Last summer—in addition to courses on topics like weather forecasting, Dickens, and Seventies pop culture—Cornell’s Adult University offered two sessions of the Harried Gourmet. Designed by longtime University chef Dave D’Aprix, the course teaches timestrapped home cooks to unshackle themselves from recipes and embrace the joys of culinary improvisation. A look at one crazy Gourmet day, as D’Aprix helps seventeen students prepare a smorgasbord of dishes—from seafood stew to stir fry, cookies to kale chips.
In his popular course, chef Dave D'Aprix teaches time-strapped home cooks to embrace the joys of culinary improv
By Beth Saulnier
Photographs by Jason Koski / University Photography
If this cooking thing doesn't work out, Dave D'Aprix might have a promising future as an air traffic controller. Or maybe a professional juggler.
On a Tuesday in late July, D'Aprix is running around (more or less literally) and putting out fires (more or less figuratively) in the teaching kitchen of Human Ecology's Martha Van Rensselaer Hall. The longtime Cornell chef pinballs among the nine cooking stations where seventeen CAU students are hard at work over cutting boards, mixing bowls, and stovetops. Over the next two hours, D'Aprix's charges will concoct a cornucopia of dishes incorporating produce procured that very morning during an outing to Ithaca's downtown farmers' market.
In one corner, David Levine '78 is doing honorable battle with a bowl of cold, hard butter destined for the crust of some fruit tarts; on the other side of the room, two women are strategizing an ambitious menu of roasted kale chips, baby artichokes, and blueberry-coated duck breasts; in between, their classmates are whipping up such delectables as peach-raspberry pie, seafood stew, stuffed zucchini, glazed scallops, two kinds of salmon, at least four versions of stir fry, salads galore, and wafer-thin sugar cookies with homemade raspberry sauce. It's an atmosphere of controlled culinary chaos—and that's before a pepper sauce accidentally becomes an aerosolized weapon. "It's a lot of work on Tuesdays," D'Aprix muses. "It's just brutal, because I have twenty people going, 'Dave! Dave! Dave!' "
Welcome to the Harried Gourmet, a popular Cornell's Adult University course that trains amateur chefs in the art of gustatory improvisation. D'Aprix, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who has worked at Cornell on and off since he was hired to teach cafeteria management at the Hotel school in 1980, designed the weeklong course to focus on flexible cooking methods and dishes that could be made in an hour or less. "I think it came to me in one of my hallucinatory dreams," he says. "I might have been thinking a little bit of Rachael Ray, whose show I've seen twice—the idea that people are in a hurry, so how do you make good food fast?"
D'Aprix clearly hit a nerve; the course, scheduled for the first CAU session of the summer, sold out in three days. "Harried Gourmet filled in a nanosecond," says CAU director Catherine Sutton Penner '68. "It even beat out golf, which usually fills up first." Its popularity prompted CAU to convert D'Aprix's other course (a more general cooking class scheduled for week three) into another iteration of Harried Gourmet; days after the change was announced in an e-mail blast, the second class sold out too. "The structure was a hit," says Penner. "I think one of the appeals is the idea that someone could put together a meal for family and friends with a relatively limited number of ingredients." It's a tradition of CAU cooking classes that after the students consume the fruits of their labors, any leftovers are set out in the program's lounge, free to all comers; during Harried Gourmet, Penner and her staff made sure to happen by at gustatorially advantageous moments. "They did a wonderful lamb," she recalls, "and a pasta with clam sauce, and the breads were fantastic."