Class is in session. The guests mingle over a glass of wine and some appetizers. The ingredients and food produce -- all carefully picked to assure the best quality -- are set up for the cooking to begin. The menu is a seven-course meal, with a series of tasty appetizers, entrees and desserts. The room is loud and boisterous but everyone follows the lead. Once the cooking is done, everyone will sit together to enjoy the food they've made. More bottles of wine will float around.
Welcome to a cooking class hosted by Chef Alejandra Ramos. During this three-and -a-half-hour gatherings, Ramos takes her clients -- or guests as she prefers to call them -- through a cooking escapade.
The New York native of Puerto Rican descent, has been throwing informal dinner parties for her friends since the age of 15 and she intends to keep that friendly vibe and chill environment in her classes.
"I like my classes to have a very relaxed feeling," she told HuffPost LatinoVoices. "I don't want anything super formal. The idea is to get people excited about food and excited about being in the kitchen, to learn without it being a stressful experience." Ramos tells her guests "to think of this class as a party."
To attend this party you don't need to be an expert in the kitchen. In fact, half of Ramos' guests are people "who sign-in specifically because they want to learn how to cook and be more comfortable in the kitchen." The other half are people who know their way around the kitchen but "join the class because they are passionate about cooking and they want to experiment and do something fun with food."
The cooking class is part of the company founded by the chef herself, "Alejandra Ramos Culinary & Lifestyle", which is a culinary concierge service that also provides all-day cooking workshops, custom monthly menu planning, real food coaching, kitchen and pantry makeovers and catering services.
Ramos began her formal culinary education at the Apicius International School of Hospitality in Florence, Italy. Although she has been passionate about cooking all her life, the 29-year-old chef wasn't always committed full-time to the kitchen. She graduated from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where she got a degree in English and went on to work for four years as the International Editions Editor for Cosmopolitan Magazine at Hearst Magazines International.
But working with food was her calling.
In April 2011, she quit her editorial job to be able to focus full-time on her food blog and cooking classes. Today, she offers a variety of classes.
From "Light & Delicious: Healthy Weeknight Cooking," where she teaches an array of healthy dishes, to "Busy Weeknight Dinners II," where she teaches "recipes that can be prepared quickly and with little fuss on those busy weeknight evenings," Ramos likes to experiment in the kitchen.
In this last holiday season, Ramos offered a class with a traditional Puerto Rican Christmas menu complete with pernil (roast pork), arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas), mofongo, octopus salad, budin de pan (puerto rican bread pudding) with caramel sauce, coquito (puerto rican eggnog), candied guava and pina coladas.
The Huffington Post talked to Ramos about one of her most memorable meals, her Valentine's Day plans and why she would never like to work in restaurant.
Did your experience in Italy influence this relaxed style of cooking classes?
Absolutely. The chef who taught my class back in Florence, would literally smoke with one hand while sautéing things with the other. It was hysterical but that was the relaxed attitude that they had. It was hard work and we learned a lot but it was in an environment where the most important thing was respecting food. The idea is that food is not supposed to be taken that seriously, but it's supposed to be shared with other people. I have these memories of going out after our classes with our instructors and sharing these awesome, long meals, and wine and then roaming the streets of Florence. And this is the style that's influenced my cooking and my entertaining and my classes.
Why do you think this style of teaching works?
Because it's relaxed and people stop being intimidated by the kitchen. Cooking shouldn't be so strict, but some people think that if they don't follow a recipe word for word they won't be able to produce something that tastes good.
Any memorable class?
I actually did a retro "Mad Men" class and I taught a whole 1960's menu. That was very fun. We did Beef Wellington, parmesan potatoes, a bacon salad dressing for spinach salad, cheese ball in the shape of an apple. And I served mai tai cocktails. It was all very kind of kitschy, 1960's food.
And a memorable meal?
The first morning I got to Florence, I stumbled out into the city for the first time and I didn't speak a work of Italian. I found a little shop and the only word I could think of was "arancia" (orange) and the only number I could remember was "cinque" (five) so I got five oranges. Then I spotted the tuna and I got five of those as well and then I went to the bakery. The tuna was just phenomenal. It was real Italian tuna which is kept in olive oil and its packed fresh, right after they catch it. I was moaning by myself in the living room eating tuna. And then when I cut open the orange it was this gorgeous, bright red blood orange. I was in heaven after that meal and if you think about it, it was literally tuna, bread and oranges.
Have you ever considered working in a restaurant?
I wouldn't want to work in a restaurant. I don't want to be working in a place where people eat my food but I don't know the guests. I like seeing people's expressions when they're eating what I cook and in a restaurant it's really hard to be able to do that. I like the much more personal vibe of the cooking classes.
Are you hosting a special Valentine's Day class?
For Valentines Day I'm actually doing a couples cooking class. The theme is "Chocolate & Spice" so we're doing a series of dishes that all have an element of chocolate or a spice. There's a pan seared stripe bass with a pepper Romesco sauce and handmade coco chestnut gnocchi. The pasta actually has chocolate but it's a savory dish. We'll also cook roasted asparagus with chile-spiked Aioli and to end the night we'll make red wine chocolate cake with cinnamon whipped cream.
LEARN TO MAKE ONE OF CHEF RAMOS' FAVORITE PASTA DISHES:
Recipe: Pasta Alla Norcina (pasta with sausage, herb, and mushroom cream sauce)
8oz small pasta (such as rigatoni, orecchiette , or penne)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 pound hot Italian pork sausage
1/2 yellow onion, diced
2 large garlic cloves, crushed
8oz cremini mushrooms, cleaned and coarsely chopped
2 cups heavy cream
2 tablespoons fresh rosemary, finely minced
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 to 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes (skip if you prefer less heat; use more if you'd
like a lot of spice)
1 cup grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese
Freshly ground black pepper
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Salt and add pasta. Cook until al dente (about 10 minutes). Drain, reserving 1 cup of the pasta water.
While the pasta cooks, remove the sausage from casings and break up into small pieces. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a heavy pan over medium heat and add the sausage. Cook for 2 minutes until lightly browned.
Add the onions and garlic cloves, saute together for 3 minutes until fragrant and soft (you don't want to caramelized the onions). Add the chopped mushrooms and cook for 5 minutes or until cooked down and any liquid has reduced.
Add the cream, rosemary, nutmeg, and red pepper. Let the sauce cook for 3 to 5 minutes, stirring constantly.
Add the cooked pasta and the cheese and toss to coat evenly. If sauce is too thick, add some of the reserved pasta water. Season with Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste. Serve immediately.
More Recipes and Photos of Chef Alejandra Ramos: