It’s not quite 10 a.m. on a Sunday, a time when many people are still lolling around in their pj’s, reading the paper and drinking coffee. Not Paulette Bruce-Miller, who is bustling about the kitchen of her Land Park home, getting ready to teach her weekly cooking class.
During the week, Bruce-Miller works as a public relations executive for Crocker/Flanagan, a local advertising firm. But on the weekends, she trades her business suit for a starched white chef’s jacket and opens her home to people hungry to learn how to make perfect polenta and ravishing risotto.
As her students—nine women in their 30s—arrive, Bruce-Miller serves up steaming mugs of rich Italian roast coffee and slices of flourless walnut cake (homemade, of course) dusted with a hefty sprinkling of powdered sugar. She lets the women, members of a local bunco group, visit for a few minutes, then passes out kitchen towels and recipe packets, and gets down to business. “Hey, ladies,” she calls out. “Let’s get started!”
Today’s lesson: fast, easy dishes for busy families. Throughout the next four hours, Bruce-Miller and her students will crank out seven recipes: hearts of iceberg lettuce with blue cheese dressing and candied nuts; baked polenta with mushroom ragu; pepper-encrusted salmon with green herb sauce; spice-rubbed pork tenderloin with dried-cherry salsa; fennel, red pepper and olive salad; cumin-spiced carrots; and shrimp risotto.
The women crowd around the kitchen’s butcher-block island while Bruce-Miller explains mise en place, the professional chef’s technique of gathering and prepping ingredients before assembling a dish. “Measure and chop everything before you start to cook,” she tells her rapt audience. “And read your recipe twice.”
Then she divvies up the recipes and puts everyone to work. One woman measures arborio rice for the risotto while another painstakingly zests a lemon and a third chops basil, thyme and oregano. Calm and calming, Bruce-Miller moves from student to student, offering advice and leavening her lessons with a healthy dollop of humor. “Those are gnarly critters,” she says to a grimacing student chopping anchovies for the salmon’s green sauce. “But they’re the secret to Italian cooking.”
For Bruce-Miller, life revolves around the kitchen. Raised in an Italian-Basque household, she learned to cook by watching and helping her mother and grandmother. When she grew up, she began giving elaborate dinner parties for her friends, and she insisted on teaching her three sons (now grown) how to cook. In the ’90s, she was doing public relations for a local cookware store called HomeChef when the owner asked her to give cooking lessons in the store. After HomeChef folded several years later, Bruce-Miller decided to continue teaching in her spare time, this time in her home kitchen.
“At Home Chef, I taught 30 people at a time,” says Bruce-Miller, who also is one of Sacramento magazine’s Dining Divas. “This is a lot more personal. Here, everybody gets their hands into the food. I think that’s important.”
Her kitchen has all the charm of a French country cuisine, with glass-fronted cherry cabinets, butcher-block counters, a travertine-tile floor and an exposed brick wall. A French baker’s rack holds a few of the close to 1,000 cookbooks Bruce-Miller has collected throughout the years, and old copper pots and wicker baskets perch atop the cabinets. A year ago, she replaced the old sink with a large, deep stainless-steel number. “It’s my favorite thing in the kitchen,” she says. “I used to have to wash the pots and pans in the bathtub.”
Today, an assistant expertly washes the dishes while Bruce-Miller cooks, using ingredients prepped by the students. She pops a tray of sugar syrup-coated pecans into the oven for the salad, then whips up the blue cheese dressing in the Cuisinart and passes it around, along with tiny spoons, so that everyone can get a taste. Next, she makes fish stock for the risotto, adding discarded shrimp shells, bottled clam juice and Charles Shaw Chardonnay—the infamous Two-Buck Chuck—to a saucepan. “I never cook with the wine I’m going to serve with dinner,” she explains, going against established thinking on the subject. “I cook with Charles Shaw all the time—it’s OK for cooking.”
While the stock bubbles away, Bruce-Miller pats ground red, black and green peppercorns onto wild salmon fillets and pops them into a smoking-hot sauté pan. Then she pulls out the tray of nuts and deftly transfers the salmon fillets to the oven to finish cooking. All the while, she’s talking, laughing and joking. “Nothing ruffles me,” she explains later. “I don’t even mind making a mistake in front of my students. I just tell them, ‘Add some garlic and wine, and it’ll be fine.’”
Bruce-Miller teaches people of all stripes: gourmet cooks and avowed noncooks, men and women, adults and children. This past Christmas, one woman purchased gift certificates for all the men in her life, and Bruce-Miller gave them a private class. Topics include low-carb cooking, fish and shellfish, Italian Sunday supper dishes and cooking with wine.
Her style is part cooking class, part dinner party: When each dish is ready, Bruce-Miller serves it to her students as they perch on stools around the island. On this day, the students ooh and ah as they tuck into the food. “Oh, that is so good,” sighs one as she eats the salad. “I could just eat the dressing by itself.” “I’m going to make the salmon tonight,” another declares. “Oh, my gosh,” is all another one can say as she spoons the creamy risotto into her mouth.
At the end of four hours, the women take off their aprons and head home, armed with their newfound knowledge and ready to cook something different for their families. Bruce-Miller is happy.
“It’s so rewarding,” she says, “to be able to do what you love and to inspire other people to try new things.”
To get on the mailing list for Paulette Bruce-Miller’s cooking classes, call (916) 498-9804.