Classes at the Culinary Arts Institute of Montgomery County Community College Instill Kitchen Confidence

As class time approaches on a Wednesday night, the students arrive one by one: ten women, two with their daughters, one guy. As they settle into the chairs in the state-of-the-art demo kitchen of the Culinary Arts Institute, the chef opens the whisper-quiet door with his back, carrying a tray of supplies.

Dressed exactly as if he had come from central casting - so yes, that includes a toque, the puffy hat that cooks wear - he sets his ingredients on the stainless steel counter. He produces a CD player, which he tucks into a corner of the room and plugs in. Italian arias begin to play, giving the room appropriate atmosphere.

Let the cooking begin!When he has sufficiently prepped (and washed his hands), he introduces himself: He is Chef Charles Lotka, and he is there to demonstrate the fine art of preparing gnocchi, a thick pasta whose translation into English is either "knot" or "knuckle."

The presentation is part of an ongoing series of classes presented to the public by the institute. Housed in a 15,000 square-foot facility in Lansdale, the school caters to professionals looking to get a start in the industry and ordinary home cooks who want to improve their skills.

Kim, a student from Downingtown, is exactly that. She's here because she likes gnocchi and wants to make it for her family but has always been disappointed in the result. "I start out okay," she says.  "But in the end, I'm serving golf balls."

Chef Lotka isn't standing on ceremony. "Come on up here and gather around," he invites, prompting the class to leave its seats for a close-up view.

He immediately starts on two of the sauces he will be serving tonight: a traditional marinara and a gorgonzola white cream sauce. As he sets two pots to bubble, the kitchen-classroom beings to fill with the mouthwatering scent of simmering tomatoes and wine.

Lotka hands out recipes for his creations and fields an initial question. "Baking soda in gnocchi? Why is that," a student asks.

"It keeps them light and fluffy," Lotka answers. Kim is scribbling notes.

In a matter of minutes, Lotka has mixed boiled potatoes, baking powder, flour and eggs into a rustic dough. He works the dough by hand, old-school style, and before long, it is combined into a smooth lump. He halves the dough once, twice, a third time and eventually ends up with long ropes of dough. With a flick of his razor-sharp knife, he cuts the dough and uses a fork to give it the trademark ridges that Lotka explains are to "...better hold the sauce."

Kim is hanging on every word. "This is so much better than those cooking shows on TV," she comments. "First, there's the chance to ask questions. When you're watching a TV chef, even if you pause to catch a detail or an ingredient you may have missed, there's no chance to ask anything."

Chef Lotka nods.

"And," she continues. "There's the whole ‘magic oven' thing. You know, where the chef takes a recipe so far and then says, ‘Well we have one I started earlier here in the oven. I'll just swap this one out for that one and we'll continue.' I always wonder what happens in that switch. What aren't we seeing?"

Lotka laughs in agreement. "This is your chance to really see this process for yourselves, up close and personal."

With a series of careful plops to avoid burning himself, Lotka gently introduces the pasta to boiling water. They plunge to the bottom but before long are bobbing on the surface.

The sauces are nearing their completion. The marinara gets a whirl in the food processor and the gorgonzola is tossed into the creamy wine mixture. The kitchen now smells heavenly.

Moments later the students are enjoying the fruits of Chef Lotka's labors. He grabs a plate for himself, dishes up his own serving and digs in with his students.

The classes at the Culinary Institute take a holiday-themed turn in late November and early December. This Saturday, November 23, for example, Chef Julia Quay creates five varieties of cookies that any Santa would be delighted to munch during his Christmas Eve visit. Future sessions involve the assembly of a gingerbread centerpiece, cocktail party hors d'oeuvres and holiday brunch ideas. A full list of available classes is here.

The Culinary Arts Institute of Montgomery County Community College

The Culinary Arts Institute of Montgomery County Community College

Chef Lotka makes gnocchi look easy, but if you'd still rather leave this specialty in the hands of a pro, get your taste buds over to Ralph's of South Philly in the Sheraton Valley Forge, among other area restaurants.

If you wind up eating yourself into a food coma and would like to forego the commute home, treat yourself to an overnight. Our list of accommodations is on our site.