Chef’s cooking lessons highlight the importance of local food
Richard Hirshen ambled through a farmers market on a recent Saturday with a small entourage in tow. The local chef pointed out his favorite vendors, giving background on some of them, and asked around about who was selling the ripest persimmons of the day.
At one stall, a woman following him pointed out an odd-looking vegetable she didn’t recognize.
“It’s an Italian cabbage,” said Hirshen, as he picked up the coral-like green veggie with spiky nubs.
“It looks like it belongs in a fish tank!” said the woman, one of five students trailing the chef as he picked up ingredients for a lesson on locally grown food.
Hirshen paid for the cabbage, placed it in the woman’s shopping bag, and continued through downtown Chico’s market, which he considers the community’s lifeline to eco-friendly eating.
Hirshen’s class began at Monks Wine Lounge & Bistro—just down the street from the market—where minutes earlier he showed his students how to make bread.
Kevin Coy, a chef and co-owner of Monks, hired Hirshen to run the cooking classes as a way to introduce sustainable cooking to locals. And the Chico businessman practices what he preaches by buying local food, including wine and beer, as much as possible.
“We’re always trying to find new products and new ways to be green in the community,” Coy said of the downtown bistro. “A Sysco truck doesn’t show up here with sauces in a can.”
Hirshen’s cooking lessons are rich with advice, special cooking techniques, and funny stories about his life as a chef.
On this particular day, Coy re-enacted his own lesson on waste, recalling a day when Hirshen grabbed his wallet and started tossing money into a trash can. As Hirshen emptied Coy’s wallet, he explained to him how chucking leftover ingredients, like scraps of dough, was a waste of money.
Coy said he now tries to incorporate the extra preparation portions into other dishes.
Whenever food or cooking is the topic of conversation, Hirshen, who goes by the nickname Chef Richie, lights up, talking lively and authoritatively about his cooking insights, such as finding the freshest fruit and vegetables, and the best deals.
“My favorite food comes out of the ground right before I eat it,” he said.
Hirshen grew up in Berkeley, and earned a bachelor’s in psychology from Chico State in 1985. But his passion for food led him to restaurant around the world and to prominent kitchen posts. He worked under Food Network star chef Mario Batali in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s at a couple of restaurants, including the Four Seasons Biltmore Hotel in Santa Barbara.
Locally, he has worked for several upscale restaurants, such as Sierra Nevada Taproom & Restaurant, and Farwood Bar and Grill in Orland. Recently, he spent several years as president of the Chico Food Network, a local nonprofit focused on food education and advocacy.
Hirshen spent two years in Italy honing his kitchen skills and learning the local flavor. He credits his time there with influencing his approach to cooking, which includes his strong emphasis on local food.
“What I learned in Italy is that there are farmers markets everywhere,” said Hirshen an e-mail. “There is a sort of centralized distribution system, making for a much smaller carbon footprint.”
Students can expect a foreign-language lesson in the kitchen, since Hirshen is fluent in French, Spanish and Italian. He hands out a vocabulary sheet with 30 basic kitchen terms; words like fork, garden and bread are translated into six languages, including Yiddish.
During his recent lesson at Monks, Hirshen crafted a four-course lunch made primarily of local ingredients. The students participated in the effort and got to eat the end product. The menu included fettunta, a specialty grilled garlic bread; a roasted-vegetable pasta salad with chicken and chive oil; and an “autumn smoothie” made of kiwis, apples and persimmons.
Brenda Robles was one of the students who stood in Monks kitchen, watching Hirshen speak passionately about the health benefits of brown bread over white, what makes a sourdough loaf sour, and why he believes local baker Dave Miller’s bread is the best in the world.
“I never really paid attention to it, but it makes me realize [local] food is really good,” said Robles, a student at Live Oak High School who took Hirshen’s class for her senior project.
As a side project, Hirshen is working on a cookbook showcasing the foods sold at the market. The book will include seasonal appetizers, soups, salads, entreés and desserts, using ingredients from a particular farmers market merchant for each recipe. He expects it to be published and ready for sale sometime next year.
In the meantime, he is gearing up for more lessons at Monks.
“I like to promote the farmers market, which is what I feel like I’m doing with these classes,” Hirshen said. “It’s also the right way to eat. It’s picked this morning. How can you get any better than that?”