A rare opportunity for food lovers takes place on June 30 in the form of a master cooking class with two remarkable chefs: Samin Nosrat, whose book and Netflix series Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat are filled with charm and insight, and Jennifer Sherman, chef and general manager at famed Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse. The farm-to-table event is at the Ecology Center in San Juan Capistrano, where lucky participants will forage in the fields for ingredients, learn the alchemy of those four critical elements, and assist in the preparation and consumption of a meal.
Proceeds from this immersive class directly benefit the Ecology Center’s soon-to-launch summer program for kids. Feast Verde aims to inspire fourth through eighth graders with food and agriculture in a collaboration with the Boys and Girls Club of San Juan Capistrano. Once school lets out, 48 kids will plant seeds, tend and harvest the plants, and learn to cook. Their adventure will culminate in a full menu they’ll share with family and friends.
The two chefs, who met in Chez Panisse’s kitchen some time in the 1990s, were both bitten hard by the food bug and never looked back to their college majors. Nosrat’s great awakening came in one meal at Chez Panisse when she was a literature student at UC Berkeley. Growing up in San Diego, she’d eaten only her mother’s Persian home cooking, kebabs on weekend trips to Orange County and pizza. The day after that meal she was working in the restaurant.
Chef Sherman’s love of food was planted deep in her subconscious during childhood. In sixth grade, her “best friend Rachel Goldstein’s mom Joyce had a huge open kitchen, with two to three ranges in the middle under an enormous hood, a farm table nearby,” remembers Sherman. Goldstein had been a chef at the Cafe at Chez Panisse, and from her big home kitchen launched the California Street Cooking School. People were always coming and going, there was lots of laughter and excitement in Goldstein’s kitchen that the sixth-grader never forgot.
That lively spirit eventually led the art history graduate to culinary school, where one day she noticed flyers announcing that Chez Panisse was seeking its first intern. Instead of taking one of the tear-away tabs along the bottom with the phone number, she tore down every flyer she could find and applied. “Strangely, I got the internship!” she jokes. “I wanted it so badly.”
The farm-to-kitchen-to-table template had a U.S. rebirth with Chez Panisse after its founder Alice Waters spent time in France, where it is and has long been a normal thing to have fresh produce stands on nearly every corner. Waters eventually expanded the restaurant’s incredible success into education with the Edible Schoolyard Project.
Nosrat and Sherman learned to cook in Waters’ kitchen, where the chefs ask every day what’s the best, freshest, tastiest ingredients, then through an oral tradition they mastered the techniques for making delectable food—all ingredient and technique driven. “That’s what Samin codified so wonderfully in the illustrated book: ingredients plus techniques, rather than recipes,” says Sherman. “If you can master four basic salad dressings, you can make any dressing.
“This is a wonderful opportunity for others to learn from Samin,” says Sherman, who serves on the board of the Ecology Center. “What Samin and Wendy [MacNaughton, the Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat illustrator] did together was codify what chefs all know internally. She demystified it. And did so in the most comprehensive way.”
While Nosrat passed the farm that would eventually become the Ecology Center as a child when her family drove north for kebabs, how did Sherman find her way down from Berkeley to South County? Her colleague at the restaurant Mark Magiera, who grew up in Corona del Mar and surfed, was coaxed down by an old friend. He hit it off with Ecology Center founder and executive director Evan Marks, also a surfer. Magiera then coaxed down Sherman.
“I’ve done Green Feasts two times,” says Sherman, about the sunset meals for more than 100 people at the Ecology Center. These five-hour harvest celebrations bring together chefs, farmers, purveyors and the community for a meal at long tables set up in fields. “And when Alice came down—it was a mutual love fest. We split the proceeds 50/50 for Edible Schoolyard and the Ecology Center,” says Sherman, who will again spearhead a Green Feast on Sept. 21.
Evans invited Sherman onto the board “to help—pardon the pun—grow the culinary aspect. The culinary center and community gathering space [is a ] dynamic, wonderful place with so much potential, it’s hard to resist.”
The Ecology Center’s mission runs on a “Water. Grow. Eat. Make” mantra in its quest to “build an abundant food future.” And the master cooking class is a perfect way to contribute with its $1,000 ticket. Or just attend the book signing and reception that follows from 3-5 p.m. The $50 donation includes a copy of Nosrat’s book. And maybe some salty, fatty, acidy and hot leftovers? One can only hope.
Samin Nosrat Cooking Class and Book Signing at the Ecology Center, 32701 Alipaz St., San Juan Capistrano, (949) 443-4223; www.ecologycenter.org. Sun., June 30. Class, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; book signing, 3-5 p.m. $50-$1,000.