Last week, La Scuola opened at Eataly in Chicago, and the press was invited for lunch and a demo.
This "school" is intended to further the educational (and, of course, marketing) objectives of Eataly, a place I stop every time I'm in the neighborhood (I'm a big fan of their Briccontondo, a Barbera priced just under $14; I pick up two bottles whenever I go to Eataly: huge value).
Lidia Bastianich is a partner in Eataly with her son, Joe Bastianich, and Mario Batali, perhaps America's most visible chef. She is also teaching now and again at Eataly's Scuola, and on the first day of Lent (ironically), she (and a large kitchen staff) made us a simple and immensely satisfying meal.
Throughout much of the demo, a big pot of risotto was vigorously stirred.
Lydia explained "For risotto, short grain rice is preferable because it releases starch. You could use long grain rice, or even brown rice, but we prefer short grain." I didn't know that; I thought risotto always needed a specific kind of rice.
As she drizzled balsamic vinegar on the risotto, Lidia mentioned, "When I was little, my father would have water and wine for the kids. When my father was a little short on wine, he would give us water and vinegar, una bevanda." At this, some people made an unpleasant "ooog" sound. After lunch, I asked Lidia about this water and vinegar beverage, and she said "It was something to brighten the mouth and make it come alive." I love little asides like that, and I have a feeling that it is such small anecdotal comments that make live sessions like this so valuable.
While the risotto cooked, we could see on the large monitors that it was plumping up quite a bit. Lidia explained that risotto must be eaten as soon as it's done. "My mother used to say," Lidia said, "that if you don't come for dinner on time, the risotto will meet you at the door, because…it expands so much."
Our main course was swordfish, and Lidia drizzled olive oil on each chunk of fish. The olive, she said, "is a valiant tree, and olive oil is different in every part of Italy. In the north, it's buttery; in Tuscany, it's peppery, and in the south, it's more vegetal." Never thought of it that way, and I've never tested those distinctions, but I will.
Cooking classes at Eataly are not actually participatory: students sit and watch the demonstration and eat the food, supported every bite of the way by commentary like Lidia's that provides information about technique but also little asides, like those above, that expand one's knowledge of the Italian culinary tradition. Of course, ingredients for all dishes are available in the mammoth retail areas of Eataly.