Testing out some tastes

This week marked the kickoff for a new culinary experience at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute. Our culinary director, Chef Robert Hall, has fielded many questions over the years about how various ingredients compare to one another.

“People want to know what the difference is between an ingredient from one place versus the same ingredient that’s from somewhere else,” he explains.

All those questions got Chef Hall to thinking, “maybe this would work as a culinary class.”

And so was born Taste Test, the newest addition to the Institute’s culinary lineup. These Thursday night classes only cost $15, and, true to its name, it’s all about testing out the tastes of one type of ingredient. But that ingredient might have a dozen or more iterations, divided by brand, geography or technique.

The opening class this week covered hot sauce. I’ve had the privilege of sitting through a number of Chef Hall’s other classes. I always learn something, and he’s usually kind enough to let me sample a bite of whatever he and/or the class is making.

But this time I got to go all in. He lined up 14 varieties of hot sauce, ranging from extremely mild (jalapeño-based) to slap-your-momma hot (ghost peppers). I’m not real adventurous when it comes to my palate. I certainly don’t eat things on a dare. But I decided to tough this one out. I tasted each variety, and of the first 12, only the red Tabasco made me reach for the sugar cubes Chef Hall had provided as a fire extinguisher.

We tried a chipotle sauce that was reminiscent of a spicy barbecue sauce. Then there was Chef Hall’s own homemade concoction, for which he used Fresno chilies. This was the class favorite in terms of flavor. We also got to try aji amarillo, a Peruvian sauce made from the pepper of the same name. This was a gift from our creative director, Sasha Cerrato, whose mother is from Peru.

Between each tasting, Chef Hall explained the science behind measuring Scoville units, the standard measurement for heat in spicy food. A jalapeño, for example, is measured at 3,000-5,000 Scoville units. This means that it would take roughly 3,000-5,000 cups of sugar dissolved in water to completely neutralize the heat in a jalapeño pepper.

Lucky No. 13 was a habanero-based sauce, and its heat clung to the roof of my mouth like peanut butter. It was uncomfortable enough that I determined I’d probably rather not reach for it the next time I wanted to give my food an extra kick, but my mouth recovered quickly, and I was no worse for the wear.

Then came the ghost pepper sauce. It was called Dave’s Gourmet Hot Sauce. Sounded harmless enough. I’m not sure who Dave is, but after one tiny taste of his sauce, I decided he’s not my friend.

It took about an hour – and lots of sugar cubes, plus some milk – for the heat to completely subside. That probably just means I have wimpy taste buds, as Chef Hall did point out that reactions to heat and spice in food are very subjective. I don’t mind admitting that. And I’ll be clear, while my sinuses were as open as they’ve been in a while, even the hottest sauce didn’t pose any real danger. Chef Hall made sure of that, and we all had plenty of fair warning. He explained before we dipped our spoons in Dave’s Gourmet Firestarter that ghost peppers measure at up to 800,000 Scoville units.

All in all, I learned a lot. Besides all the chemistry, I learned that there are a number of hot sauces that are quite tasty and add a welcome punch to various foods.

And then there’s Dave’s.

The next Taste Test class will be Feb. 16, and given it’s the week of Valentine’s Day, the star ingredient will be chocolate. Chef Hall gave me and a few co-workers a preview of the chocolate class earlier this week. Trust me when I say you’ll want to be there for that.

Other ingredients to be covered later in the year include olive oil (March 16), cheese (April 20) and bacon (Nov. 16).

Visit our culinary page for a full listing of Taste Test options. Just find Taste Test and then click the plus button to expand the list of individual classes.


Taste of the Titanic: the last meal, champagne and more

Combine the idea of a last meal with the most famous maritime disaster in history and you’ve got the makings of a fascinating dinner. During the pre-dawn hours of April 15, 1912, the RMS Titanic sank in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. It was day four of her maiden voyage. First-class dinner service had only just ended when the ship struck an iceberg at 11:40 p.m. Satiated passengers—many of the world’s wealthiest—were likely still lingering over brandies and cigars in the smoking room.

More than 100 years later, the story of the Titanic still holds drama and allure. She was glorious and billed as unsinkable, yet the ship that carried 2,200 passengers and crew, 130,000 pounds of meat and fish, and 1,750 pounds of ice cream was equipped with only 20 lifeboats, many of which were lowered half empty. What irony.

I hope none of the passengers skipped dessert.

On April 15, 2016, the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute’s Executive Chef Robert Hall, a native Arkansan whose impressive resume includes stints at The Excelsior Hotel (Little Rock, Arkansas) and Sundance Resort (Provo, Utah), will replicate the final first-class meal served aboard the Titanic as part of his Chef’s Tasting Dinner series.               

“I’ve extensively researched cooking methods and recipes of the Edwardian era and believe I can closely replicate what was actually served to the first-class passengers,” Hall said.

