This past weekend, I took my first cooking class with Chef Emilio of Emilio’s Tapas. This is a pleasant and low-key affair, full of delicious recipes, nice people, and a solicitous head chef who just wants everyone to enjoy his food. For $40 a head, it’s also a very good deal.

Emilio Gervilla first made a name for himself as the chef at Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba, where he introduced the Chicago region to the concept of Spanish tapas, or small plate dining. Eventually he purchased his own space, and over the years has run 11 area eateries. Today, he has two remaining – one in Streeterville, between the Mag Mile and Navy Pier – and one in the suburb of Hillside.

Full disclosure: As a freelancer, I work for both Emilio’s Tapas and Windy City Guide. I haven’t known Emilio, his family, and his employees for more than a few months, but I’ve been consistently impressed by Emilio’s Tapas’ commitment to fresh food, good service, and to their local communities . The owners are invariably kind and considerate; letting me sit in on this class as a guest is just one example. Emilio himself is an artist, and he truly wants to share his cooking with the world. That’s why he does this.

For today’s lunchtime class, there are about 25 guests in attendance. Many of them are regulars – one tells me that Emilio is “a gift from God,” and says she’s been coming for 25 years. The menu for the day is a surprise – I understand it can be difficult to pin Emilio down on what he’s making for his classes, except that he wants to change it up each time so the recipes are never the same. We’re all sitting around a U-shaped table with the preparation table at the head of the room.

emilioscookingclass15He starts with a dish called Guisantes con Jamon. This is a basic peas and Serrano ham dish with shallots, olive oil, and peppers. He uses a regular, beat-up frying pan, telling us, “No fancy pan. This is real. We do (it) like you cook at home.” He adds the ingredients and gives us instruction. After every few steps, he takes a turn about the room with the pan so we can see what it looks like without getting up (although I bother everyone by getting up constantly so I can get pictures – my apologies to the people sitting next to me). People ask questions, he comments about substituting with bacon. I immediately decide I’m going to do that, so I can make this dish for my kid, who is a bacon fiend.

The result is, as Emilio says, “Simple but delicious.” We’re given already-prepared versions, plated beautifully, and I can already see I’m not going to need dinner because each portion is big. We’ve already received baskets of bread and the servers keep coming around with wine. We also get little roasted green peppers, and are told that some are hot, and some are not. “It’s like a delicious lottery!” I remark. (For the record, I got one hot pepper out of the lot.) Meanwhile, people are impressed with the peas dish. I hear at least two people talking about how much they like the flavor, even though they don’t like peas at all and were initially skeptical. And Emilio whips up a bonus dish from locally-grown eggs, ham, and a few colorful peppers.

emilioscookingclass2The next dish is Paella Murciana de Bacalao, basically the traditional Spanish rice dish with cod. I’ve never been a huge fan of paella, but I’ve been wanting to try Emilio’s version because I’m constantly looking at beautiful, vibrant pictures of his food in my daily work and it makes me hungry. Anyway, the recipe calls for fish stock and olive oil, so Emilio tells us a bit about olive oil. Onions, peppers, peas, and slices of tomato go into the pan. He advises us we don’t need to buy the “$50 rice,” just the kind we like, and to soften it with more fish stock if that’s how we like it. Our servers bring in a giant dish of paella made ahead of time, and serve us from it. It’s flavorful and pretty, and the fish is tender and flaky. I don’t know if I’m a total convert, but yum. The servers give everyone second servings if they want – not many people want, we’ve already eaten too much. Some ask for their paella to be packed up to take home. Also, we’ve moved on to red wine to go with the paella.

Someone had asked earlier about roasting peppers, so Emilio gives us a quick demonstration on his little portable burner. Then he starts in on dessert – Piononos de Granada. He asks one guest, clearly a regular, to explain it. Spaghetti squash? Emilio shows us one, brings out an already-roasted squash, and demonstrates how to take out the seeds and get out the stringy flesh. He adds like half a pound of sugar, a lot of vanilla – “I like it!” he exclaims, and cooks it up. He makes an egg wash and shows us how to wrap the mixture into a square of puff pastry. The pre-made ones are served to us with whipped cream and a sprig of mint. The guy next to me loves the flavor of the cream, and I hear others remarking on how they’d never have thought to use spaghetti squash but it’s so good. I decide to make this for my kid so that I can trick him into eating a vegetable. Is squash a vegetable? I’m going to have to Google that later.

emilioscookingclass3There’s more wine offered, along with dessert wine of some kind and a serving of a caramel vodka that appears to be sold exclusively at Emilio’s. A lady next to me informs me that no other place in the U.S. sells it, and it’s great over vanilla ice cream. (Later, I confirm this with Kathleen Martin of Emilio’s – she says she doesn’t know of any other place that offers it, and you can just walk off the street and purchase it). I start plotting my Christmas gift list.

And speaking of sales, our place setting has included a sheet for ordering the wines, the vodka, the local eggs (from Chuck Barman of Crown Point, Indiana), and sherry vinegar. I go up to the bar after class, and at least one guest is asking if he can RSVP for the next cooking class.

The class ends with Emilio going around the table, thanking everyone, hoping they enjoyed the food, and clinking glasses with everyone. He says some things in Spanish at which everyone laughs. I don’t know Spanish, so I have to ask for a translation. Something about enjoying the food and wine…heck, I’m too full to care.

Emilio hosts cooking classes frequently, but the next one currently on the schedule is from Chef Crispin at the Sol y Nieve location in Chicago on 11/14. Sign up by calling the restaurant, and stay tuned for more information at www.emiliostapas.com. Here’s a link to the Facebook photo album of the class.

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