North by Northwest: Something to Nibble On
Suzie Stephens, owner of Nibbles
photography by Beth Hall
It’s 5:45 on a Tuesday night, and they start to trickle into the kitchen. An older couple — confident; a young man — eager; a middle-aged man — prepared; a young woman — bright-eyed; an older man — curious; and journalist — nervous. They were strangers coming together with one common goal: to learn something about the fundamentals of cooking.
The Nibbles Academy of Cooking is a recreational cooking school located off College Avenue, in Fayetteville with weekly classes to delight any palate, from classical French, Mediterranean, Cajun and even Mixology.
“All cooking classes I’ve been to had been demonstration nature,” Suzie Stephens, owner of Nibbles, said. “I thought you would learn more if you actually got in and did it because people love [the hands-on experience]. They want to chop and slice, and create and taste.”
The Academy is not a typical school atmosphere. As students walk into the building they’re greeted by a jovial bartender asking if they want a drink to take to class. With seating for about 10, the atmosphere is that of a typical bar, fun and inviting. Students are then led through the conjoined Italian restaurant with dim lighting and rustically-painted walls into their workspace — the kitchen.
The commercial kitchen has six individual spaces that each include an oven and stovetop. All equipment and food products are provided and can be found simply by searching through the kitchen’s array of pots and pans, drawers full of cooking utensils, spice racks and three refrigerators.
The space can be potentially overwhelming to new cooks, but Stephens quickly puts everyone at ease. “I love cooking school because I love to teach people new things,” Stephens said, “and teaching cooking is the most fun because we get to eat and drink it too. It also doesn’t hurt to have a master’s degree in drama.”
A dramatic cook — even at the age of 13 — Stephens immersed herself in cooking when her aunt came to stay with her family for a summer. “We cooked everything. We cooked bread. We cooked so much our neighbors didn’t need any more free food, and [the cooking bug] just bit me at that moment,” she said.
Perpetuating her new passion was the Julia Child cooking show on the educational channel, which she raced home to watch every afternoon after school, though her mother thought it was hysterical. Child became somewhat of a mentor for Stephens who eventually went to the Cordon Bleu Cooking School in Paris. “It made me understand the techniques of Classical French cooking, which is truly what I consider the mother of all cooking,” Stephens said. “If you can do that, you can do anything.”
These classical French techniques are the backbone of her Fundamentals of Cooking class, in which students make steak diane, chicken fricassee (“We make fricassee just because I like saying fricassee.”) asparagus and hollandaise, shrimp bisque, homemade pasta and French bread — and if there’s any room left for dessert, champagne sabayon.
“This class is about being able to create fundamental meals fabulously,” Stephens said.
After cooking for two hours, with each student responsible for a dish, it all comes together like a Thanksgiving meal, with five-star quality food, and each student is amazed to find they’ve created enough to feed triple the number people in the room.
Stephens has written five cookbooks, traveled the world 30 times and marched with the penguins in Antarctica, but it’s this tiny cooking school in northwest Arkansas that’s given her the most pleasure. “A lot of people don’t realize how hard this business is. You have to be a little bit crazy to be in this business … and I’m definitely crazy,” she said. “But if I’m passionate about it, everybody better look out.”
It’s 9 p.m, and the students finally start to trickle out of the kitchen — except now they don’t act like strangers, but more like family — telling stories, laughing about mistakes in the kitchen, gushing over which dish is the best and making promises to come back soon. And as they leave with overflowing to-go containers in hand that same jovial bartender wishes them a good night.
Nibbles Academy of Cooking
3290 N. Lee Ave. • Fayetteville, AR 72703
479.966.4499 • nibblesacademyofcooking.com