The menu for last Thursday’s class at Flavour Cooking School read: crab cakes, poached shrimp, homemade shrimp cocktail and frozen lemon mousse soufflé.
Not bad for a couple of eight years olds.
As the cooking lesson began, three young sous chefs stood along the kitchen counter, attentive, eager – and hungry.
Denise Norton, head chef and owner of the school at 7401 W. Madison St., held up a long, thin vanilla bean. “Do you know what kind of flower this comes from?” she asked the kids.
“A vanilla flower?” one boy responded.
It was as good a guess as any. But everybody’s favorite bean is actually derived from orchids, Norton told the class.
At Flavour, Norton transforms her crisp kitchen into a lively classroom, teaching about 15 new classes and 60 original recipes each month. In October, one of Norton’s favorite months in the kitchen, she will shift into cold weather cooking, featuring soups, chili and other aromatic food. Though her menus change, her style remains the same: casual, flavorful food for the everyday person.
“I’m never going to make something that stacks and layers and towers,” Norton said. “We’re talking about a good meatloaf and mashed potatoes experience.”
Norton, born in Minnesota and now residing in Oak Park, graduated from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Chicago with the highest honors before opening Flavour Cooking School in Forest Park in 2003.
The 43-year-old chef, however, did not exactly grow up in the kitchen. As a kid, she often ate convenient, pre-made meals for dinner, such as Hamburger Helper and, much to her dismay, canned asparagus. She was a picky eater then and hated many foods, especially vegetables – and most especially zucchini.
It wasn’t until her mid to late 20s when she discovered cooking with fresh ingredients. Asparagus, for one, certainly tasted different from the “Army-green mush” in the tin can, Norton said.
“At 26 years old, I had it for the first time fresh and crisp and green, and it was a revelation,” she recalled.
Even still, she didn’t immediately jump into a chef’s hat. Norton spent about 12 years working as a certified public accountant, including a post at Tribune Company.
“I was the typical corporate America woman with a suit, briefcase and cell phone,” she said.
The stress – and lack of creativity – got to be too much for her, and she quit the Tribune “cold turkey,” without another position lined up. She ended up taking a class at the Chopping Block, a cooking school in Chicago, and later joined the staff as a financial consultant. During this time, Norton realized that she wanted to pair teaching with cooking, so she enrolled in culinary school.
“She came from a working environment, so it’s refreshing for people like me to know that the world of culinary expertise is not exclusive to those who have spent 15 years peeling shrimp in the industry,” said David Walters, a 30-year-old Forest Parker and monthly student at Flavour. “She’s showed us that this isn’t rocket science; this is something that everyone can do.”
How she ended up on Madison Street was a simple twist of fate. Though Norton knew she wanted to open a school at some point, she had not been actively searching for a space. But one day, seven years ago, she parked outside the location on her way to Paulson’s Paint across the street. Something about the building caught her eye, and she found a way inside that same day.
“I’m not normally a very impetuous person, but I called the number the same day I saw the sign,” Norton said. “I thought that this space was just crying out to be a cooking school.”
Flavour opened four months later. “And I haven’t slept since,” she said.
Though business has been down since the recession began, Norton said they have made adjustments and are doing OK. The retail end of the store has been cut in half compared to a few years ago, but Norton still holds the same amount of classes. Education, after all, has always been their main purpose, she said.
In fact, she doesn’t mind when regular students stop taking classes because usually that means “they cook at home all the time and they don’t really need me anymore,” Norton said. “It’s exciting that they feel confident in attacking any recipe that they see.”
Recently, Norton auditioned for a reality TV show, a competition that would ultimately lead to her own cooking show on Oprah’s network in 2011. Though she did not make the round for interviews, her online audition tape garnered nearly 80,000 votes and placed 14th out of 465 videos in the cooking category.
An outpouring of warm comments posted under the video brought Norton to tears.
One person, for example, described Norton as “a talented, dynamic chef that has the charisma to make learning proper cooking techniques fun and exciting, and a woman who had the courage to follow her heart and use her head to start a successful business that nourishes people’s hearts (and stomachs) every day.”
Though she didn’t make the cut for Oprah’s contest, she’s not ruling out TV cooking shows altogether, should another opportunity arise.
One thing is for sure, though. You’re not going to see her on Hell’s Kitchen.
“No, that is not my style,” she said. “That guy’s a screamer. He’s mean.”
Wednesday, Sept. 29 is the last day to receive a special offer at Flavour Cooking School: Pay full price for any adult class in October and get a demonstration class in 2011 at half price.