By Kat Jahnigen
If après ski goes with winter, then grilling is the summer equivalent.
“When you think about grilling, you think, ‘Hey, summer’s here!’” says Ann Fitzgerald.
It’s certainly true. Fitzgerald was one of about 10 people gathered around the grill on the Westin Riverfront Resort’s patio last week. The sight of the sun setting over the Eagle River, corn on the cob and skewers of Kobe beef and lamb on the grill couldn’t have been more evocative of summer.
Fitzgerald, on vacation from Arlington, Va., was part of a grilling class, which drew an eclectic assortment of locals, some committed “foodies” and some who joined in at the spur of the moment while enjoying some outdoor cocktails at the Westin’s restaurant, Cima.
“I’ve done a couple other cooking classes at different restaurants,” explains, Alicia Gresley of Eagle-Vail. “I think it’s nice to have these little things to fill in the off-season.”
Unlike Gresely, who is doing only a single class, Avon resident Martie Hutto is signed up for the entire six-week session, which also includes wine tastings.
“I love cooking – it’s one of my favorite hobbies,” says Hutto. “I was only able to get a grill last year, that was my first foray into (grilling). I like the freshness of it, being outdoors. Things taste better – instead of just dug out of a frying pan.”
The six-week grilling class is one of many offered by Culinary Innovations, the brain child of chef Shawn Sanders, who started the company as a children’s cooking program, Little Chefs of Vail. After two years of child-focused classes, Sanders is in the process of launching the Big Chefs program, which offers everything from basic cooking classes to sessions specializing in ethnic dishes. The courses range from two-hour to full-day commitments. Menus are usually determined by participant requests, and you can pay by the class, sign up for an entire series or even buy a punch card.
An early start
To call Sanders “passionate” about cooking might be an understatement. The already exuberant and lively young woman, who has been a professional chef in the area for 11 years, becomes positively effervescent when she’s sharing her love of cooking. Every topic that comes up seems to lead Sanders to inspiration for a new recipe or another tasty tip participants can put to use in their own kitchens.
Sanders got her start cooking for her entire family.
“My mom had a stroke, so I cooked for my family – breakfast, lunch and dinner – and that got me really excited about cooking,” she says.
Sanders started Little Chefs after she realized that most kids don’t have the opportunity to enjoy cooking like she did. In addition to her contagious enthusiasm, Sanders is a natural educator, seizing every opportunity to help participants understand culinary concepts, offering tips from cooking pros and encouraging students to explore and be creative with their own attempts.
“High five!” Sanders says every time 5-year-old Lily placed another carefully constructed skewer on the grill.
“Kids are very trustworthy if you have faith in them,” Sanders explains. “ If you tell them they can do it – if you show them how to use a grater or something – they can do it.”
Lily – dressed in a white chef’s apron and jacket – is a student from Little Chefs, who attended the grilling class with her mom, Wendy Deshoe.
“Lily loves to be in the kitchen,” says Deshoe, who also has a 7 year old in the program. “And I trust Shawn with her. She looks out for them.”
Little Chefs offers classes for 3 to 19 year olds, as well as school field trips to provide kids with hands-on learning opportunities they can put to use both in and out of the kitchen. At each class, young cooks prepare enough food to take home for the family to try.
“She allows them the freedom to experiment so they can build their own understanding of flavors,” says Deshoe of the food her children bring home. “There’s one dish where she guides them, and it’s delicious. Then she allows them to experiment on their own with flavor combinations, and let’s just say that dish is usually ‘interesting.’”
An outdoor alternative
Some might call cooking and grilling a sport, but others might call it a different option compared to the many athletic activities found in the area.
“(The classes are) great for kids who aren’t athletic, or people who come for skiing or biking vacations and twist an ankle or something,” says Deshoe. “Shawn is really adaptable, so she customizes it - it’s the perfect alternative for people who can’t hit the mountain. There’s a Friday evening class that’s sort of an alternative to babysitting so parents can go have dinner, while kids are learning to cook.”
Despite the success of her first exploration into grilling, however, Lily says her favorite thing to cook is still sushi. And, lucky for her, sushi would be the focus of an upcoming class, at the request of the group.
“My favorite thing is to hear what they want to make,” says Sanders. “Whatever gets them excited.”