Class Credit

Reviewing the Central Market Cooking School

Mary Perna
Mary Perna (Photo By John Anderson)

Cooking for Love

with Mary Perna

Saturday, February 5

This is supposed to be a story that offers a new way of thinking about Central Market's well-known and wildly popular cooking school. A story about gathering a group of friends -- as few as five or as many as 25 -- and embarking on a culinary adventure. It is supposed to be a story about hosting a birthday party at Central Market's cooking school and to that end, benefiting from a private consultation with a well-known chef, not to mention taking home a neat little stack of recipes as a party favor.

In its new incarnation, my story will still promote Central Market Cooking School as a great party destination. But while celebrating a friend's 34th birthday there last month, I encountered unexpected inspiration in the form of one racy Vespaio chef. Her name is Mary Perna, and she has stolen the show.

Our party group, dominating the back rows of the cooking school and joyously downing French wine at a pace the school clearly considered breakneck, might have been intimidating to your average chef. Instead, Perna blew us away. She appeared before us boldly. No ordinary chef's whites for her. No way! Her class, titled "Cooking for Love," was part of the school's Valentine's series, and she came prepared to scintillate -- titillate, even -- in her spaghetti-strapped top and black feather boa, tendrils of brunet curls spilling over her shoulders.

Looking over the handout prior to the class, it seemed to me that Perna's menu was straightforward enough. There was a pasta-based appetizer, a salad, rack of lamb, and a chocolate dessert. But this diva of dining had something more exciting in mind. As she launched into a rather erotic passage from the Bible (Song of Solomon, 7:7-10), she captured everyone's attention and then explained that on this particular night, no one would depart the cooking school without feeling "randy."

With her audience now wrapped around her finger, Perna began preparing a lemon pepper linguinette with two sauces, smoked salmon, and caviar. As she did so, she amused us with comments about the pasta's "luscious" texture and the caviar's "arousing" nature. Then she threw out historical trivia on aphrodisiacs and made racy jokes and suggestive wisecracks. Once assembled and served, the linguinette convinced everyone to give undivided attention to this seductive instructor, for despite the continual banter, she meant business! The dish was absolutely out of this world.

The rest of Perna's menu measured up equally on the pleasure scale, and included a salad studded with strawberries and spiced pistachios Perna referred to as "little jewels of the Nile," a rack of lamb accented with wild mushrooms, asparagus tips, and a honey-mustard sauce, and a dessert more rich and beautiful than anyone could have expected of "chocolate cake." While she cooked all of this, Perna entertained us with more readings of love poetry and tips from the Kama Sutra. She featured cookbooks most of us never knew existed (for example, The Bordello Cookbook), then further piqued our curiosity and regaled our imaginations with tales of playing "strip Parcheesi" with her brother, and of having a husband who claims "the meat is for the man, the bones are for the dog." On the "lusciousness" of eating, Perna said only the following words: "wine, food, sex, intimacy," then explained that turn-of-the-century brothels developed reputations for their luxurious food, and insisted that many times she's had guests over for dinner who by meal's end have become her "slaves." "It's all about the power of your food," she said ever so nonchalantly.

Now, I know that not everyone spending his or her birthday at Central Market will be fortunate to have an instructor that is at once so informative and immensely entertaining. But at worst, you'll leave a party at the cooking school having learned something. Better yet, you get to take home a party favor "cookbook" that will let you and your friends re-create the party at home.

  • Class Credit

    When the venerable H.E. Butt Corporation opened Central Market in Austin several years ago, little did we know that a grocery store would become a serious foodie tourist attraction, a popular local music venue, and a nationally respected cooking school all under the same roof. Chronicle food writers review recent Central Market cooking classes.
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