Prep School

As Moira O'Connor watches, Natalie Turner gives the stand blender a whirl in the tomato basil soup.
As Moira O'Connor watches, Natalie Turner gives the stand blender a whirl in the tomato basil soup. (Sora Devore For The Washington Post)

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By Adriane Quinlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 20, 2006

At 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning, in the dead of summer, when most college kids are still asleep, I shuffle into a classroom set up like a science lab, pick up a course pack and pen, and prepare for eight hours of strenuous instruction.

There are 10 of us, ranging from a 17-year-old future freshman to a 24-year-old law student. We pull up stools to five rows of smooth countertops, which face a demonstration counter at the front of the room. An angled mirror above shows the action on the table below. Instead of Bunsen burners, we bow before stovetops. Instead of pipettes, we're armed with basting brushes, spoons, tongs and knives. L'Academie de Cuisine's upstairs kitchen is a pastel, scrubbed down version of Iron Chef's "kitchen stadium." We're ready to learn.

Josh Levinson came to class because at school in California, all he eats is Dell Taco take-out. Max Tanzer's here because he's moving into his first apartment. Anne Laughlin just graduated, and suddenly needs to cook for herself. And I came because the only recipe I have the patience to follow is on the back of a Styrofoam cup of noodles: pour hot water, stir, enjoy. Pretty pathetic for a senior at Yale.

Enter instructor Robyn Alexander, her kitchen whites starched, a bag of knives in tow. She's overheard a snippet of conversation between two students in the front. "Don't even talk about Shake 'n Bake," she warns, wagging a finger. "That stuff's loaded with sodium."

A mother of four, personal chef and a Stanford grad, last year Alexander attended her 15th college reunion. "It got me thinking about all the gross stuff everyone used to eat," she says. "My husband had a roommate who went out and bought 30 cans of Chef Boyardee and came home declaring, 'Dinner for 30 days!' "

So she designed L'Academie de Cuisine's "College Prep Cooking" with a difficult audience in mind: students with tight budgets, hectic schedules, new kitchens and the added challenge of cooking for one. Alexander, who describes herself as "kind of like a cross between a valley girl and an old person," has taught cooking classes for kids, adults and even parents and their children -- but strangely never for anyone in between. This first-time class -- taught over two days in four-hour chunks -- is not the typical offering for the cooking school, whose gourmet courses usually fall closer to "Lobsters and the Wines that Love Them," an actual class actually offered this fall.

Alexander's instruction begins as every meal does: with a trip to the store. To be savvy consumers, we need to know the standard price for ingredients, so we're sent on a scavenger hunt -- not to an adorable outdoor market, but to somewhere we might actually shop when school starts in the fall: the local Safeway. In teams of two, we wander fluorescent aisles, holding forth grocery lists and scanning price stickers.

I team up with Samantha Tanzer, a lanky prospective Swarthmore freshman who's nervous about feeding herself for the first time. I'm amazed at Tanzer's math genius -- she briskly calculates weights and multiplies figures. But I'm a salad junkie and find I'm a step ahead of her by simply knowing the difference between Romaine and, um, all those other green things.

Together we traipse from the salad bar, where lettuce is $4.99 per pound, to the produce section, where the same goes for $1.50. Ah-ha! When Alexander sees us weighing the head of lettuce, she swoops in. (Alexander, we should note, is one of those teachers with eyes in the back of her head. Later in the day, she tilts back her head back, fills her nostrils with air and shouts, "Who's got their burner too high?") In this case, holding the lettuce aloft, Alexander sees me in the moment of renunciation for years of buying packed, washed lettuce. "Have you learned your lesson?" she asks, a kind hand on my arm. "Grocery stores are in the business to make money."

Zig-zagging around produce, Alexander pokes and prods the fruit, showing us how to tell when each is ripe. "Scratch and sniff," she says, holding aloft a honeydew. "It should smell like how you want it to taste."

When it's time for questions, everyone raises their hands like we're in grade school. I ask when to spend the extra bucks on organic. The answer? "Only if you're eating in vast enough quantities that a trace of pesticide is gonna make a difference," says the teach. She suggests a fruit and veggie scrub, which should be used to wash all produce.

"What about meat? I never know what to do with meat,'' asks Moira O' Connor, a senior at the University of Georgia who sought out the class because she spends too much of her budget at chain bakeries like Panera and Cosi. "Ah, meat," Alexander says, whisking her drowsy troupe through the aisles to explain the different grades of beef and point out with a pinky how much cheaper it is to buy, instead of individual cuts, an entire chicken. (An entire chicken? Riiiight. The very idea conjures up the nightmarish Mr. Bean sketch, where, as he's basting a turkey for a Thanksgiving dinner, it somehow ends up on the comedian's head.)


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