Chefs Spice Up Hill Center

Posted March 7, 2012 at 4:20pm

Like any real estate agent worth her salt will tell you, “location, location, location” is everything when it comes to self-promotion. 

We suspect the folks at the fledgling Hill Center (921 Pennsylvania Ave. SE) would agree — particularly because their shiny newness and proximity to award-wining local restaurants has helped them welcome a parade of wildly talented tastemakers to their nascent demonstration kitchen. 

The abandoned Old Naval Hospital facility sprang back to life last fall. That’s when the Hill Center formally came into being, bringing with it the promise of community-building and educational opportunities. 

One facet that immediately caught our eye was the Lorinda “Annie” Etheridge Hooks demonstration kitchen, a home away from home for fraternity-starved epicureans eager to devour closely guarded hospitality secrets. 

Foodie prayers have been answered thanks to the concerted efforts of Hill Center Executive Director Diana Ingraham and master chef recruiter Mary Ann Brownlow. 

Ingraham helped plan the kitchen, which can accommodate as many as 14 students at a time and boasts an impressive array of modern flourishes, including: 

• a six-burner KitchenAid gas cook top

• built-in KitchenAid double ranges

• an Electrolux refrigerator

• an industrial (two-minute-cycle) dishwasher

• a three-compartment sink

• an overhead plasma TV 

“Turns out, we put in the Cadillac of everything,” Ingraham said of the state-of-the-art accoutrements. She noted that Hill Center board member and renowned food writer Bonny Wolf helped design the demo kitchen and hand-picked the dishware. 

After the lights were on and the appliances buzzing, Ingraham turned to Brownlow, an event planner whom she had collaborated with during their AFI/SilverDocs days, to help fill the vacant stools. 

Brownlow pounced on the challenge, calling on neighboring chefs — many of whom are the toast of reality-cooking competitions, nationwide “Best of” lists and regional lore — to share their accumulated knowledge with fellow Capitol Hill denizens. 

‘You Might Be Hungry’

Daniele Catalani, chef and founder of Toscana Café, was one early recruit. 

We watched the renowned chef slow-walk eight rapt attendees through the process of transforming stiff, beady grains of Arborio rice into mouthwatering spoonfuls of stock-saturated, maddeningly aromatic risotto. 

Catalani was deliberate but engaging, pausing to pepper students with prized tips culled from a lifetime of honing his craft. “The toasting part is very important because it will create a coat on every grain,” he counseled while flash flaming the raw starch.

He implored everyone to add homemade chicken stock, pitching raw poultry bones, wings and discarded skin as culinary gold, to their cooking repertoire. 

Unlike most corporate-structured courses, the mood at the Hill Center remained light and chummy. So much so that a few merrymakers thought nothing of spreading some good cheer mid-lecture. “Do you mind if we open a bottle of wine?” the booze-packing pair posed to Catalani. “But of course,” the chef replied, kicking off a flurry of activity as the wine carriers uncorked their private stash while classmates rushed to procure clean glasses for a taste. 

After the soupy magnificence reached critical mass, Catalani ladled out steaming portions of the saffron-laced rice for everyone to nibble on. “Some of you are coming from work. You might be hungry,” he teased. 

‘Students Then … Customers Now’

Restaurant Nora chef/founder Nora Pouillon proved equally approachable during her two-hour tutorial. 

The grand dame of organic dining let slip a few trade secrets, revealing that she occasionally thickens the butternut nut squash puree with mashed sweet potatoes when cooking at the restaurant, and she introduced the aspiring cooks to the magic of toasted pumpkin seed oil. 

“It’s really wonderful,” she said of the silky Austrian specialty item. 

Pouillon also provided a behind-the-scenes peek at the Restaurant Nora menu-writing process (it begins with the nightly survey of their most trusted producers and routinely ends with Pouillon personally critiquing staff’s proposed additions), and she admitted that she retains three full-time employees whose sole job is handling all things composting. 

After watching her work, it’s hard to believe it has been nearly three decades since Pouillon played show and tell professionally. 

The last time I did a cooking class was in 1974,” Pouillon told Roll Call. Those intimate gatherings took place in her private kitchen in Adams Morgan and were strictly the domain of confidants willing to fork over $50 to glean how to prepare a week’s worth of meals for a family of four. “My students then are still my customers now. So I didn’t poison them,” Pouillon joked of her early attempts at instruction.

Pouillon said Brownlow, whom she had huddled with in the FRESHFARM Markets trenches, ultimately persuaded her to give teaching another go. Though it doesn’t sound like it took too much prodding. 

“It’s not like I had to convert an enemy,” Pouillon said of the enthusiastic faces beaming back at her from the demo kitchen stools. “These people came to cook with me.” 

‘A Big Experiment’

For now, Brownlow remains committed to booking at least one “master chef” class (average price: $85 a session) per month. 

Renowned D.C. baker Mark Furstenberg is stopping by this weekend, in fact. (Sorry, that class is already sold out.) She’s also in negotiations to bring L’Academie de Cuisine instructors and satellite courses to the Hill Center this spring, a coup that would save Hill folks from having to commute to the highly respected culinary arts institution’s Maryland campuses. 

Ingraham mapped out plans to foster additional homegrown programs, ticking off regular bacon-and-bourbon-centric “date nights,” wine tastings, kids’ culinary camps and team-building events as possibilities. 

“This is just a big experiment right now,” she said. 

And the Hill Center’s not stopping there. 

Its next great leap forward: courting the right suitor for a planned on-site eatery. “The Carriage House is destined to be a family-friendly cafe,” Ingraham said. 

Hill Center Demo Kitchen Instructors

Juliette Tahar
of Healthy Living Inc. — multiple appearances

Scott Drewno
of the Source — Chinese dumpling master class and cocktail pairing

Spike Mendelsohn
of Good Stuff Eatery and We, the Pizza — Eastern Market shopping trip, knife skills tutorial

Daniele Catalani
of Toscana Café — classic Tuscan cooking

Nora Pouillon
of Restaurant Nora — winter vegetable appreciation

Correction: March 8, 2012

An earlier version of the article misspelled the first name of Diana Ingraham, the executive director of the featured Capitol Hill facility.