her students more comfortable.
“I couldn’t have done this without my husband Drew (Hutchison), who put so much of his time into making it for me. And my landlord Mike Harkness, who shares a lot in common with us, for renting us the space.” Hutchison’s friendly sous chef that night was Beth Fincher, a.k.a. her mother.
As soon as everyone was seated, Hutchison served up an appetizer of warm olives marinated in olive oil with garlic, rosemary, red chile flakes, paprika, and fresh orange peel. It was a lovely start with a fruity glass of Vihuela 2004 Chardonnay.
Hutchison made an impromptu chopped veggie salad chock-a-block with crunchy radishes, lettuce, cucumber, purple bell peppers, onions, and more, tossed with a fresh lemony vinaigrette. She cast aside the salad fork and spoon and quipped: “I’m a big fan of using my hands to toss the salad.” Vihuela’s Chardonnay complemented the salad nicely, too.
My classmates were Jean Whitaker, Danny Whiteaker (no relation to Jean although their surnames sound alike), and a couple named Nick and Marissa Schwentz who were celebrating their second anniversary. Everyone participated in cooking the recipes, some more than others, and quite obviously enjoyed themselves. The following day I called Jean, a retired Los Angeles middle school principal who relocated to live in her second home in Arroyo Grande. She happily reported: “I’ve attended cooking classes at home and abroad, and I came home with good memories from the experience with Ashleigh.”
Jean said the class was as comfortable as it would’ve been if Hutchison had invited us into her home. Not only did Jean help cook, Hutchison invited her to season the paella they were preparing to her taste preference. “We were all growing from a mutual experience and she made me feel comfortable. She gave all of us the confidence to grow and enjoy.”
The sign on the kitchen wall tells of the Garden’s Kitchen ambiance: “An urban dwelling where friends and food come together.” Formerly an art curator and marketer, Hutchison explained that the space is open to interpretation; it can be rented as a personal kitchen for private parties, bridal showers, corporate events, or any other celebration. Some of Hutchison’s upcoming cooking classes include sushi night, pregnant and post-pregnant cooking, and light and healthy Italian with Italian wines, among others.
At the end I had to agree with Jean who enthused: “Ashleigh is someone we should be watching; she showed expertise in presenting her class. I’ll be returning again and again.”
The Garden’s Kitchen
710 Fiero Lane, #23 SLO,
You can reach New Times Cuisine columnist at email@example.com