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This chef’s school mixes lessons with socializing

By M.E. Malone
Globe Correspondent / July 15, 2009

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SAVANNAH, Ga. - “I hope you Yankees go back with a little South in your mouth,’’ Joe Randall says - certainly not for the first time - as he plunks generous bowls of smoky sweet potato bisque in front of his guests.

Randall is proud of this soup. “I first tasted this in Lafayette, Louisiana, and tried to duplicate it,’’ he says. This spring, he made it at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to celebrate the publication of Joe David’s “Gourmet Getaways: 50 Top Spots to Cook and Learn’’ (GPP Travel), in which Randall is featured.

While most of the classes at Chef Joe Randall’s Cooking School are considered demonstration events, there are no pristine stainless steel appliances, no amphitheater for the audience, and no need for a microphone. The chef’s deep voice fills the homey space. Guests sit on comfy stools at a Formica countertop bar and chat with each other, Randall, and Randall’s wife, Barbara, surrounded by pot lids, stacks of dishes, Costco-size spice jars and an array of well-seasoned pans that have followed Randall to his adopted hometown of Savannah. A simple mirror over the island stove just a few feet from the diners keeps the prep and cooking area visible to all.

A natural teacher - not to mention host, entertainer, and cook - Randall is as eager to learn from his guests as they are from him. They compare notes about the “bests’’ that come to mind as the meal unfolds: barbecue, barbecue sauce, fried oysters, hot sauce, crab cakes, hot sausage, and Virginia ham, to name a few. He uses a citrus trumpet to squeeze juice from a lemon (after noting that you should always roll a lemon, pressing gently, before using). He laments that his useful gadget has fallen out of favor with the current generation of home cooks and happily tells his new friends how to find one.

“You are like a guest at my house,’’ says Randall. “Though you have to pay for your meal,’’ he adds, smiling broadly. The cost is $65 and wine is available for an extra charge. The experience is more like being invited into the kitchen of a neighborhood restaurant for a chef’s tasting menu where you learn secrets while he cooks. The portions for this four-course meal are more than a taste and seconds are served with pleasure.

Typically, Randall hosts about two dozen themed classes each month on Wednesday through Saturday nights. Offerings include “Backyard Cookout,’’ “Flavors of New Orleans,’’ “A Taste of Savannah,’’ “Couples Date Night,’’ and “Seafood Lovers Dinner.’’

His “Southern Passage’’ menu on a recent evening takes liberties with the most traditional foods of the Low Country, the marsh-laden lands that extend north from the Savannah River delta to coastal South Carolina. Randall weaves the flavors and textures of this region into tastes he acquired over the years.

To start the evening, he uses local shrimp to make a light, breaded cake. “Locals call them shrimp patties,’’ he says. He purees half the shrimp with the seasonings and coarsely chops the remaining shrimp so there is plenty of substance in each bite. They’re drizzled with a tangy dill and mustard sauce. A guest with a shellfish allergy is treated to a piece of local flounder, dipped first in flour, then in egg, then sauteed in a generous helping of butter.

“You took your Lipitor this morning, I hope,’’ says the playful chef.

The scrumptious soup follows, then a main course of pan-broiled quail atop a slice of Virginia country ham. The quail, a game bird that was once nearly as easy to find in the South as chicken, was first marinated in salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, brown sugar, cider vinegar, and peanut oil. Randall serves it alongside a soft, down-home potato salad.

“This is the way my mother made it,’’ he says, grating hard-cooked egg into the mixture. He also serves simple braised cabbage with bacon that pairs well with the bird. Dessert is a sweet potato pie in a home-baked shell topped with praline sauce.

Each element of the meal is prepared in front of the class, which on this night includes a couple from the Midwest visiting nearby Beaufort, S.C., and a couple from Savannah attending their fifth dinner at Randall’s.

“Sometimes people call and ask if the classes are hands-on,’’ Randall says. “When I say they’re demonstration classes, click, they hang up the phone. But this is really a very different kind of demonstration class.’’ He says his model works well for couples and groups of friends who like to socialize around food, whether or not they like to cook. “It’s much more fun than taking a date to a restaurant,’’ he says.

You can’t help but agree.

Chef Joe Randall’s Cooking School, 5409 Waters Ave., Savannah, Ga., 912-303-0409, www.chefjoerandall.com