class act

As Fresh as it gets at Newport Cooks

By Gloria De Paola / Photography By Mae Gammino | September 12, 2016
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Mary Weaver (front right) organized, along with instructor/chef Deja Hart (front left), a class that began late on a summer afternoon at Casey Farm in Saunderstown.

A Cooking Class Ventures to the Farm Before Heading into the Kitchen

In our artisanal world, the phrase “farm-to-table” is meant to attract people who truly care about the quality of their food. But with jet-fueled globalization, how do we know if those microgreens really came from a nearby farm, or if the chickens are happy or if that expensive cheese plate showcases local varieties? How local is local?

Mary Weaver has an answer: Get to know your local grower and find out what’s in season at the farm. To this end, Mary has added a new ingredient to her menu of classes at Newport Cooks, an 8-year-old cooking school and commercial food incu-bator in Middletown. She organized, along with instructor/chef Deja Hart, a class that began late on a summer afternoon at Casey Farm in Saunderstown and ended five hours later at the cooking school, located in a shopping plaza behind Coastal Coffee Roasters on Aquidneck Avenue.

The school’s first farm-to-table class was held in mid-July before native corn, tomatoes, eggplant and peppers were ready to harvest. So what was available? Well, a lot, actually. Chef Deja showed off a basket of freshly picked nappa cabbage, garlic scapes, carrots, kohlrabi, turnips, green onions and fennel—all the ingredients for a mixed vegetable slaw.

As 10 enthusiastic home cooks viewed the fields of produce, farm manager Lindy Markavich talked about the organic growing techniques used on 10 acres devoted to vegetables. Along the way they met two frisky pigs, Calvin and Hobbes, and Snapdragon, the farm’s cat and chief mouser. Before leaving the Historic New England—owned working farm, site manager Jane Hennedy gave a tour of the 265-year-old farmhouse and pointed out a bullet hole in the entry made by British soldiers during the Revolutionary War. In the 18th century Casey Farm cheese, vegetables and grains provided a comfortable lifestyle for the Coggeshall family, the first owners to farm the property.

Today the farm managers raise enough produce to supply nearby farmers’ markets, several restaurants and 175 CSA subscribers.

“If I had a do-over in life, it would be this: farming, working outdoors,” said Lois Zawrotny, who struggles to grow flowers on her quarter acre in Newport.

At 5:30 pm the caravan of cooks left the farm for a scenic drive back over the bridges. Newport Cooks works out of a long, sunny home-style kitchen. Students donned aprons and sipped a glass of organic wine while they studied recipes for the evening meal. The menu consisted of jerk-marinated swordfish from The Local Catch in Point Judith, vegetable slaw, lobster—garlic scape beignets and a luscious raspberry-lemon sponge cake roulade lathered with whipped cream. Deja assigned jobs, prepped pans, handled the mandoline slicer and demonstrated her formidable knife skills as the class tentatively copied her style.

Laurel Zawrotny did an impressive job of reducing carrots to matchstick slivers. “I watch a lot of Food Network TV,” she explained.

Deja kept things moving as Lois and a partner separated 10 eggs, Rich Coppa and Diane Castro whisked egg yolks and raspberries into a fruit-lemon curd and everyone else peeled, chopped and diced the Casey Farm vegetables for the slaw. As the activity swirled around her, Deja answered questions, gave out a steady stream of hints and how-to’s, and took on the trickier steps like operating that sharp mandoline (“be sure to curl your fingers”).

Mary kept things moving smoothly, always ready with utensils, clearing away unwanted bowls and quickly substituting a bottle of brandy for the raspberry liqueur called for in the sponge cake roulade. The two women worked seamlessly together; the session is filled with casual good humor and it’s clear that any mishap can be easily corrected.

Mary describes herself as the chief bottle washer of Newport Cooks but she’s really much more. Her cooking career began at age 8 when she won a statewide 4-H contest in her native Virginia with a show-and-tell on how to make cheese fondue. She went on to earn a degree in hospitality management from Virginia Tech, managed and owned bed and breakfast inns in Bristol and Newport, moved on to event planning at several nonprofits including the Museum of Yachting and the Nature Conservancy.

Membership director at US Sailing in Newport was her “last paycheck job.” The common thread in this varied career was planning events, making things happen and “building a community of like-minded people.”

The idea for Newport Cooks came from a friend whose job required frequent travel. He hated eating alone so he would sign up for cooking classes whenever he was away from home. He learned to cook local dishes and always had company at dinnertime.

It seemed like an idea that would work in Newport, an international tourist attraction with great restaurant chefs. For her first class Mary rounded up seven friends and hired Chef Brian Waugh to show the group how to prepare a freshly caught sea bass. She remembers that seasonal vegetables and a lavender-scented crème brulée completed that first meal.

From that first class in 2008 with friends and her own pots and pans, Newport Cooks grew to 70 adult classes taught by local chefs, and week-long children’s summer cooking camps in 2015.

The children’s cooking classes are a special favorite with parents who don’t want their kids to become those picky eaters who try to feed their carrots to the dog. Mary teaches them herself and she makes sure her young students don’t get flustered if they make mistakes. “They can always fix it.” And good manners prevail. If kids don’t like what someone else made, they must think of ways to make it better. “Don’t harsh someone else’s yum,” is her mantra.

Because cooking is a skill that baffles many people, Mary and her chefs teach basic techniques during their outside-the-lunchbox classes; recent sessions included seafood charcuterie with Chef Christophe Jalbert and fermented vegetables with Chef Sharyn Singer. In September, there’s a beekeeping session with a visit to Fruit Hill Apiary in Cranston followed by a grilled outdoor lunch. The ideas for classes come from Mary and her chefs and even her clients. One older woman gave friends a Christmas gift class on cooking healthy foods, because they are all downsizing and she “wants them to live long, healthy lives.”

At 8:30 pm the farm-to-table class in July, Lois Zawrotny explained that she has taken lots of classes at Newport Cooks, and she tries out almost everything taught by Chef Deja and the other instructors. “They’re very informative.”

At 8:30 the farm-to-table class, instructors and guests sat down to a festive and sociable meal. Asked if he would attempt these dishes at home, family cook Rich Coppa of Ashaway said he probably would, “on some snowy night when we have time to kill. Not on a work night.” Everyone agreed that the food they prepared was delicious and it had been a wonderful way to spend a summer afternoon.

Newport Cooks
796 Aquidneck Ave.
Visit their website for a complete list of classes.

Photo 1: Instructor/Chef Deja Hart collects the bounty to take back to the teaching kitchen.
Photo 2: Back at Newport Cooks, class commences.
Photo 3: Newport Cooks founder Mary Weaver.
Photo 4: Students take home recipes and newfound kitchen skills.
Chef Deja found plenty at the farm to make a delicious spicy slaw.
Article from Edible Rhody at
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