The original 10-course meal is well-documented as a few copies of the Titanic menu were salvaged from the ship’s wreckage. And those desserts? They included Waldorf pudding, peaches in chartreuse jelly, chocolate and vanilla éclairs, and French ice cream.

Hall will stretch his Taste of the Titanic menu to 15 courses, and while Chef’s Tasting Dinners typically include specific wine pairings, the Titanic dinner will feature champagne pairings instead. According to Hall’s research, the ship’s cargo manifest suggests more champagne and liquor was on board than wine.

Taste of the Titanic will be a unique experience including more than scrumptious food and champagne. Upon check-in, each attendee will receive a replica 1912 first-class boarding pass along with a brief biography of the first-class passenger they will “become” for the evening. Prior to dinner, guests will have the opportunity to stroll through a special “museum” featuring several White Star Line, Titanic and period artifacts, including dishware, clothing and a scale model of the ship. 

In keeping with original Titanic tradition, a bugle call will signal the start of dinner (around 5:30 p.m.) and participants will be ushered into the dining room. Dinner will last approximately three-and-one-half hours and will include a discussion of meal service aboard the Titanic. Afterward, guests may retire to a different area for after-dinner coffee, brandy, period cocktails and poker (using replicas of period-specific playing cards and fake money). The evening will end around midnight, although guests may return to their rooms earlier.

Dinner is priced at $235 per person, which includes the meal, drink pairings, overnight accommodations and a continental breakfast the following morning. Participants must sign up in pairs. In keeping with first-class ambiance, Taste of the Titanic is a formal event—coat and tie preferred; black-tie optional.

For information on other culinary events happening at the Institute, see the listings for upcoming Classes & Events.

Read more from Talya Boerner at Grace, Grits, & Gardening.


2016 culinary program full of food, glorious food

In the classic Broadway musical “Oliver!”, based on Charles Dicken’s “Oliver Twist,” orphans put their longing for delicious meals into song.

“Just picture a great big steak —

Fried, roasted or stewed.

Oh, food,

Wonderful food,

Marvelous food,

Glorious food.”

If wonderful, marvelous, glorious food is what you long for, too, the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute’s 2016 slate of culinary classes is for you.

Ice cream. Smoothies. Fish. Pasta. Grilled cheese. Pies. Seafood. Our culinary program covers a wide range of foods with classes to suit serious foodies, cooking newbies and everyone in between. Three cooking series are returning in 2016, with one new addition. All classes are taught by the Institute’s culinary director, certified executive chef Robert Hall.

Chef’s Tasting Dinner

Four Chef’s Tasting Dinners on the calendar for next year:

  • Taste of the Titanic
  • Taste of Brazil
  • Taste of Italy
  • A Victorian Christmas

Each is a multicourse culinary experience with 10–15 “tasting courses.” Tasting courses are small portions that capture the essence of a certain dish in just a few bites. These thematic dinners are designed for couples or pairs. Held on a Friday or Saturday night, they include the meal, wine pairings, overnight accommodations and a continental breakfast the following morning. Cost is $235 per person.

Made From Scratch

If you think cooking from scratch can’t be fast, easy, healthy and fun, think again. The 2016 Made From Scratch lineup includes such classes as:

  • Practically Perfect Pizza
  • One-Pot Meals
  • Terrific Tailgating
  • Healthy Substitutions

In these demonstration-only classes, you’ll learn the best culinary practices and techniques required to make a delicious dish from pure, simple ingredients. Plus, you’ll get to sample what’s on the menu, so you won’t go home hungry. Held Tuesdays from 6–8 p.m., each class costs $15 per person.

Saturday Chef Series – NEW for 2016

Looking to brush up on basic cooking methods and techniques? Then the new Saturday Chef Series is for you. These three-hour classes combine demonstration and hands-on cooking with themes like:

  • Hot Breakfast
  • Pasta, Pasta
  • The Cheaper Chicken
  • Holiday Desserts and Confections

Classes start at 10 a.m. and cost $45 per person.

Table for Two

Enjoy some downtime with your significant other, or even a close friend, while learning how to make a delicious meal for two. Classes that are back by popular demand include:

  • Rosemary Shrimp Scampi
  • Grilled Ribeye
  • Lemon-Butter Orange Roughy
  • Asiago Chicken

After a demonstration on how to cook the night’s entree, you will step up to the stove together and practice your new skills. You’ll then enjoy the meal you’ve prepared at a candlelit table for two. Usually held on a Friday or a Saturday night, this class includes a four-course meal, overnight accommodations and a continental breakfast the following morning. Cost is $125 per person.


Explore the food of Italy from Petit Jean Mountain

Quick! What’s your favorite Italian food? Did you say lasagna? Or how about spaghetti and meat sauce with a hefty slice of garlic bread? Oh, those yummy carbs. I love those dishes, too, but there’s so much more to authentic Italian food than what normally comes to mind. Or so I hear.

