Bistro academy

Cooking up fun in the kitchen with Chef Leon

Chef Ann Leon tosses the<i> naan</i> dough for the hungry students during a recent Indian cooking demo in the kitchen of her Leon Bistro.

Chef Ann Leon tosses the naan dough for the hungry students during a recent Indian cooking demo in the kitchen of her Leon Bistro.

Dinner lessons: New classes start in January and will be posted at in early December. Cost: $60/individual and $110/couple.
Leon Bistro
817 Main St.

Chico foodies and regular eaters alike are hip to a Tuesday-night ritual that is worth making room for on your calendar. Every other Tuesday evening, the cooking classes at Leon Bistro, with chef Ann Leon, have local food aficionados buzzing.

Leon opened her Main Street restaurant about a year and a half ago, and her biweekly classes at once inform and entertain as she works magic with food. Students are given not only a taste of the delectable dishes of a specific ethnicity (German, Sicilian and Spanish are some of the classes on her schedule), but top-notch instruction in cooking techniques and a first-rate good time as well.

For a recent Indian-cuisine class, about 12 guests observed Leon demonstrating the nuances of preparing (mostly vegetarian) traditional dishes: dahl, vegetable samosas, butter-chicken curry and pakoras, to name a few. Along with Leon, server Joan Leon, server/sous chef Susan Leon Peterson (Ann’s mother and sister, respectively) and Sous Chef Dylan Bryant orchestrated a staggering, and engaging, two-hour extravaganza.

Upon entering the well-appointed Leon kitchen, guests were seated at an elegant, linen-covered table in front of the cooking area surrounded by pots, shiny sauté pans and numerous kitchen appliances. Each place setting included a glass of champagne with grenadine, only the first of many drinks (including flowery wines) to accompany the food as the evening unfolded—all of which did double duty as palate cleansers, which are important between spicy Indian dishes.

“Welcome to Indian!” Leon said when her students were situated. “We’ll show you how to do this kind of cuisine—without a tandoori oven.”

While Leon’s genius lies first and foremost in her intricate knowledge of foods and food preparation, her people skills are impressive as well. Her frequent jokes and easy manner and smile quickly made students comfortable. Referring occasionally to a hand-out, students concentrated on the detailed demonstrations Leon provided with the support of Bryant.

An ardent follower of the locavore movement (using only locally grown, seasonal ingredients), Leon showed off the gorgeous produce Comanche Creek Farms had picked earlier in the day. “The way I handle vegetables in this class is that whatever came from the farm today at 4 o’clock is what you’re going to have on your plate.”

The evening included a wonderful overview of the not-so-secret ingredient in Indian dishes: spices, such as paprika, cardamom, curry, fennel and more. Whether she was flipping cumin seeds roasting in a sauté pan or hand-patting naan (traditional Indian flatbread), Leon would share a tip, suggestion or anecdote that fit. Passing small bowls of freshly ground spices for guests to view and smell, Leon shared an ancient Sanskrit saying: “Your guests are your god, and your god will treat you as you treat your guests.”

Highly kinetic, Leon showed students every step of each dish, including some of the minutiae such as how to use a carrot peeler to remove brown spots from cauliflower. She talked about different kinds of rice and emphasized the importance of ghee (a type of clarified butter) in Indian cooking. She explained where to obtain special ethnic foods and spices as well as cultural aspects of Indian dining.

The evening was a sensory barrage full of colorful vegetables, exotic spices and delicious, memorable foods. This is one week-night activity where participants simply cannot go wrong. Even those who might normally feel intimidated by a cooking class will feel at ease during Leon’s entertaining Tuesday night productions.