Standing in a crowd of strangers on the third floor of the Living Social building at 918 F St. NW in Penn Quarter, I know I’m going to have fun when the weiner puns start flying.
“Don’t be a braaaat tonight,” chirps the cheerful young event emcee. The crowd groans good-naturedly and my friend turns to me conspiratorially: “Ugh. German sausage jokes are the wurst.”
I’m here for a seminar on sausage-making, one of a series of weeknight culinary classes, pop-up dinners and tastings led by top D.C. chefs and organized by Living Social. Tonight, the star guru is Kyle Bailey, executive chef at Birch & Barley, and a surprise guest is his wife, Tiffany MacIsaac, acclaimed pastry chef for the 10-and growing restaurant group that owns Birch & Barley. Other local chefs have included Mike Isabella of Graffiato and “Top Chef” fame, Erik Bruner-Yang of Toki Underground and Ramon Martinez, head chef at Jaleo.
New this year, the events are an expanding part of Living Social’s strategy. The company hopes to increase its non-daily deals offerings from a quarter to half of its business.
(Living Social is led by Tim O’Shaughnessy, who is a son-in-law of The Washington Post Co. chairman Donald E. Graham.)
“When people ask, ‘What should I do? What should I try that’s new?’ ” says company spokesman Brendan Lewis, “we want to be the answer to that question.”
The events seem to be reaching a wide demographic. There’s a speakeasy in the basement of the Living Social building where customers can gather for a drink after their classes and events. And in the second-floor lounge, where people gather beforehand, the crowd ranges from bearded, tattooed dudes to cute older couples. Even my mom was there for a wine-and-cheese tasting — and neither of us knew the other was coming.
As you would expect from a company like Living Social, the facility is loaded with high-tech touches. In the classroom, each row of free-standing cooking stations has room for 10 students working in pairs, and the chefs stand at a large range at the front flanked by cameras and lights. Video screens help those of us in the back follow the action up front; cameras are switched between the chef’s cooking stations so you always get a close-up view of his work.
Each participant gets a packet of instructions with two recipes, one for a gingery English breakfast patty and the other a classic Italian link sausage. The class covers grinding, casing and cooking, and a lot of practical ways to customize the process. The conversation is rife with unintentional innuendo. Bailey is an enthusiastic instructor, and he and MacIsaac pause their demonstration often to walk around, offering tips, assistance and frequent praise.
“You must be feeling so proud,” Bailey enthuses while looking at a trio of sausages cooking on our station’s gas-powered burner. “I’m feeling happy just watching you guys make these.” MacIsaac follows, making sure a pair of my neighbors are understanding the class and having a good time. The biscuits she shares certainly help with that.
The best thing about the classes, Bailey says, is the opportunity to meet and interact with people.
“When you are back in the kitchen, you don’t get to see your customers very often,” he says. “It’s great to get out here and talk to people.”
Cooking should never be a dry event, and the class’s $69 price tag comes with two seasonal beers selected to complement the sausages. About an hour into the event, after being warned about monitoring the levels of our burners lest we “smoke the place out,” the fire alarm goes off. Soon after, a Living Social rep comes in to tell us that as an apology for the noise, everyone in the class will get a third beer.
I see more than one of my classmates surreptitiously raise the heat on his burners.