BROOKSVILLE — For those who salivate every time they read about cooking classes in Tampa, St. Petersburg or Clearwater, there's now an opportunity closer to home.
Chef Mason Byrne at the Grande, the luxury retirement community that recently opened in the former Brooksville Regional Hospital, last week launched the first in a series of classes to showcase his and his cooking staff's talents and to spread word of the amenities at the Grande.
"We want to wow the neighborhood, Brooksville and Spring Hill, and know how the Grande is," said the graduate of the Culinary Arts Institute in Seattle.
While Byrne, who prefers to be known as Chef Mason, is a native of Dunedin, he went west to visit relatives and stayed on for an education in flaunting a French slicer, flambéing in a sauté pan, and delicately seasoning platters of appetizers and desserts.
He comes to the Grande after stints as executive chef at Tarpon Springs Country Club and the Plantation Preserve Golf Club outside Fort Lauderdale.
"What we cook for our residents (at the independent living facility) is what I cook for my family at home," Byrne said.
The menus for the residents — and what he will prepare for his classes — is "so much more than what other facilities do," he said. "It's not baked fish and white rice. It's not bland."
Indeed, consider caprese salad of tomato and fresh mozzarella slices dressed with fresh basil and reduced balsamic vinegar, toasted bruschetta, scampi appetizer in a butter-olive oil basting that makes a diner want to lick her plate, chicken marsala slathered in mushrooms with the lightest fettuccine alfredo and, for dessert, pound cake tiramisu concocted with mascarpone cheese, espresso, cocoa powder and Godiva white chocolate liqueur.
Those dishes were featured in Byrne's first two-hour cooking class and also are on the menu for residents. Class attendees were served a full measure of all for a fee of $15.
"It's good food," said resident Edna Bubnick, 96. "I can't eat all of this." But she did.
Bubnick previously lived in a community residence in Winter Haven, where, she noted, "The food was not so good. Dinner was always cold."
Among Byrne's tidbits of cooking advice:
• Use fresh herbs; choose the back package of basil, for instance, in the grocery store. "You should be able to smell it through the package."
• Use fresh thyme and fresh mozzarella cheese, not the latter in a hard brick, for the best flavor for a caprese salad. Don't splurge on the most expensive cheese in the deli, but make your pick from the good cheese case.
• In putting together a bruschetta with chopped tomatoes atop Italian or baguette bread slices, some of the tomatoes will fall off, he conceded, adding, "Life is cruel."
• Don't substitute margarine for butter or milk for cream when the recipe calls for those.
• Cook or bake with unsalted butter. In leftovers, the salt flavor intensifies.
• "Mise en place," meaning have every ingredient at hand before you begin cooking.
Byrne's aim, both in classes and for his resident diners, is "minimal ingredients, minimal work, minimal cost."
His next class in an every-two-week schedule is set for Feb. 13. The menu is expected to feature mahi-mahi as an entree.
Beth Gray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.