Recipes for this Story
Grilled Beet & Endive Salad
Herb-Marinated Flank Steak
Written and produced by Stephen Exel
Photographs by Michael Venera
It's a pleasure to go home to Chicago in summer, especially when the visit includes everything I love about that season: biking along the beach, a great hot dog, grilling parties in postage-stamp backyards attached to renovated six-flats, and a cooking class at The Wooden Spoon, a kitchen shop in one of my favorite neighborhoods, Andersonville. Home--in the summer--in the city. I hear a song.
The Wooden Spoon is gloriously crowded with tools and treats for home cooks. In the back of the shop is a cooking school, with almost daily classes designed for eight to 12 students. Chef instructors, most of whom live in the neighborhood, bring their collective experience to a roster that ranges from fish to fowl to fettuccine. I'm spending a bright afternoon at a Summer & Sizzle grilling class.
Todd Moore, a chef with a fine list of Chicago restaurants on his résumé, is leading the class with recipes by Becca Wheeler, a 10-year Andersonville resident and culinarian who leads ethnic market tours. Her diverse training includes stints in China and at an organic farm in Umbria.
"Becca's recipes are the ones I use most often for myself; she was one of our first teachers," comments Wooden Spoon owner Trina Sheridan, who opened her business in 2003 and lives, in time-honored tradition, above the shop with her husband, Sean, and their children, Molly, 7, and Ian, 5.
Class begins around the large prep counter that Sean designed in warm red-stained concrete. We divide into groups to prepare the food, most of which we'll grill outside. Todd leads us through some basic knife techniques. He's an affable teacher with a ready wit and a wink that puts cooking novices at ease.
The first dish is Potato-Tomato Gratin, which bakes while we attend to our grilling duties. "The moisture in this light gratin comes from olive oil," Becca comments in her recipe notes. "The flavor comes from caramelized onions, the concentrated sugars in the tomatoes, and fresh garden herbs."
The grill is set up and ready to go in the landscaped backyard that sits between the shop and a former garage that has been renovated into wine storage and party facilities, guest quarters, and a rooftop garden.
Todd explains direct and indirect grilling, an important distinction for ensuring grilled foods have that perfect balance of sear and tenderness. "With two areas of heat in the grill," he says, "you can cook directly over hot coals or burners, resulting in a sear that seals in juices. The other is off to the side, where you can cook with accumulated heat without burning the food."
The grill accommodates almost everything needed for the meal we'll enjoy later on--smoky Grilled Beet & Endive Salad, a tender grilled Herb-Marinated Flank Steak (atop that scrumptiously layered gratin), and Grilled Peaches with honey-whipped cream and almond-and-spice topping.
"This is such an awesome setting for a class," says student Liz Sheridan. "You're in a lovely, cozy backyard--like an extension of someone's home."
As we tuck into salads and steaks in the sun-dappled yard, it's difficult to remember we're in the heart of a bustling urban neighborhood--and for me, a bit nostalgic for home, difficult to forget.