The evening was an adventure in the art of French cooking, a little more difficult than some thought it would be, but worth every savory bite in the end.
Eight people from Seminole, Indian Rocks Beach, Largo and Clearwater wanted to learn how to carve and debone a duck, stuff and roast it, and make vichyssoise and French vanilla ice cream.
They gathered recently in the kitchen of chef Dominique Christini's Café Largo, a popular French restaurant for 23 years.
Christini, a native of Provence and a chef for three decades, told the group he would guide them through the preparations and give them some tips. He encouraged them to embellish the recipes with their personal touches when cooking at home.
Ray Sander of Indian Rocks Beach never thought he would try deboning a duck. He and his wife, Sheryl Swed, were attending their first class with Christini. The others had taken previous classes.
Sander bravely volunteered, picked up the proper knife at the work table and began. Beside him, David Watson of Seminole did the same. The men worked along with Christini, carefully following his instructions in the deboning process.
While the technique will take some practice, Sander said, at least now he knows how to slice more professionally.
Deboning a duck or any kind of bird speeds up the cooking time, Watson said, and you bring more meat to the table.
The duck was stuffed with a mousse made from chicken, spices, wine and cream. Turnips and carrots were sliced and cooked to be served as garnish.
The vichyssoise — a soup typically made of pureed leeks or onions and potatoes, cream and chicken stock, and usually served cold — was a little easier.
Bob Keller of Clearwater helped with chopping the leeks and celery. Deborah Holzhauer of Largo peeled and cut some of the potatoes. Bones from the duck and the leaves of the leek were added to the stock.
The soup's ingredients were cooked, spun in a food processor and strained through a sieve before a heavy cream was stirred in and the soup chilled.
Ice cream, at least the French way of making it, Christini said, is really a custard. Ingredients included heavy cream, whole milk, vanilla beans, egg yolks, sugar and salt.
Throughout the evening, Christini doled out tips and humor.
"A good sense of humor is a must," he said, "both in the kitchen and the dining room."
As a seasoning, he said, "salt brings out the aroma. A pinch of salt is intended just to bring out the flavor of things. Sea salt and coarser salts bring out the better flavor."
But when recipes call for butter, he uses salt-free butter, he said, because salt absorbs water.
Sharon Watson said she could never decide whether to use cornstarch or roux to thicken sauces. Christini solved her problem and said to use roux for thick cream sauces, cornstarch for dark sauces.
Used pots, knives and cutting boards were removed and replaced with clean ones by sous chef Patrick Carnes of Treasure Island, who has been working with Christini for close to a year.
When the food was ready, everyone sat down to a candlelight meal accompanied by wine.
Paulette Keller said the class gave everyone "immediate feedback" on their culinary efforts.
"I love the duck and can't wait to make the carrots and turnips to accompany it," said Deborah Holzhauer. "The vichyssoise was creamy and delicious. The homemade vanilla ice cream and almond cookie was scrumptious."
From the class, Holzhauer said she learned some new techniques, some shortcuts, wine and food pairing, and a good sense of kitchen humor with a French flair.
Holzhauer and her sister, Belinda Schellenbach of Largo, graduated last year from Christini's nine-month culinary course.
"I always walk away with either a new recipe or new ideas," Schellenbach said, "and I love to be around other people that have the same passion for cooking as I do."
Chris Cosdon can be reached at email@example.com.