McAllen Culinary Academy makes cooking comfortable
Food excites Chef Marcel, and he shares that enthusiasm with cooks who turn to him to sharpen their skills in the kitchen.
The McAllen Culinary Academy may sound like a school for cooks wanting to become professional chefs, but that’s not what inspires Marcel.
“I’m not looking to teach professional cooks,” Marcel said. “I am more for people who want to better themselves for their family. And that’s what I do.”
Marcel Fortuin and his wife Sylvia began a culinary adventure together in 2002 when they opened Bistro M. A fine dining restaurant, Bistro M quickly gained a reputation for healthy, tasty cuisine and developed a loyal customer base.
After 10 and a half years they closed Bistro M when Sylvia became ill. Marcel had started teaching cooking classes on an occasional basis but picked up the pace when the restaurant closed.
“I figured if I do the cooking school that I could be more flexible with my time to help Sylvia,” Marcel said.
Using the restaurant’s kitchen, he started teaching a sequence of five classes, starting with basic knife skills to cut fruits and vegetables for salads, as well as create salad dressings. Subsequent weeks concentrate on soups, seafood, meats and desserts. At the end of each class the students sit down to enjoy the dishes they prepared under Marcel’s tutelage.
He added single-topic classes such as how to cook vegetarian, paella, roasted chicken and other specialties. During the summers the academy hosts cooking camps for kids. As the calendar turns pages toward the end of the year, Marcel turns his attention to the holidays.
“Our most popular classes are during the holidays, especially for Thanksgiving,” he said. “People want to learn how to make a Thanksgiving dinner without totally stressing out.”
Marcel takes a low-stress approach to teaching culinary skills. His congenial personality entertains students and puts them at ease.
“Our knives are sharp and our ovens are hot,” he began a recent class on vegetarian cooking. “This is your home. It’s just us here tonight. This is your kitchen; you can do whatever you want.”
Having Fun in the Kitchen
Marcel began a recent lesson on vegetarian meals with a demonstration on how to cut eggplant, tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables to prepare for the evening’s recipes. Students then chose from a set of recipes, gathered their ingredients and went to work. Marcel and a sous chef moved from station to station giving advice and joking with the students.
Since Marcel’s classes are geared toward home cooks, he makes sure to teach recipes with ingredients that are readily available at most grocery stores.
“We make sure everything is locally procurable,” he said. “Otherwise the students might lose their enthusiasm. I want to make sure they can walk out of the classroom, go to the grocery store and buy their supplies and do it the next day at their house.”
Individual three-hour classes cost $100 for adults and $70 for children. McAllen Culinary Academy provides all the ingredients and recipes along with the instruction.
Marcel also offers private classes on Fridays and Saturdays, where families often come to cook together.
“Those are really a blast,” Marcel said. “People are in a party mood when they come. They have to get involved. The whole family is all together cooking food for each other.”
Some private classes are conducted at people’s homes and ranches. “We get a bunch of hunters together at a hunting lodge,” he said. “I can show them how to cook game in ways they have never seen.”
As Marcel built the McAllen Culinary Academy into a thriving business, Sylvia recovered from her health problems and they decided to re-invent the restaurant.
“It’s really something I love doing,” he said. “I get a lot of joy out of seeing people get excited about cooking.”