Want to Learn to Cook From a ‘Top Chef’ Contestant? Head to CulinAerie

'Top Chef' contestant Carla Hall (right) teaches frequently at CulinAerie.
'Top Chef' contestant Carla Hall (right) teaches frequently at CulinAerie.

Like many chefs, Susan Holt and Susan Watterson dreamed of owning a place. They just didn’t want to spend 18 hours a day in a restaurant. So the former instructors at Gaithersburg’s L’Acadamie de Cuisine, created what they knew best: a cooking school.

The recently opened CulinAerie is targeted at a new generation of foodies who think of chefs as celebrities and farmers markets as social meeting spots. Some of the hands-on classes have ethnic themes—Persian, Far East fusion—and other sessions cover basics  cake making and knife skills. The calendar also features lunchtime lectures with talks on food writing, nutrition, and throwing a dinner party.

Besides Holt and Watterson, there’s an impressive roster of 19 teachers, including former 1789 chef Ris Lacoste, Komi and the Gibson cocktail/wine consultant Derek Brown, and Michelin-star-studded chef Gerard Pangaud. The owners have restaurant experience, too—Holt worked at 1789 and the Ritz-Carlton and Watterson at Obelisk and Cafe Bethesda.

Located on the edge of downtown DC’s Thomas Circle, the school has a 16-seat kitchen with homey wooden cabinets and a tiled backsplash as well as a larger, shinier space outfitted with stainless-steel tables and commercial-grade appliances. The coolest touch? Instead of tilted mirrors over the instructor’s cutting board, there’s a flat-screen TV to broadcast what he or she is doing. They’ll also offer the room for corporate retreats and birthday parties.

The glass-fronted space also acts as advertising: When we attended class a few weeks ago, passersby pressed their noses to the windows to watch Carla Hall, a current contestant on Top Chef, teach students about chocolate mousse and linguine with clam sauce.

For Holt and Watterson, their dream is now a reality. “Oddly enough,” Watterson laughs, “we’re here 18 hours a day anyway.”

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