Ten eager students squirm on their bar stools inside the Cultural Center of Cape Cod’s commercial kitchen, oohing and aah-ing over the dishes taking shape before them.
Tonight’s first course is grilled mustard greens with burrata, roasted peppers, white anchovies, olives and wild boar sausage. Across the table, Chef Joseph Cizynski (aka Chef Joe) plates the food with help from Sous Chef Tina McGrath. As he works, Chef Joe regales his students with stories – about fresh foods (he sometimes forages for his own wild mushrooms); about his restaurant career (at age 26, he was chef and owner of Café du Bec Fin, an award-winning French seafood restaurant in Old Greenwich, CT); and about baseball (he was a lefty pitcher in college and played on the Cape Cod Baseball League before blowing out his elbow). He also dispenses expert cooking advice.
How does one prepare such perfect mustard greens? Chef Joe explains the process: First you blanch them in a tall pot – stalk-ends down, with the tender leaves sticking out of the water so they wilt from the steam. Then drain them, pat them down to dry and place them on the grill for a little smoky flavor. A splash olive oil and a sprinkle of salt and pepper are the only other ingredients.
The evening progresses with a second course of wild mushrooms with a Caprese tomato sauce over Mafaldine noodles (think skinny lasagna). Then it’s on to the main course of baked bronzino (Mediterranean sea bass) with sprigs of stewed fennel tucked between their ribs, followed by a dessert of Italian cheeses, red grapes and bread. Each dish is expertly prepared, artfully plated and served with matching Italian wines.
The theme for this night’s class is Michelangelo’s Grocery List, with a menu crafted from a note the artist scribbled onto the back of a letter some 500 years ago. It’s one of three weekly sessions led by Chef Joe, who develops the themes, researches his material, buys the food and wines, then prepares the food while offering commentary and answering questions.
Director of Education Amy Neill says the culinary classes are among the Cultural Center’s most popular offerings, typically selling out in advance. “The students come in and they sit around the countertop in the commercial kitchen and he (Chef Joe) cooks for them and he talks about the recipes and the regions and the traditions … and every little detail that’s involved with the menu,” she said.
It’s also a gastronomical bargain. In addition to the educational enrichment, students enjoy a multiple-course meal with expertly paired wines at a price of $70 per person ($65 for members).
Popularity notwithstanding, Chef Joe’s intimate cooking classes are just one of about 70 courses offered by the Cultural Center of Cape Cod – from oil painting to yoga to obituary writing to digital photography to woodturning to pottery. All classes are taught by local experts and draw students from Cape Cod and beyond, Neill explained.
The classes began when the Cultural Center first opened in 2007, Neill said, but organizers quickly realized there wasn’t enough space in the existing building at 307 Old Main Street in South Yarmouth. So the center began a capital campaign to build an education wing and surveyed community members to find out their most pressing interests.
A culinary kitchen and a recording studio were the top two requests, she said.
The new wing opened in January of 2016, and classes jumped from about a dozen to somewhere around 70 today. Some classes are one-and-dones, while others consist of a series that runs over multiple weeks, then begins anew.
Lecture-style classes can enroll up to 50 students, while others that require more hands-on teaching may be limited to 15 or 20 participants, Neill said. Chef Joe’s two-hour sessions, held inside the commercial kitchen with limited seating, are capped at about a dozen students.
In addition to providing a community service, the classes help increase membership, as a new course might pique some outside curiosity and bring future members to the center, Neill said.
If your interests have been piqued, here are a few offerings in the weeks to come:
PAPER PAINTINGS: A mixed-media collage class over two sessions taught by artist and educator Meg Krohn. March 23 and March 30, 6-8 p.m. Cost is $50 ($40 for members).
VIETNAMESE VEGETARIAN DINNER: Chef Joe explores vegetarian cuisine with Vietnamese ingredients, including stir-fried morning glory, water spinach and wild mushroom. March 24, 6-8 p.m. Cost is $70 ($65 for members).
MAKING MUSIC WITH STEEL DRUMS: In this six-week class, students will learn the basics of creating classic Caribbean music with traditional steel drums. No music experience is required. Five Wednesdays beginning April 1. Cost is $125 ($105 for members).
INTRODUCTION TO WOODTURNING: Students will learn the basics of turning wood on a lathe, ultimately creating decorative wooden bowls over the six-week course. First class is April 2. Cost is $200 ($175 for members).
Neill says there will be more classes to come, including hip-hop dancing and baking. Learn about more classes, exhibits and activities at the Cultural Center of Cape Cod’s website.
Andy Tomolonis is a nonfiction author, travel writer and multimedia journalist.