I’ve never been to Italy. Unless, of course, I count the six long hours I spent during my junior year of college stranded at the Dairy Queen in Italy, Texas. As unforgettable as my day was (long story before cell phone days), I don’t think I can compare that Italy in North Texas to the home of the Roman Empire, the country that introduced us to Prada and Pavarotti, the place that brought us olive oil and capers and silky soft gelato, be still my heart.

Thanks to the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, I’ll soon have my chance to at least explore the food of Italy. Certified Executive Chef Robert Hall will be providing a culinary tour of Italy via his next Chef’s Tasting Dinner scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 26.

Don’t expect plain ole pepperoni pizza.

Did you know there are 20 regions of Italy, each with distinct flavors and dishes? Chef Hall will bring these regions to Petit Jean Mountain as he provides 20 small plates, most expertly paired with wine for sipping.

The Tour of Italy Chef’s Tasting Dinner will be held in the Institute’s culinary classroom, with many dishes prepared demonstration-style. Throughout the meal, Chef Hall will introduce each course, explaining the particular small plate and how it represents a particular region of Italy. So yes, with a fabulous meal, you will experience a bit of Italian history.

Chef's Tasting Dinners fill up quickly, so make your reservations online today or call toll-free 866-972-7778 for additional information. Tickets, sold only in pairs, are priced at $235 per person. The price includes overnight accommodations (one room with a king- or two queen-size beds) and continental breakfast the following morning.

Arrivederci, and see you there!

For information on culinary events available at the Institute, see the listing for upcoming Classes & Events. Read more from Talya Boerner at Grace, Grits, & Gardening.              


The inspirational food journey of Dr. Tim Parmley

Dr. Tim Parmley, who lives just north of Morrilton, has discovered a successful strategy for keeping off the 100 pounds he’s recently lost. For the most part, he only eats what he cooks himself. Eating out is reserved for rare occasions and special treats. After losing a tremendous amount of weight, he was determined not to gain it back as so many do. “I realized I had to control exactly what I was putting in my mouth,” he said.

Easy said, not so easy done. According to his wife, Patricia, before Tim learned to cook, he barely knew how to use a can opener.

The Parmley’s story is typical and relatable. Today, our careers are mostly sedentary. Entertainment involves going out to eat. Where do you want to eat? I don’t care, where do you want to eat? Over time, the pounds pile on because we don’t burn off what we take in. It’s a matter of simple math, yet the complications and potential health issues are anything but simple. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 78 million American adults are obese. Obesity leads to many of the leading causes of preventable death including heart disease, stroke, diabetes and certain types of cancer. Preventable. That’s the good news.

When I was a kid, my mother prepared three meals a day, and we all ate around the kitchen table whether we wanted to or not. During the school year, the cafeteria ladies saw to it that we observed the philosophy of the food pyramid. A poster claiming You Are What You Eat hung beside the milk icebox. While we may not have eaten healthy by today’s standards (yes, we sometimes ate fried baloney, and no, kale wasn’t a popular thing) fast food barely existed and certainly wasn’t the norm. During the last few decades, the busyness of life has flip-flopped the way we eat. Home-cooked meals are reserved for Thanksgiving while supper is eaten in the car during a mad dash to soccer practice.

The Parmleys, who are both physicians, have proven it is possible to take control of your eating and your health. Tim’s cooking journey began in early 2014 when he saw a newspaper ad for cooking classes to be held on Petit Jean Mountain at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute. He dove right in, signing up for the full 12-week basic cooking series.

“I’ve been cooking my whole life, yet from the first class, Tim came home teaching me things,” Patricia said. After the end of the “basic training” classes, he signed on for the 12-week baking series.

Last week, he made a fresh blueberry tart from the blueberry bushes growing on their property. Keeping weight off while enjoying the occasional homemade baked goodie—how’s that for a success story? No deprivation. That’s key.

Now the Parmleys are faithful attendees of most every culinary event held at the Institute, including basic cooking classes, Chef's Tasting Dinners, and Table for Two date nights. And they are enthusiastic cheerleaders of Certified Executive Chef Robert Hall, who heads up the culinary classes. “Chef Hall’s a teacher. He shows us how to go home and cook the same way he does. We’ve learned how to make healthy meals and substitute ingredients. And every class is entertaining,” Patricia said. “Dinner and a show.”

Tim was of the generation of men who never cooked. “I thought if I couldn’t go out and eat a meal or have someone else make it for me, I’d die. Literally. Now I know I can do it myself. Chef Hall’s cooking classes have empowered me.”

Empowerment. What a stellar testimony.

For information on culinary events available at the Institute, see the listing for upcoming Classes & Events. To read about the Institute’s efforts to help combat obesity in Arkansas, see the obesity listing in Institute Programs.

