Chef Lisa Futterman is not accustomed to doing one thing at a time. It's Saturday morning at the Chopping Block, the Lincoln Park culinary shop where she teaches. As the students in her Rustic Italian class wander in (mostly young women, with a few husbands in tow), she peels and deveins a pile of shrimp, measures butter into a small white bowl, washes a stack of celery, and sucks down a spare peach, talking the whole time.
"I have a seat for you right up front," she says to a latecomer. "I love to be interrupted. Italy stories, baseball stories, I don't care." She's slicing the shrimp lengthwise, slipping her knife through their wet curls without looking. The store's open kitchen, tucked tidily into a back corner, is designed for demonstrations, and she moves easily from stove to sink to wide wooden countertop. Everyone sits up straight, eyes on her hands. "Does anyone have any questions about anything a-tall? No? Then let's talk seafood."
"Are you going to give us recipes?" a woman asks hopefully, pen at the ready.
"I am not," Futterman says. "I'm gonna talk, and you're gonna write."
Futterman teaches her students to cook, but first she teaches them to eat. She wants people to be led by their senses, to decide what to cook based on the ingredients at the farmers' market today, not the recipe chosen a week ago. Mostly, she wants to get her students to trust themselves. "People are too tied to cooking time, so what they do is, if the recipe says 30 minutes, they take it out in 30 minutes, even if it's not done. I teach them how to tell if it's done."
Before moving to Chicago in 1998, Futterman worked as a pastry chef at several restaurants in California, including San Francisco's Tisane. She quit the restaurant business to teach once she realized that even more than cooking she loved getting other people to cook. She's not impatient with the can-barely-boil-water crowd, either. "We see people like that all the time, and they come back and say, 'I made the whole menu and it's amazing and my husband loves me more.'" Futterman directs the cooking program at the Chopping Block and along with store owner Shelley Young and several other chefs leads two-hour, one-session classes ranging from Chicken 101 to the monumentally popular Knife Skills.
Whatever the class, she puts on a good show. It's a warm morning, but no one drowses. She is loud, she is fast, and every sentence sounds like a promise: "Mussels are alive when you buy them. And you will kill them.
"Now! We are going to cook each of our seafoods sep-arate-ly." The shrimp and the mussels, it turns out, are destined for a seafood salad. Futterman retrieves some salmon from the refrigerator, tucks it into a red enamel baking dish, and spills white wine over it. A warning occurs to her. "When this is done, do not--do not--save the wine the fish poached in. Some people think, 'Oh, it's flavorful! It's like fish stock!'" She shakes her head. "It's really gross."
Once the seafood has been dispatched, Futterman rinses her knife and turns her attention to the celery. "So," she says, "I'm nicely dicing the celery into nice little squares. I'm not cutting a whole bunch of it at one time." She rocks her blade lightly back and forth, and a tumble of tidy green cubes appears. She barely looks down.
"All right. How about some roasted peppers? It's fine to buy roasted peppers in a jar, as long as you buy good roasted peppers in a jar, which are 20 percent off this month at the Chopping Block." She smiles and fishes one out. "Now, these are in brine--no! They're not in brine! They're in their own juices. You can buy them in brine and they taste all pickley. These taste nice and sweet and roasted peppery. I think I'll use a red and a yellow. For prettiness."
The finished salad is, in fact, very pretty. It looks like demure confetti. Futterman drips in a little olive oil and cautions, "We may need more. We may need more lemon juice. We're gonna see! We're gonna taste!" Not yet, though. It's time to start dessert, an Italian baked peach affair.
If you had no knowledge of Italy except what you learned from listening to Futterman, you'd think it was a cross between the Garden of Eden and Mount Olympus. When she talks about Italian cooking her sentences take on extra punctuation. "In Italy, the desserts are. Very. Simple. Desserts after dinner are usually simple and based on fruit. One evening in Tuscany, they served us a bowl of cherries in ice water."
She starts halving peaches smoothly. "Let's use six--no, I ate one for breakfast, so I'm off. Let's use four. I also couldn't resist, when I was at Stanley's this morning--" She holds up a dark, full fruit by its stem. "Figs! The Italians love figs like nobody else." After the figs join the peaches in a pie plate, she rustles around for a minute and pulls out some brown sugar. "And when I use brown sugar I use dark brown sugar. And the leftover stuff?" She sweeps a few crumbs from the counter into her palm and sprinkles them over the ripe fruit, already shining with amaretto. "Use it all. Come on."
The dessert is in the oven, and now it's time for the entree: individual lasagnas. A sensitive subject, however, has arisen. Futterman doesn't actually close her eyes and rock back and forth in remembered pain, but she looks like she might. "Whenever you cook pasta it should be in. Rapidly boiling. Salted. Water. Salt the water, salt the water, salt the water, salt the water, salt the water, salt the water."
Someone always has to ask: How long should you cook pasta?
"We will cook it until it's done," she says. "I know you hate that answer."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.