Cooking for a crowd at LeRoux
By Gwyn McAllister
After about an hour of energetic multi-tasking, Cybele Sprague, owner of Zapotec Restaurant, set out big bowls with mussels, zesty green rice, and a wonderfully flavorful house salad.
On Wednesday, March 31, Ms. Sprague manned the demo kitchen at LeRoux at Home in Vineyard Haven during one of the weekly cooking exhibitions, to demonstrate her culinary skills, whipping up three of the most popular dishes from her Mexican restaurant in Oak Bluffs.
She led a small but appreciative audience through a sensory learning experience, passing around certain ingredients and preparations for tasting, smelling, and closer visual inspection. Like many professional chefs, she’s not a stickler for recipes and relies more on an intuitive sense earned from years of cooking, which she hoped to relay to her audience.
“You pick up on the techniques,” David Nash, a cooking demo regular, says. “It’s what they talk about just outside of the recipes that makes this worthwhile.”
Among the insider tips, Ms. Sprague talked about making recipe adjustments according to the season. She explained that winter cilantro is not nearly as potent, and winter garlic tends to be bitterer and shouldn’t be cooked for as long. Her most persistent admonishment was against under cooking mussels.
While the big sauté pan of her flavor-rich Zapotec mussels simmered away, she periodically plucked one out to demonstrate the right state of doneness. “You shouldn’t have to pull on it to get it out of the shell,” she says. “They’re different than littlenecks. With littlenecks overcooked is awful.”
Ms. Sprague is one of a series of chefs who have participated in LeRoux cooking demonstrations, held throughout the past few years to share recipes from Island restaurants, give tips and cooking secrets, and serve small portions of signature dishes. The off-season demos take place each Wednesday, from 11 am to 1 pm, in a mini-kitchen, equipped with a full-size stove and oven, toward the back of the first floor, and each is free of charge.
Counter space is limited, but that’s not a problem for professionals accustomed to maximizing minimal workspace. “This kitchen is bigger than the one I use in the restaurant,” Ms. Sprague says. However, she was not accustomed to having an audience within splatter distance, and she considerately turned away from the crowd to demonstrate an expert toss of the simmering mussels.
Ms. Sprague said she chose the day’s dishes because, “This is something that’s so special. Mussels are everywhere. They’re so cheap and anyone can do it.”
Considering that the recipes demonstrated involved making her own chipotle paste, blending a number of ingredients into a sauce for the rice, and candying her own walnuts for the salad, not everyone in attendance was in agreement that “anyone can do it.” Although some were prepared to try, most attendees said they’d visit Zapotec for the mussels.
About 15 people watched Ms. Sprague. The aisle in front of the countertop accommodates about a dozen seats for up-close observation, and there is generally a handful of onlookers standing on either side, peering through adjacent racks.
In a venture that typifies the cooperative spirit among local business owners, LeRoux owner April Levandowski notes, “We have been doing demos for years, in an effort to support local chefs and charities.” She adds that she encourages chefs to demonstrate products from the store and that attendees can take advantage of a 20 percent discount that day.
Liz Fauteux, who attends the demos every week with her friend Ruth Stiller, points to food items she’s purchased in the past, including gourmet vanilla and blood orange olive oil. “I go on Facebook afterwards and try a lot of the recipes,” she says.
LeRoux employee Nadine Monaco documents each demo with captioned photos and as much additional information as she can add to the LeRoux at Home’s Facebook page. For the previous week’s event, which featured Indian cooking, she posted a guide to mortar and pestles, and she often includes relevant articles and restaurant reviews. “Most of the chefs don’t use recipes, so I take notes and try to provide step-by-step instructions with the pictures,” she says.
Ms. Monaco said LeRoux has kept the demos going into the spring for the first time this year. In the past, the store ended the promotion after Christmas. “It seems like a good thing to do in the off-season when we have more time to prepare and the chefs have more time,” she says. “Just about every restaurant on the Island has done one.”
Ms. Fauteux described the cooking demos as a nice off-season diversion. She and Ms. Stiller make an afternoon of the weekly events, heading off to lunch in town afterwards. Although Ms. Stiller says that she doesn’t cook much anymore, she enjoys attending the demos. She notes, “You see the inch-by-inch making of the dishes. That’s what’s interesting.”
The next cooking demo is from 11 am–1 pm on Wednesday, April 14, at LeRoux at Home in Vineyard Haven. With Evan Fielder of Fielder and Fielder Imports. Free. 508-693-0030.
Gwyn McAllister is a frequent contributor to The Times.