Credit: Robert Ullman

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Ellen Greenberg’s kitchen makes me feel small. Part of it is the sheer size of the space, a massive open room outfitted with marble counters and a stone floor, which flows seamlessly into a casual sitting area with a gas fireplace and a flat-screen TV on the wall. And part of it is the moneyed hardware: the massive Sub-Zero fridge on one side of the kitchen, the six-burner Viking Professional range on the other, the dueling dishwashers on either side of the deep-and-wide sink.

But then there are the guests who have ignored the bone-rattling December chill to arrive at Greenberg’s Potomac home for this cooking class–cum–dinner party. They’re all women, smart and smartly dressed, who could probably open their purses and pay off my wife’s car loan, buy our house, and fund a small overseas war. As I’m standing in Greenberg’s kitchen, notepad in hand, one woman asks me why I’m here. When I tell her I’m writing a story about the evening, she feigns disappointment. “Oh,” she says, “I was hoping you were going to dance naked.” She asks me not to print that.

Greenberg has hired chef Susan Watterson for the evening. Greenberg is one of hundreds, including myself, who has taken Watterson’s 20-week course in fundamental culinary techniques at L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg. Except Greenberg never completed the course. This evening, in a sense, is her chance to continue her education on her own terms—and on her own turf. Or at least to make sure the food at her dinner party doesn’t suck.

Watterson has done this sort of thing before, and as the freshly unemployed chef prepares to open her own recreational cooking school this year, she’ll probably do it many more times to earn some pocket change. And why not? People appear to be hungry for professional help at their own stoves. Maybe it’s because affluent boomers have shifted their hero worship from fading rock stars to white-coated cooks once considered domestic help. Maybe it’s because the Food Network, borrowing from both Hollywood and the NFL, has injected sex and competition into cooking shows. Whatever the reason, inviting a chef over for dinner—or to make dinner—is the latest form of in-home edutainment.

Yet if there’s any celebrity cachet in Watterson’s visits, it can be hard to see from the inside. Watterson tells me a story about a guy who once took a class from her. He was “so overwhelmed” by the experience, she recalls, he had to leave in the middle of class. But he later called L’Academie to see if anyone would be willing to give him private lessons. Watterson drew the short straw. When she arrived at his home, Watterson discovered that the oven had never been used and, perhaps more telling, that the man wanted to clean the appliance immediately after the chef dirtied it. It was a self-cleaning oven. “He could have been an ax murderer,” Watterson deadpans.

Watterson is much more selective now about whose home she enters. Few places on Earth could be safer than Greenberg’s sprawling residence in Potomac. A lawyer by training, Greenberg’s put her career on hold to raise her kids, but her manner of dress still radiates she’s all business: a black turtleneck over black slacks, with a gold, chainlike belt hanging loosely around her thin waist.

Greenberg and Watterson have consulted on the evening’s final menu, an old-school, Old World lineup of beef Wellington, mashed potatoes, mushroom risotto, and chocolate mousse. A few of the more time-consuming tasks have been performed ahead of time. Watterson and her assistant, Candy Frankel, arrived with the duxelles and mushroom stock already in hand; they’ve also collected all the necessary ingredients. These student-diners don’t have to sweat the prep work, though their entire dinner will depend on their involvement.

“If everybody doesn’t cook,” says Watterson, faced with preparing a multi-course meal for more than 10 people, “you’re screwed.”

Watterson asks the women to split into three groups—one for making the Wellingtons, one for the risotto, and the final one on desserts. Two women work the risotto station; three have flocked to Watterson, who’s leading Team Wellington; and the rest are huddled around the mixer with Frankel to make the mousse. I point out the imbalance on the dessert team. “You know why?” says Jeri Gelb, one of Greenberg’s neighbors. “They want the chocolate.”

It’s a theory, but I suspect the division of labor has its roots in something more fundamental—fear. The risotto station is the only one without an instructor. The other two have the benefit of professional oversight or at least a well-trained amateur like Frankel, a retired math teacher who now devotes her free time to culinary education. Even in a social setting like this, the fear of embarrassing yourself in front of your peers can make you seek safety. Or turn you into a wine-­sipping sideline critic.

As Michelle Osterman puts together her mini-Wellington on the marble-topped island in the center of the kitchen, she has a pair of color commentators seated in front of her, offering both encouragement and criticism. Cathy Caulk tells Osterman to fold her pastry dough before applying the ingredients. Gelb insists that Osterman should put the duxelles on top of the foie-gras pâté, not vice versa.

When Osterman finally finishes, Caulk demands an encore. “Do another one!” Caulk says, obviously not ready to be a player herself. “You’re so good.” Gelb instead steps forward to give it a try, but not without a warning: “Don’t pressure me!” Osterman just smiles and offers, “Payback!”

The gibes are good-natured, but they also underscore the essential difference between preparing food and watching people prepare food: Cooking is not a couch-potato sport. It takes talent. Little by little, the evening bears this out. The risotto group, under a former Watterson student named Cheryl Haywood, has produced a rather underseasoned dish. The mousse group screwed up the cookie cups and had to start over, and the Wellington team ate so much of the foie-gras pâté they didn’t have enough for all their savory pastries.

As the evening winds down, an ancient, pre–Food Network order begins to reassert itself. Several women continue to eat and drink in the dining room. Others have retired to the kitchen island, where they’re flipping through the faded pages of an old Wellesley yearbook. And all these modern ideas on the eminence of chefs and their craft have been put in their proper place—next to the kitchen sink, where Watterson and Frankel are scrubbing pots and loading the dishwashers.

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washingtoncitypaper.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x 466.