Read more from Talya Boerner at Grace, Grits, & Gardening.


Switch up your routine with Mediterranean cuisine

Has your weekly menu been stuck in a rut? Scared to have more than salt and pepper in your spice rack? Well, now’s the time to change all that. You can learn how at Made From Scratch:  Mediterranean Cuisine. 

On Tuesday, June 2, at 6 p.m., Certified Executive Chef Robert Hall will demonstrate how to make traditional Mediterranean fare. We’re not talking the Mediterranean diet that’s become popular recently. We’re talking food from the region around the Mediterranean Sea. Think Greece, Sicily and Morocco. Think tapenade, tabouleh and baklava. 

Chef Hall will show you how to make a variety of robust, flavorful foods. Foods that are rich with herbs and spices. And he’ll do it with ingredients you can find close to home. Think cinnamon, lemon zest and mint. Think cucumbers, yogurt and walnuts. 

During the two-hour class, you’ll sample delicious food and learn proper culinary practices and techniques. All of which you can then replicate in your own kitchen. It’s simple, healthy food made fun. 

So switch up your routine today. Tickets are $15. You can register online or call 1-866-972-7778 (toll free). 

Made From Scratch is part of the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute culinary program series. Upcoming Made From Scratch classes include Making Nutritious Delicious (June 16), Asian Cuisine (June 30) and Preserving (July 28). See the Classes & Events page for a full calendar.


Chef's Tasting Dinners: more than a gastronomic experience

Food is a powerful thing. In the same way one rich, creamy spoonful of chicken and dumplings carries me straight back to my grandmother’s kitchen table, it can also transport me to places I’ve never been. Capturing the essence of time and place through food, that’s the idea behind the Chef's Tasting Dinners offered as part of the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute culinary program series.

Intrigued? You should be. Executive Chef Robert Hall’s tasting dinners are masterful. Guests will enjoy 15-20 tasting courses, each crafted to highlight an exotic location, a unique time or a distinctive theme. And most courses will be expertly paired with wine.

Wait, what?

Yes, 15-20 tasting courses spread over four hours. Think flavorful, sophisticated bites enhanced with the perfect small sip.

Think amazing.

During the age of aristocrats, multicourse meals were commonplace, a way to prove social status and make use of massive 24-piece silver place settings. Chef Hall follows the traditional French course flow in his tasting dinners (even when the menu isn’t French). In other words, there’s a rhyme and reason for the flow of food. Appetizer followed by soup followed by eggs followed by pasta followed by… see what I mean?  It’ll be like dining at Downton Abbey, only you’ll be high atop peaceful Petit Jean Mountain wearing more comfortable clothes.              

A native Arkansan and graduate of the University of Central Arkansas, Hall got his food start as a prep cook in Conway at A Place To Eat (now closed).

“I needed a job,” he said. “Cooking got in my blood, and I fell in love with it.”

After such a modest start, Chef Hall has built an impressive resume that includes periods at The Excelsior Hotel (Little Rock, Ark.), Sundance Resort (Provo, Utah) and working as an executive chef for the 2008 Summer Olympic games in Beijing. He also owned his own restaurant and catering company. But even with such a remarkable bio, Chef Hall is not a fancy pants. Guests of his kitchen quickly realize he’s a regular, down-to-earth sort of guy who’s passionate about food and eager to share cooking tips and technique.

Chef’s Tasting Dinners are held in the Institute’s culinary classroom, with many dishes prepared live, demonstration-style. As each course is plated and served, Chef Hall will provide a brief history lesson explaining the flavors and components of the dish and how it embodies the evening’s theme. Infotainment, he calls it. Information plus entertainment. You will learn something. Chef Hall is a natural teacher.

Tickets, priced at $235 per person and sold only in pairs, include overnight accommodations (one room with a king- or two queen-size beds) and continental breakfast the following morning. Whether you seek a romantic getaway or a fun girls’ weekend, Chef Hall’s tasting dinners provide much more than a gastronomic experience.

Tasting dinners scheduled through the end of the year include Food in Film (June 13), Tasting Tour of Italy (September 26), and Christmas Around the World (December 18). In addition to the Chef’s Tasting Dinners, the Institute offers other culinary programs such as Culinary Basic Training and Made from Scratch classes. Check the calendar of events to register today, or call toll free 866-972-7778.

Bon appétit!

Arkansas Women Bloggers member Talya Tate Boerner is a Delta girl who grew up making mud pies on her family’s cotton farm in Northeast Arkansas. After thirty years in Texas, she has returned to the state she loves, settling in Northwest Arkansas. Talya draws inspiration from nature and appreciates the history behind food, family, places and objects. She blogs at Grace, Grits and Gardening and has been published in Arkansas Review, Front Porch and several on-line publications. Talya believes most any dish can be improved with a side of collard greens.