Participants in a Downtown Market Co. cooking class make several types of sauces. - Bob Pennell

Superior Sauces

They're the darlings of classical cooking, composing a curriculum that every culinary student must master before earning a chef's whites.

Superior sauces, however, are well within the abilities of casual cooks. And their concoction can be just casual, as two local instructors are trying to prove.

"Actually, the sauces are very simple," says Constance Jesser, co-owner of Jacksonville Mercantile.

"I don't want everybody obsessing over a teaspoon of butter," says Nora LaBrocca, co-owner of Downtown Market Co. "You learn to relax in your kitchen."

Plenty of butter went into last week's sauce class in LaBrocca's Medford store, the first this year. Ten participants put it to use creating creme anglaise, bechamel and lemon-butter sauces, as well as vodka-tomato, bolognese and "fra diavlo," a spicy Italian-style sauce.

"You can make any of these sauces without a recipe," says LaBrocca.

Some of the same sauces will star in a Tuesday class at the Mercantile. Like LaBrocca, Jesser had frequent requests for a sauce class and added it to her roster, which also has featured Mediterranean, Cuban and Indian cuisines. The specialty-foods store has hosted cooking classes since late last year.

"When Allyson's of Ashland closed, I had even more requests," says Jesser, referring to the gourmet emporium that also operated a cooking school before shutting its doors about a year ago.

"We've seen a huge spike in people who want to cook at home."

Because the Mercantile lacks a commercial kitchen, Jesser conducts classes over induction burners on her store's countertops. Participants won't have their hands in every aspect of preparation, but rather observe Jesser, who graduated from the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago, an affiliate of Le Cordon Bleu. The $25 cost per class includes sampling fare with some wine or a nonalcoholic beverage.

"They get the recipes; they get the technique ... and then they get to taste," she says. "I'm keeping my prices really reasonable."

Costs for most local cooking classes range between $35 and $65 and, like LaBrocca's, some include a full meal and glass of wine or beer. She, Jesser and several other cooking instructors locally seek to create an experience as social as it is educational.

"I think this is the most fun thing we've done since opening the store," says Jesser, explaining that while her typical customers cook at home, they want to learn tricks for replicating favorite restaurant meals. Jesser also plans classes around products, such as oils and vinegars, that are stocked in her store.

"These are building blocks to help anybody cook better," she says, adding that if she can cook on hot plates in the store, students are assured of making the same dishes in a full kitchen.

Also stocking an array of specialty and imported foods, Downtown Market Co. plans one class per month on such topics as butchering and grilling. With space for just 10 participants, classes fill up quickly and cost $45. LaBrocca suggests requesting the schedule by emailing Recipients on her email list filled up last week's class an hour and a half after she announced it, says LaBrocca.

"You're around people who have a common interest."

Jesser can accommodate a dozen participants, who must preregister by calling the store at 541-899-1047. She has classes planned for May 15 and June 7 and 21. See the schedule at

Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487 or email

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