PORTLAND, Maine — Accomplished French chef Frederic Eliot’s succulent coq au vin, a braised chicken classic, often sells out when it graces the menu at Portland’s Petite Jacqueline. Next week, the chef de cuisine will step out of the kitchen to teach students at Maine College of Art how to replicate his signature dish.
“I’ll make it more approachable. We should not take ourselves too seriously with cooking,” said Eliot, who will introduce home chefs to the backbone of French comfort food: heavy butter and cream. “It’s a good thing all around.”
The Parisian-born French Culinary Institute graduate is one of a handful of local cooking masters who signed up to instruct students in MECA’s new culinary arts program. These non-degree continuing studies courses are open to the public and held on campus and across the city.
A butcher will dissect a whole pig at Rosemont Market, a wine expert will share food-and-wine pairing ideas, and the head pastry chef at Standard Baking Co. will give students a crash course in holiday baking.
Why is a fine arts school, known for turning out painters and sculptors, dabbling in gastronomy?
It’s simple: Art doesn’t just happen at the end of a brush.
This fall, MECA is widening its scope beyond aspiring designers and visual artists to all who would like to bring artistry to their kitchens. To make that happen, they are moving the classroom into the community.
“We had a directive from our president to try new things. Food is right outside our doorstep,” Courtney Cook, director of MECA’s continuing studies, said. “Just as people are getting to know their local farmer, this is getting to know your chef.”
When Cook looked around, she found restaurants, bars, breweries and new venues like O’Maine Media Kitchen ready to assist. Chefs, bakers, mixologists, even food photographers have been invited into the roster.
“I’ve been thrilled by that response,” Cook said. “People are really eager to share what they know with the community. This gets them outside the kitchen. It’s fun for them.”
For accomplished chefs like Eliot, who eschews food TV and rarely looks up from his high-production kitchen, the outreach is a welcome shift.
“It’s a good opportunity for me and for people to be exposed to cooking. It’s good for the culture in general,” said Eliot, who will teach students to cut and blanch vegetables in a classic French style and work their way up to sauces, braising and — if things go well — his famed coq au vin.
Beyond busting out a meal to impress friends and neighbors, new professions could be launched.
“The food industry is huge. We want to prepare our students to have lucrative careers,” Cook said. “From hands-on food positions to food photography, we will try out a lot of things over the years and see what people gravitate toward.”
Forget stuffy wine-tasting classes, Joe Appel of Rosemont Market Productions began his wine-and-food pairing class this week in the relaxed, industrial confines of the new O’Maine Media Kitchen, an event and commercial studio space on Danforth Street that MECA is renting for a few courses.
“Imagine being downtown, hanging out — almost like a pop-up wine bar,” said Appel, who teaches casual classes that focus on flavor and aroma profiles. “Acidity is a crucial factor in wine. I like to talk about the context of what wine is being drunk.”
Under the new program, classes on cocktail history will be held at The Portland Hunt and Alpine Club. On Sundays, head mixologist John Myers will walk people through the chapters of drink. For $45, anyone can brush up on the golden age of the sidecar through to the latest infused craft martini.
“We felt as though there was a real connection to be explored between Maine’s preeminent destination for arts education and a city that has such a passion for culinary arts,” Raffi Der Simonian, director of marketing and communications at MECA, said. “Our new foodie programming directly aligns with MECA’s institutional mission of educating artists for life.”