By John Halverson | Photography by Holly Leitner
It’s more than a cooking class, it’s a party too.
The place is rocking. Feet are tapping to pumped-in music. People are chattering, mugging for pictures, bragging about the dishes they’re creating and asking the chefs for more know-how. There’s even a TV set, tuned into a college football game.
It’s a fun atmosphere, and at the center is the master of ceremonies, the joke-a-minute guy, the maestro, Chef John Bogan, who runs the Lake Geneva School of Cooking.
Nestled in the corner of an old church at 727 Geneva Street, in Lake Geneva, the school is composed of four rooms — two adjoining dining rooms, a kitchen where the meal preparation occurs, and a room filled with fine wines. As the French say, “mise en place” — everything in its place.
Bogan bought the school in 2008. In July he’ll celebrate 10 years of operation. Before that, Bogan was the general manager and chief chef at Kirsch’s at the French Country Inn, a Lake Geneva restaurant long renowned for its food.
A PASSION IS REALIZED
Born in upstate New York, Bogan was destined to be a chef from early on. “Some people are made to be football players. Some people are made to be garbage collectors,” he says. “I was made to be a chef.”
Growing up in a time before video games, Bogan, like all kids of that era, had to make his own fun. He found it in cooking. His early experiences in the kitchen with his grandmother led to working summers for his uncle, a former chef in New Orleans, where he worked twelve-hour days, six days a week.
“What? This is not a summer vacation,” he thought. But the job grew on him. “I loved the sizzling. I loved the smells. I loved something as simple as cutting radish roses and putting them in cold water and watching them curl,” he told a reporter for a story in the Janesville Gazette.
The busier it got, the more he enjoyed it. He enjoyed the staff and taking care of people. “Right then, I decided I wanted to be that guy. I wanted to be a chef.”
He went on to get his formal education at Johnson and Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, where he received an associate degree in culinary arts and a bachelor’s degree in food service management.
In his professional career, he’s produced a live educational culinary show and was featured chef in the official magazine of The American Culinary Federation, The National Culinary Review.
As he grew in his profession, his chef’s hat grew along with him. Bogan’s tall hat signifies his expertise — the higher the hat the more heralded the chef. “There are a lot of different hats. I don’t wear a baseball hat or a bandana,” he says. “I love wearing a chef’s hat.”
Bogan’s experience eventually led him to the Midwest. He met his wife in Chicago. A Hawaiian transplant, she went there because “she wanted to see snow,” he says. They have two daughters — one of whom helped Bogan this particular night — and a one-year-old grandson.
THE JOY OF COOKING
On this cold evening, personable servers meet us at the door of the Lake Geneva Cooking School with glasses of sparkling wine.
Bogan greets us in full chef regalia — the hat of course, called a toque, and a white double-breasted jacket. He knows our names. We soon find out that he knows everyone’s name including those who have taken a class from him before and traveled a long way to do it again.
We’re handed aprons and our own chef’s hat, which is, appropriately, much smaller than Bogan’s.
After washing our hands, we gather together in the kitchen. Bogan holds court, explaining that cooking starts with the best food bought from area merchants. And, he jokes, that the seafood — even the lobster — comes from the waters of Geneva Lake.
Our job is to create a four-course dinner composed of seared salmon au poivre with colossal shrimp scampi garni, black truffle onion soup, and rack of lamb with whipped potatoes and, of course, dessert.
We’re at a large table in the big and roomy well-equipped kitchen where each of us receives a different part of the menu to prepare. As we start cooking, we’re served smoked Gouda gougéres, a French-style cheese puff, to whet our appetites.
In such close quarters you can’t help but talk to the person next to you and we share years of living. The couple next to us found love later in life. We exchange stories about children and grandchildren and work.
At another station, a group of kids — part of a family of 14 — are assigned the dessert, a Grand Marnier dark chocolate mousse. The family had been here before, returning for the fun and food and being together.
The meal-making takes place under the watchful eye of Bogan, and his assistants who are always willing to answer questions. When Bogan shows us how to properly slice and dice some fresh herbs and we try to be too exact with the measurements, he picks up a portion between his fingers and deems it exact enough. “That’s how grandmother used to do it,” he says confirming that cooking is an art as much a science.
BREAKING BREAD TOGETHER
Bogan insists that a meal is a communal activity best served with family and friends. “The breaking of bread” together being as old as cooking itself. As for the TV and party-like atmosphere, Bogan says, “I teach the cooking like you cook at home.”
When the meal is prepared, we gather in the dining room. The family of 14 sit at one long table. There are ten of us at another.
We sit with two women, who are longtime friends, who worked together in New Guinea. They regale us with stories of warring factions on either side of their compound who greeted the women as they went off to fight each other.
Each group is asked to step into the kitchen, fill each plate with the food they prepared and serve the guests “from the left” as instructed by Bogan.
Before each item is served, two members of the team are asked to name and describe the dish they created. At the end of the explanation, Bogan points to a sign on the wall. “What does it say?” he asks, and the presenter answers “Bon Appétit!”
A prize is traditionally given to the best dish of the night. On this night, Bogan takes the prerogative of naming us all winners.
And on this particular evening, long before spring, before the end of winter is in sight, there’s a chill in the air. We’re celebrating New Year’s Eve with party hats and noise-makers and, of course, sparking wine. It is a few days before the actual event, not unlike the season that is almost upon us. But at the Lake Geneva School of Cooking, there’s always an excuse for a party.
BOGAN AND THE BURGER THROWDOWN
Bogan assists with organizing the Annual Burger Throwdown which is a competition between area chefs to see who can make the best hamburger.
The seventh annual event will take place from 12:30 – 3 p.m. Sunday, April 22, at the Ridge Hotel, W4240 Hwy. 50, Lake Geneva.
Samples are served from more than a dozen area restaurants. Participants then vote on which restaurant had the best burger. Proceeds go to the Badger Culinary ProStart Program.
General admission for ages 6 and up is $20 for entry at 12:30 p.m. VIP tickets, which allow you to get in an hour earlier are $35. The entry fee includes unlimited burger samples while they last. Soft drinks, a cash bar and other food is available as well as live entertainment. Click here for tickets.