From its humble beginnings in 1894 as a Presbyterian mission school for rural farm boys, to its present incarnation as an independent four-year liberal-arts college, Warren Wilson College has nurtured a certain spiritual growth rooted firmly in an appreciation for earthly matters. Witness the campus grounds, which feature fields full of the fruits of the season and a farm alive with animals raised with an emphasis on sustainability. Then there are the student-initiated bio-diesel programs and a host of other environmental efforts.
So Warren Wilson already had plenty going on when, last year, Susi Gott Seguret pitched the college on a brand new initiative that would harness some of the student-grown food and educate community members at the same time. Seguret, a chef, music aficionado and writer, proposed a summer-session program called the Swannanoa School of Culinary Arts. Now, she’s director of the program, which will hold its second set of classes this July (see box for details).
The SSCA convenes for a week at a campus-within-a-campus in the midst of the Warren Wilson Garden. This is not your typical culinary program. While other such schools often focus on little more than the technical aspects of cooking, this one takes a holistic approach to the world of food. As Seguret wrote in The Owl and the Spade, Warren Wilson’s alumni magazine, the SSCA experience “starts with the freshest local ingredients (the Warren Wilson garden was the obvious first choice), combining them into imaginative dishes drawing from worldwide recipes, bringing the five senses to life in a celebration that include[s] not only nourishment but music and movement, poetry and prose … sharing stories, laughter and passion – all around the communal table.”
This delicious concept, a feast for the senses, hatched in Seguret’s mind while she was working as assistant director of the Blue Grass and Country Music Program at East Tennessee State University. Previously, she had spent nearly a decade in France, reveling in the thriving culinary scene. Back in the states, Seguret quickly became disillusioned with American eating.
French cuisine, she reasoned, might perhaps be too much to expect, but where, she wondered, was the Southern fried chicken, the steaming biscuits or any other edible icon of traditional Appalachian cuisine, for that? “It was a rude culture shock to see how my students and colleagues were actually eating,” Seguret says. “If [what they had been eating] had really been red-eyed ham and gravy, they could have been a happy lot. But it was generally sodas and pizzas and subs on the run, and fillers at any time of day or night.”
Feeding herself proved to be no picnic, either, as the local grocery held little in the way of gustatory satisfaction for a true gourmet. “Even when I brought home the ingredients that looked the most appealing and tossed them with herbs and garlic and olive oil in the kitchen, the dishes I was able to turn out were a far cry from the ones I produced on the other side of the ocean,” she recalls. “The folks I invited in frequently to eat with us, however, were amazed.”
Seguret realized that, surrounded by microwaves and food that knew little of life outside the box, people had lost touch with the art of simply eating, let alone cooking. They had forgotten, says Seguret, how to experiment in the kitchen.
“What most French women, and men for that matter, learn as part of their daily vocabulary – that certain ‘tour de main’ in the kitchen, a passion for the flavors that tickle the palate – was alien in my new neighbors’ lives.”
After another sojourn in France spent determining what fueled the culinary flames there, Seguret made a proposal to her alma mater, Warren Wilson. The college had all the ingredients for hosting a small culinary school, she explained – organic gardens and farms, a spacious cabin with a wrap-around porch and an airy kitchen, and a multitude of cultural experiences to bring a different kind of life to education.
Last summer, the SSCA became a reality. This year, the school is back, boasting an all-star line-up of instructors selected, says Seguret, “to offer as wide a variety of culinary experiences as is possible to pack into one week.” The team includes local chefs such as Laurey Masterson of Laurey’s Catering, Jacob Sessoms of the Asheville restaurant Table, and Barbara Swell of the Log Cabin Cooking classes, as well as some who bring knowledge from afar, like Asian-cuisine authority Akira Satake from Japan. Other local notables include Eberhard Heide of the Asheville Wine Market, and Brian Cole (a master beer judge and brewer), who will guide participants in tastings of their favorite beverages, with “tips on fabrication and appreciation as well as coupling with food.”
The food will take center stage in a way that many students may not be accustomed to. They’ll help harvest vegetables for class from the gardens that surround the cabin classroom, or fish in the streams that meander through campus.
“I hope people will realize that it doesn’t take much to satisfy the body and thereby the soul,” Seguret says. “It is as important to savor as it is to eat well, for even the finest fare, gulped on the fly, will not benefit your health or your spirit. A slice of moist dark chocolate cake, however, taken with leisure and enjoyed to the hilt, will feed you for a long time.”
The Swannanoa School of Culinary Arts will take place at Warren Wilson from July 9 to 15. Everyone is invited to attend the classes, which have a different theme each day. Students can opt to take the entire week’s classes for $700; or, a single day of instruction, eating, drinking and entertainment for $150. In addition, there are morning session/gourmet-lunch packages for $80. Interested individuals should register now. For more information, including a complete schedule of classes and events, visit www.schoolofculinaryarts.org. Call the SSCA at 771-3018.