Event - Tapas Time with Inspire Artistic Minds and Natalie LaPlante

A new culinary center is in town, and it has a different spin on the traditional cooking class or demo. The Inspire Artistic Minds Culinary Center located in Orange just outside of the main circle (also known as the heart of Old Towne Orange) has just opened its doors to its multiple monthly events. I was invited to experience one of the inaugural events here hosted by 100eats and Le Gourmet Kitchen. The night was run by Chef Natalie LaPlante who previously worked as sous chef at Broadway by Amar Santana, a well-known and well-loved restaurant in Laguna Beach. The focus of the night: tapas.

You may be a smidge confused when you plug the address of the culinary center into your GPS because it will lead you to a kitchen and bathroom remodeling business. However, turn into the adjacent neighborhood street and enter through the back entrance to find the spot. With a full-fledged kitchen built out in the back, this building is a perfect space for the intimate classes Inspire Artistic Minds, a culinary non-profit, aims to run. The front-end of the store has several model kitchens seemingly for display but which have the advantage of being completely built out for live use (hint hint: upcoming events with multiple kitchen stations are on the horizon!). It was hard trying to hide my drool as I browsed these gorgeous set-ups. One day! The showroom kitchen we were in the for the event had features befitting of a learning center with designated stations around the counter with their own drawer space, cutting board cabinet, and knife rack. These were mightily impressive.

Though the kitchen area was set up for several people to stand around and work on their own dishes, the event was organized a little differently. I would call it a tactile cooking demonstration instead of just a chef cooking demo or a cooking class. Chef Natalie had prepared some starter plates of Spanish chorizo, Manchego cheese, marinated olives, quince preserves, and stuffed peppadews before the guests arrived. Then she set out working stations for everyone so that we could participate while she prepared main ingredients. This allowed for guests to do single tasks or portions of each of the final dishes without going from beginning to end. For the novice cook and even the one not interested much in cooking at all, this experience made it easy to help in the cooking but not fear and risk messing up the dish. It seemed like it'd be very helpful for those who want to be "sous chef" in the home kitchen, being helpful but not the main creator in the process. For one section, watermelon in a chimichurri sauce was cubed and skewered with cubes of sheep's milk cheese, a refreshing bite that quickly became addictive. Another task was to squeeze whipped goat cheese from a piping bag into peppadew peppers, a forearm-flexing step that made simple bites. These were both great ideas for future gatherings!

As for why tapas, Chef Natatlie wanted to share her European travels and inspirations with us, and I could tell that everyone really enjoyed the opportunity to see true tapas. The two most "complicated" dishes of the evening were last, with one being prepared primarily by Natalie herself. She put together sauteed shrimp seasoned with smoked paprika and served over creamy, cheesy grits, dressed with a smoked paprika sauce. The spice is very common to dishes from Spain after all. The one that got everyone a little deeper into the culinary experience were the empanadas, small morsels stuffed with potato and Spanish chorizo and eventually drizzled with a chipotle cream sauce. When making them, everyone got to use a round pastry cutter to get the dough, stuff and fold the empanada, and brush for a glossy finish. As for the dough, we happened to use puff pastry - her choice: Pepperidge Farm.

Both dishes were quite good and quickly prepared. In fact, the class took just about an hour's time which seems suitable for the schedule of a working professional. The center will be hosting events, primarily led by Chef Natalie LaPlante for ones involving cooking, on a weekly basis with proceeds going to Inspire Artistic Minds (AIM). This non-profit, founded by the talented and driven Bobby Navarro, assists working professionals in the food and beverage industry get the inspiration they need to become better at what they do. It is the only non-profit of its type in the nation and certainly one we support. To learn more and get the scoop on upcoming events, visit www.inspireartisticminds.org. As for the classes themselves, I encourage you to attend at least one because these are informative, affordable, and interactive - three traits we love to look for ourselves when it comes to expanding our culinary education. Find the center at 541 W. Chapman Avenue in Orange, and perhaps you'll find a passion! My thanks to Bobby and Chef Natalie for having me there.

Look for the Upcoming Events calendar at http://100eats.com/venue/iamcc/.

Photography by Minerva Thai. More photos available on Facebook here.