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