Chefs on the Loose lets guests get involved in preparing gourmet meals

PALMA CEIA

Pottery painting parties continue to be popular, and the kids have taken to "building" teddy bears at birthday celebrations. Now comes Chefs on the Loose, an interactive cooking and dining concept from catering entrepreneurs Laura and Steve Schmalhorst.

"Everyone who comes becomes a chef,'' Steve said. "Help chef Laura, or just pull up a chair and watch and learn. Either way, you'll interact without a bullhorn.''

The place opened Sept. 21 in a former Quizno's at 3401 Bay to Bay Blvd. It aims to be "entertaining and educational," he said. "It's not a classroom and you don't have to get your hands dirty if you don't want to, but it's fun if you want to ask questions and try it yourself."

Customers search an online calendar listing nightly themes, hands-on classes and private events. Click on a session to reserve a spot and pay by credit card. Payment is required when booking. The communal dining table seats 30.

Sign up alone, as a couple or a group of 12 to 18, said Steve. He envisions anniversary, birthday, engagement and wedding parties, children's cooking classes, bridal showers and single mingles.

In one class, Secrets of a Caterer, Laura shares 35 years of experience. "Shortcuts but not compromises," she said.

Prices start around $45 per person, based on ingredients.

"Foie gras and truffles are not typically cheap,'' Steve said, "and the price will reflect that." Wine dinners will be added if the city approves the company's wet-zoning petition, which the City Council is scheduled to review Oct. 16.

Expect the kind of menus you're not likely to make at your house, Steve said, adding that his wife's cuisine skills and repertoire "cover the globe."

"Heck, she's made Mongolian finger food."

The venture brings Laura back where she started in the early 1980s when she ran the Guest House restaurant at 3200 W Bay to Bay Blvd., now Cappy's Pizza. She sold that, bought the building next door, 3204 Bay to Bay Blvd., in 1982, and opened A La Carte Gourmet Specialities, which became A La Carte Catering. In 2000, the couple partnered with Outback Steakhouse to open A La Carte Event Pavilion. They sold their interest in 2004.

Currently, the Web site, www.chefsontheloose.net, offers Italian, Thai, Mexican and French nights. Other themes include holiday fare, tailgating and "daily grubbage." Guest chefs will host some sessions as well.

"We want to be approachable and fun," Laura said. "No one's getting a certificate, no one's being tested."

The idea bubbled up from the Schmalhorsts' previous venture, Vagabond Gourmet culinary tours, launched in 2005. After sightseeing in France or Italy, guests could help Laura cook dinner if they chose. Sometimes they visited chefs' kitchens to see how the local cuisine is prepared.

"We're re-creating that experience here in Tampa," said Steve, noting that their partner, Peter Swiatek, was a guest on one of their trips to Provence, France, in 2007.

Entertaining friends at Chefs on the Loose beats hosting your own dinner party, joked Steve.

"We could cater it at your place, but you'd have to clean up the house first."

Amy Scherzer can be reached at scherzer@sptimes.com or 226-3332.

Chefs on the Loose lets guests get involved in preparing gourmet meals 10/09/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 9, 2008 4:30am]

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