Chef Victor Matthews doesn't believe in doing anything halfway. When he moved west from Houston and New Orleans to open the Black Bear restaurant in Green Mountain Falls, Matthews transformed an out-of-repair pub/tavern in a little-known location into a restaurant that earned a four-star (out of four) rating from the Denver Post. Now he's taken a former Ramada Inn, just next to I-25 at Fillmore Street in Colorado Springs, and has turned it into the Paragon Culinary School, Cedars Jazz Club and Paragon Royal Ballroom.
Currently, a cavernous space just off the lobby houses Cedars, a bar with live music five nights a week, tapas to munch on, select cigars, an elaborate martini bar and Chef Matthews' hand-chosen, extensive selection of Italian wines.
Next to Cedars is a classroom, set up on the day I visit for Sunday afternoon cooking class with three long tables, each furnished with two individual propane burners, six cutting boards, and six good, sharp chef's knives. A deep pot of stock simmers atop one burner on each table -- one mushroom, one seafood and one chicken.
A group of nine students has gathered for Chef Matthews' weekend class on the cuisine of northern Italy, specifically to learn the secrets of risotto and to discuss pairing Italian wines with food.
"In my opinion, northern Italy is the most important food and wine region in the world," says Chef Matthews, never one for understatement. "The things they have [to cook with], the rest of the world is trying to get their hands on. For example: the white truffle."
Matthews preps the class on ingredients: a firm yellow onion, the three fresh stocks, dried porcini and other wild mushrooms, saffron, roasted tomatoes, truffle oil and good hard parmigiano-reggiano cheese. The rice is Arborio -- thicker, shorter and denser than ordinary rice -- grown in the Po River Valley of northern Italy. With these ingredients, and an Italian white wine, we will learn the proper technique for making three different risottos: 1. wild mushroom risotto, characteristic of the Piemonte area of northern Italy, finished with truffle oil, thick and dark; 2. seafood risotto in the Veneto style, from the region bordering Venice, soupy with chunks of tomatoes, fragrant with saffron; and 3. a classic risotto flavored only with chicken stock and cheese.
Matthews recalls classic Italian training as "old school -- getting up at dawn, butchering animals and getting beaten." As a young apprentice in New Orleans, he studied with classically trained Andrea Apuzzo, an Italian master chef who Matthews heralds as one of the original group of Italians in the 1970s from which at least 50 Italian restaurants in North America were eventually born.
"The idea [of cooking risotto] is to open it to release its starch, creating a creamy coating for the grains of rice," he explains. We do this by turning up the heat, sauting a finely chopped onion in vegetable oil, then dumping the rice into the heavy-bottomed pot and sauting it over high heat as well. When the rice is completely coated and the onion completely cooked, we add a hefty cup of white wine -- in this case, Lugana by Sergio Zenato, a light sauvignon blanc with a touch of chardonnay -- and cook the mixture down until the wine has evaporated and the rice grains have begun to take on a creamy coating.
We begin adding ladlefuls of the heated stock to the rice pan, the heat slightly lowered, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon as the fragrant liquid soaks into the rice, the mixture growing thicker and creamier with each addition and condensing of liquid. Matthews serves us two more white wines, including one by wine master Angelo Gaja with whom Matthews spent time in the vintner's Italian vineyards during last year's harvest. The wine tastes like flower petals, not too sweet, airy and light.
As the risottos reach an al dente consistency -- each grain of rice still slightly chewy but cooked through -- we begin finishing the dishes. The classic risotto cooked with chicken broth gets a hunk of sweet butter and two generous handfuls of freshly grated cheese stirred in at the last minute. Miscellaneous seafood can be added to the seafood risotto in the last minutes of cooking, but we eat it as is, with just tomatoes for texture. The wild mushroom risotto gets a kick of butter and cheese blended in after the heat has been turned off, then is finished with a drizzle of truffle oil and topped with more fresh cheese.
The flavors are complex and varied, earthy and dense.
Matthews serves us two Italian red wines and briefs us on Barolos, Amarones and Ripassos. He talks about how to pair regional Italian dishes with the appropriate wine, no easy task given the vast variety of wines and the nondiscriminating labeling system. We leave the class stuffed and satisfied.
Matthews offers a special package deal if you take his cooking class and then attend a similarly themed dinner at the Black Bear. A Cajun and Creole cooking class on Sunday, Feb. 6, for example, can be paired with the Cajun Creole Dinner on March 2 at the Black Bear at a discounted package price. Visit the Web site or call for a complete class schedule and details.
-- Kathryn Eastburn
Paragon Culinary School, www.paragonculinaryschool.com, 578-5740
Cedars Jazz Club, www.cedarsjazzclub.com, 578-5744
Paragon Ballroom, 578-5741, available for banquets of up to 400
3125 Sinton Road (northeast corner of Fillmore and I-25, exit 145)
Information line: 866/FOOD-101
Black Bear Restaurant, www.blackbearrestaurant.com, 684-9648.
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