by Lou Mancinelli
If you want to learn how to cook authentic, organic Old World meals, the organic part comes natural, or at least it used to.
“Everybody was organic those days,” said Muriel Bennett, a private chef born of Moroccan parents in Marseilles, about the cooks of southern France from whom she learned the Moroccan tradition. “And no one knew it was organic.”
Bennett will teach her popular class, “Moroccan Cooking,” on Sunday, Feb. 12, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., via the Mt. Airy Learning Tree (MALT) for only $5. The class will take place in the home near the intersection of Elm and Willow Grove Avenues in Wyndmoor that Bennett said is reminiscent of an Italian villa. She has taught the class at least 10 times in the past.
Bennett brings with her the experience of a former private chef in San Francisco. In 1981, she came to the U.S. “because the world is small and [I] wanted to visit California.” She fell in love with the place and stayed. At first, she worked as a French and Moroccan chef. In about six months, she started her own catering business and began to work private parties.
“In San Francisco in the ‘80s, people hired private chefs like crazy for parties,” she said.
That’s how she met a gentleman from Radnor she would later marry. While she is no longer married, she has lived on the east coast since 1988. And while she went to nursing school in France, she has earned her keep on the Atlantic seaboard by working as a private chef and by practicing estate management.
“I think people want authenticity,” said Bennett, 56, about why a number of the people who come to her class are repeat attendees. “I didn’t learn it here. I learned it from there [in Europe.]”
During her class, Bennett will set the mood with wine and music as she teaches her students how to prepare a traditional meal. She’ll make a “tajine” dish, a slow-cooked stew braised at low temperatures with beef or lamb and aromatic spices. She’ll also teach students how to prepare a vegetable and royal couscous.
While Moroccan meals are known for a variety of color and multiplicity of spices — cinnamon, cumin, cilantro, paprika — and dishes that can often feature fruit like raisins with the food, or salads with radish and orange, Bennett’s class will feature an American (or “fast”) twist to its preparation. She’ll teach students to prepare the couscous grind in the microwave and cook the tajine a little faster than normal. She will do most of the prep work outside the class.
“To do the class is a labor of love,” she said.
It has been a few years since Bennett has taught her interpretations of the traditional Moroccan cuisine she learned from her mother as a child in Marseilles. Then, people went to the butcher every day, she said. Cooking was an all day affair. Yet, it was also simple.
“Nothing was processed,” she said. “Everything was fresh, fresh, fresh … It’s sumptuous, yet people made it every day.”
If her class is nearly as sonorous as a telephone conversation with Bennett, it might be a classic snapshot of old French cooking, so fabled in the kitchens of the world’s greatest chefs and gourmands.