On a warm and windy Saturday morning, I headed across Lake Pontchartrain to Mandeville to attend one of the monthly cooking classes at Ristorante Carmelo, where diners can watch the chefs preparing dishes in a large open kitchen that is centered by an old-fashioned wood-burning stone oven. Jazzy music on tape adds to the lively atmosphere at this popular fine dining establishment located in an upscale neighborhood along Highway 190. The extensive array of delectable southern Italian dishes served for lunch and dinner (which includes fresh pastas and breads made from scratch) is prepared by a team of talented chefs. This includes the award-winning restaurateur and Chef-proprietor Carmelo Chirico, and the recently appointed Chef-de-Cuisine Jeremy Delaneuville, a brilliant young rising star who has cooked at several top restaurants in the area, most recently at the fabled Commander’s Palace in the Garden District. “I decided to leave Commander’s to work closer to home,” Jeremy tells me with a smile, as I watch him rapidly and simultaneously (and miraculously) flame two pans of chicken with Marsala wine at the same moment, with just one hand juggling both, while calmly instructing three students how to prepare the sauce.
Although we were a class of at least 25 people, there was a very high chef-to-student ratio, which was pleasantly surprising and unusual; at one point I counted six chefs in attendance. They separated us into very small groups at different cooking stations, so that everyone had ample opportunities to do hands-on cooking, as opposed to just watching chefs teach a class, which is the most common manner of teaching at the top cooking schools of New Orleans.
For added fun, there was a risotto-making contest among the students. We were put into pairs for the competition, and were left to select our own ingredients, which included a choice of several stocks, herbs, a variety of fresh mushrooms, homemade Italian sausages, and freshly shredded cheeses. The team of chefs judged the competition at the end of the class and presented three awards to a round of applause, which included Ristorante Carmelo chef jackets and gift certificates.
While vigorously stirring a pan of risotto and adding stock, I got to know many interesting people attending the class. There was also a wine-tasting component, as Chef Carmelo went over the various regions of origin, and the preparation of several other dishes including quail, rabbit, and gourmet pizza. With his charming Italian accent, he explained each process, and I came away having learned quite a bit (even though I am pretty good in the kitchen).
The cooking class was preceded by a European-style breakfast buffet that started at 9 am, complete with huge rounds of several excellent European cheeses, platters laden with piles of fresh seasonal fruits, and homemade pastries. The class lasted until around noon, when attendees sat informally at the beautifully appointed tables to enjoy the food everyone had prepared. The large, open windows allowed the breeze to flow into the restaurant as we were cooking and tasting, and I felt for a moment as if I was back in Paris at cooking school on the Left Bank.
Formerly located on Decatur Street in the heart of the French Quarter for a decade, the Carmelo family moved Ristorante Carmelo to the beautiful, and very spacious Mandeville location in 2010. I had dined at their New Orleans location many times and enjoyed several wine dinners there. In fact, Carmelo’s was one of my very first restaurant reviews as a food critic for the local newspaper in the 1990s; it received my highest rating.
Chef Carmelo’s wife, Karen, and two of their lovely daughters were there to greet and help students attending the “Get Your Game On: Cooking with Carmelo” class, which was scheduled on the same day as the Saints’ playoff game against the Detroit Lions that evening (which they won). The monthly cooking class at Carmelo’s is the best-kept secret in the area. I have attended classes at just about every local cooking school for the past 20 years plus, and I even used to teach some of my own classes at one of the schools, but I have never had such a marvelous experience and such a good time at a cooking class as I did at Carmelo’s.
Ristorante Carmelo is a wonderful place to dine for lunch and dinner, and it is worth the short drive if you live on the south shore. They still have those monthly multicourse wine dinners (as they did in the French Quarter), usually held on the third Saturday of the month. There is a glass-enclosed wine room adjoined to the main dining room that seats around 20, which can be reserved for private occasions for a small fee.
Some of the starters that I highly recommend on the dinner menu include the thinly-sliced carpaccio, and the bruschetta Pomodoro topped with fresh basil and tomatoes; I also enjoy the calamari fried to a golden brown, and the succulent char-grilled oysters. For entrée choices among the very extensive menu offerings, I recommend any of the freshly made pastas, the best of which is the ravioli with crabmeat in a light and luscious cream sauce laced with sherry, and the delicious fettuccine chock-full of shrimp, clams, mussels, calamari, fish, and lobster in a spicy marinara sauce. The pan-roasted grouper with shrimp, artichokes, and mushrooms in a lemon butter sauce is another great choice. Hopefully, I will learn to make some of these dishes at the next cooking class.
As I drove back to New Orleans, and the sun sparkled over the shimmering water of Lake Pontchartrain, I began pondering the Saints’ NFL playoff game that would take place later that night at the Superdome, as the team vies for another Super Bowl victory. The city was alive and teeming with people, and I had some great new dinner party ideas to prepare for my houseguests.