I’d read the stories on Bob Waggoner’s return to Charleston. How the chef had decided to open a cooking school rather than helm another fine dining restaurant like Charleston Grill or host another PBS series such as his U Cook! with Chef Bob Waggoner. The stories said the school, In the Kitchen, would be intimate and entertaining. So when my City Paper editor asked me to write a story about attending a cooking class at In the Kitchen and the words “copious amounts of wine” were thrown around, well I replied that I’d be absolutely interested in the libations, and by extension be, this assignment. Herein, my report:
Wednesday afternoon: I do what research I can. Waggoner’s website says the only person who knows what type of food we’re cooking each night is Mother Nature. I wonder if Mother Nature knows that I can’t look a fish in the face or I feel woozy. The final note on the site says that “wine and 10 people with sharp knives don’t go well,” and suggests we’ll be tasting half pours of sparkling, white, and red wines. Half pours? This assignment is a sham.
Friday night, 7p.m.: First of all, there’s parking. Waggoner’s kitchen space is on Market Street and anchors the other side of the tiny shopping center next to Leaf. My fellow attendees on this night are three couples, all local, who love Waggoner already and ask about what model car he’s driving and how his daughter is doing in college. One couple is celebrating a birthday; another has come to the class as a Christmas gift. The space is bright and open, but not Pinterest-precious. The perimeter of the room is lined with marble countertops and stainless backsplashes, gas ranges, potfillers, and canisters of tools. Everyone’s range already has pots and pans in place. The middle of the room has a U-shaped counter where Waggoner can stand in the middle and show off proper chopping skills and intervene when we need more salt (and one always needs more salt).
7:15 p.m.: We don “In the Kitchen with Chef Bob Waggoner” aprons and we’re off to the races.
We start at the counter encircled around Waggoner; this is our prep station and where we’ll return to begin each course. Tonight’s menu is pineapple salsa over seared scallops, a shrimp mousse ravioli with a white wine and plum tomato cream sauce, beef tenderloin over leeks and fennel and topped with a mushroom, potato, bacon, and red wine reduction. Oh, and an apple tart. I take back the sham comment immediately and tuck a towel into my apron tie.
8:29 p.m.: It only took an hour, but I am a genius. My pasta and accompanying sauce are so good that I want to weep. I will never eat the food of peons again.
Throughout the evening, Waggoner narrates our tasks and peppers in tips in a friendly, broadcast-ready voice. He’s encouraging and gives attention when someone wants a second opinion on a sauce or a sear. When a plastic spatula melts in a pan, a new one is brought over without much fuss. At other times, Waggoner shows off the kitchen’s organizational secrets, touts his new Upper King Street restaurant project Generalísimo, and answers questions about life in France or at Charleston Grill. After each course is done, we dine as a group and Waggoner pours glasses of wine (more than a half-pour, to my relief), as we collectively fawn over our plates.
9:15 p.m.: Just handled raw beef and am Swype-ing class notes on my phone. Swype note to self: swab phone with rubbing alcohol.
In the Kitchen with Chef Bob Waggoner is best for those who are already comfortable with frenetic whisking and the sexy magic of pan deglazing. By no means is it difficult, but Waggoner’s rotation among students means he’s trusting that you know how to let a sauce simmer without help. What’s valuable are Waggoner’s details at each step: where to chop on a cutting board, how to hold your knife, the best way to add wine to a spattering pan, and at what moment to grab those scallops. He’ll even cop to the shortcuts that you should be making, like store-bought pastry dough, pre-made pasta sheets from Rio Bertolini, and beef broth that you don’t need to make personally.
9:37 p.m.: After the spatula melting, everyone is panicky about deglazing. I am smug because I scraped all my bits off the pan with a metal spatula.
9:38 p.m.: At some point I turned the burner off and have been stirring bathwater-temp wine and meat bits expecting sauce chemistry. So much for smug. At $125, the class isn’t cheap compared to other learn-and-taste options around town, but this shouldn’t be your first foray into cooking either. What’s different about Waggoner’s take on the evening is that you’re making your own multi-course meal — and not a light one at that. It’s a more focused experience than your average night on the town, but you still don’t have a stack of dishes to do at the end, so take that into consideration when weighing your options.
9:58 p.m.: By my calculations my butter consumption is hovering at half a stick and we haven’t even finished making dessert yet.
True, the meal you end up eating would fall in that higher price bracket, but because you’re not boozing on entire bottles of wine, you’re sober enough to remember absurd tips, like putting your food processor blade in the freezer or julienning apple peels flesh side up. But not to worry, Waggoner isn’t going to let you screw up. And like every good teacher, when you’re proud of your dish, he is too.
10:10 p.m.: “Look how pretty that turned out!” Bob is appreciative of my plating technique, which I have honed by mindlessly scrolling through Instagram. I agree, my dinner is #foodporn.
After we plate our desserts and leisurely sip the last of our wine, Waggoner asks everyone the important question, “Did you have fun?” Nods all around, and no one’s too tipsy. By all barometers the night was a success — except now each of us is on the hook to recreate the culinary magic for anyone we brag to.
To sign up for an In the Kitchen class, visit chefbobwaggoner.com.