"Who doesn't like to shop at the Farmer's Market?" asks Tom Marsico incredulously. A local home-based chef who specializes in Italian cooking, Marsico can't imagine not using the freshest ingredients possible in any dish he makes.
"Freshness is the key," he said, while chopping plump onions, zucchini, tomatoes, carrots, potatoes and peppers for an Italian version of ratatoulie known as ciambotta.
One day recently, Marsico filled Art in the Loft's newly completed Culinary Arts Kitchen with the distinct aroma of garlic, onions and tomatoes cooking in extra virgin olive oil. He'd agreed to whip up some bruschetta, caprese salad and the ciambotta as a prelude to the series of cooking classes being offered in the sleek new kitchen.
Not only did Marsico draw the honor of being the first to cook on the facility's brand new Royal eight-burner gas range, but he also is teaching the first class on Aug. 27. That hands-on class, open to just 10 participants, will involve making ricotta cheese and paring it with fresh Farmer's Market produce to create a pasta sauce.
Thanks to a $25,000 grant from the Besser Foundation, plus many other donations of money and materials both large and small, the state-of-the-art kitchen project was recently completed. The Culinary Arts Kitchen now is intended to be used both as a staging area for events held at Art in the Loft and for offering culinary arts classes like the one Marsico will be teaching later this month.
In anticipation of the project being finished and operational, Culinary Arts Coordinator Denise Cooper was tasked with developing a series of cooking classes to offer to the public.
"We did a survey at an Art in the Loft membership meeting of between 50 to 75 people," Cooper said. "Everyone had an idea what they wanted to see offered. We mailed lists to chefs and restaurants. The most response we got on who to ask to teach classes was from word of mouth, so we began making contact with people."
According to Cooper, the kitchen already has been getting a lot of use with weddings held at Art in the Loft almost every Saturday. Among her upcoming scheduled classes are breakfast and lunch ideas for nourishing a busy family, bread making, food photography, a complete vegan and gluten-free Thanksgiving dinner, how to prepare wild game from field to table and Challah breads for Christmas.
Those are just the classes with firm dates. Cooper also has many other instructors lined up to teach additional classes in the near future. These include wine tasting and culinary pairing, safe food procedures and safe food storage, artisan breads, authentic Hungarian cuisine, cake decorating, home brewed craft beer and traditional South African cuisine.
Besides his class slated for Aug. 27, which he is repeating again Sept. 4, Marsico also will be teaching one on how to make artisan pizza. For many of his dishes, he relies on his Italian heritage and his childhood growing up in the New York area and along the New Jersey coast where fresh seafood always was in bountiful supply. His father and two of his grandparents immigrated from Italy, coming through Ellis Island.
"I learned to cook from my parents," said Marsico, who holds a master's degree in biology. "By the time I was 9, I was making my own pasta."
He remembers as a youngster foraging for mushrooms in the woods, catching eel with pieces of squid in the brackish waters near his home and digging for clams in the inner tidal zones.
"I grew up having fresh ingredients from the land and the sea," said Marsico. Using fresh ingredients still remains one of his main mantras. He currently maintains a small garden at home and shops regularly at the Alpena Farmer's Market, where he does cooking demonstrations from time to time. His thanks for leading the demos is a large supply of fresh basil, an ingredient upon which he places a premium value.
Marsico cooks with passion for both friends and family, including his wife, Sally, their four children and their families. Retired after 28 years with Panel Processing, he's been teaching cooking classes for a number of years now through Alpena Community College's Community Education program.
What sets Marsico's classes apart, said Cooper, are the stories he tells about the food.
"Tom has a story behind what he's doing," she said. "He brings to life the origin of the food."
He looks forward to sharing his passion and know-how with others in Art in the Loft's carefully designed kitchen.
Jon Benson of JJ's, Eric Peterson of Fresh Palate and Ray Bock of Fremont Catering consulted with Art in the Loft on the design so that the space flows well and featurea all the necessary appliances. The space is outfitted with the eight-burner gas range, a double oven, stand alone convection oven, mobile center island, refrigeration, ample counter tops with spacious work areas and a dedicated dish room.
In addition to the Besser Foundation, major donations or grants came from Tim and Sue Fitzpatrick, Park Family Foundation, Alpena Power, Top 'O Michigan Insurance, Community Foundation for Northeast Michigan, Young's Appliance and Alpena Beverage. Starmark Cabinetry and Ossineke Building Supply also provided materials to complete the space.
Mark L. Skiba served as contractor for the project. Tad Latuszek of Trinity Architecture was the architect, plumbing was by Randy Tibbits and electrical work by Ryan Fairchild, Omega Electric.
Those who served on the Kitchen Planning Committee were Peggy Matuzak, Sue Fitzpatrick, Karen Bennett and Maureen Stevens.