Where can I learn to toss pizza?
VAIL ” Young newlyweds on their honeymoon joined a couple of Vail second-home owners from Florida in David Nowakowski’s West Vail kitchen on a recent Thursday afternoon.
They were learning to make pizza at the Cooking School of Vail. The students sat at a counter lining the perimeter of the kitchen. They each watched intently as Nowakowski demonstrated the finer points of making pizza dough, choosing toppings and caramelizing sweet peppers and onions.
The Cooking School of Vail was the idea of Savory Inn owner Nancy Hassett. The Inn is a 12-room, log-cabin-style hotel with a large backyard on Gore Creek’s gold-medal trout fishery.
Hassett, who purchased the inn about three years ago, remodeled its interior to accommodate a larger, teaching kitchen. She got the idea from her travels in Europe, where she often stayed at small inns with kitchens where guests could go and watch meals being prepared, she says.
Hassett may have had the idea for the cooking school, but it has been Nowakowski who has brought it to life. Formerly of Larkspur and Red Sky Ranch, Nowakowski has cooked alongside some of the best chefs in the Vail Valley.
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Running a cooking school had long been an idea of his and when Nowakowski was invited in as a guest chef he found that he really enjoyed teaching others and sharing his love of cuisine. After a few guest chef appearances, the opportunity to become director of the cooking school opened up and Nowakowski jumped at the opportunity, he says.
As director, Nowakowski designs all of the classes and many of the recipes. He does research when presenting regional cuisine so that he can offer depth and history to the dishes, he says.
He also tailors his class schedule to the seasons. For example, one of his more popular classes is the grilling series which is held during the summer.
He takes the class outdoors to the inn’s large patio and teaches while students stand around the grill with a glass of wine learning to become grill masters. In his grill series he teaches about preparing everything from wild game to seafood and shrimp.
Another popular series are the wine dinners that pair regional cuisine and wines. Nowakowski says he pairs the wine and the food to bring the best out of both.
He has also developed a culinary adventure series. For this series he chooses a region, such as Provence in France, and does research into the cuisine and cooking techniques. He chooses classic recipes from the featured region, he says.
“I like to share things I’ve learned about food, culture, cuisine, cooking with other people,” he says.
As much fun as he has, Nowakowski says it is also a great deal of work. In a typical restaurant, he says, the chefs will change the menu once a year or no more than once a season, and have four or five chefs working on the new menu of 20 dishes.
In contrast, he will have to create more than 20 dishes each week for 16 weeks in a row. Even though the hours may be long at times, he says he loves his work.
“If you can wake up in the morning and are excited about going to work, that’s what you should be doing, even if it’s not what you’d planned on your entire life or what your parents wanted you to do,” he says.
Nowakowski is all too familiar with living up to other’s expectations, he says. He grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., the son of a hard working engineer father.
Although his love for cooking dated back to his pre-teen years, when it came time to go to college at the University of Florida he followed in his father’s footsteps and graduated with a degree in construction management.
After moving to Vail he worked for Eagle County as a building inspector and worked as a construction project manager as well. During a period between jobs he took and apprenticeship with Larkspur Restaurant in Vail and ended up staying for a couple of years.
He then worked with the team that opened the restaurant at Red Sky Ranch. His culinary career was officially launched.
In addition to the school’s public classes, nearly 30 percent of all classes booked are private. These are generally for special occasions , such as bachelorette parties and a couple celebrating their 50th anniversary.
For the private classes, groups can request the type of class they prefer or let Nowakowski come up with ideas. Inn manager Mike Campbell says many of the private bookings are wedding parties and corporate groups that are staying in Vail.
He also says that summer is actually a busier time for the cooking school than the winter. The winter bookings tend to be individuals or small groups whereas in the summer they see many more large groups.
Campbell believes the America’s cooking-and-cuisine trend in growing. The popularity of television’s Food Network, chef’s tables and celebrity chefs is proof, he says.
The cooking school is capitalizing upon the trend and it appears it is doing so successfully, Campbell says.
His bookings are filling up fast for the summer, he adds.
As for the pizza class, Paulette DiGiannantonio and Roxanne Connor from Florida say they are regulars and always take a few classes when they are visiting.
The newlyweds, Paul and Julie Batten from Charleston, S.C., both learned how to throw the pizza dough with varying success and say they hoped to be back for a future anniversary celebration.