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COOKING : Defending Mistakes as Kitchen Creativity : Lawyer-Turned-Cook Teaches Students That a Menu Foul-Up Is Not Crime

July 01, 1993|PAT GERBER | Pat Gerber is a member of The Times Orange County Edition staff. and

On the road from torts to tortes, Peter DiMicelli has learned not to let a few bumps and curves ruin a good recipe.

It's a lesson the lawyer-turned-cooking-teacher heartily imparts to his students at Cypress College and in the adult education program of Saddleback Valley Unified School District, where he teaches such things as concocting gourmet meals, whipping up chocolate goodies and toying with Mediterranean-style cuisine or garlic dishes. (His next classes start in the fall.)

Above all, he counsels his students, don't be afraid to fail, and if you're stuck with lemons, make lemonade.

Consider, for example, a session in which he was teaching some students how to make bread. The class didn't have time to wait for the double rising process, so DiMicelli decided to improvise. He thought he could give the dough a boost by using extra yeast, mixing different flours, covering the whole shebang with plastic wrap and a damp cloth and sticking it in a warm oven.

The dough stayed flat.

"So we rolled it out real thin and cut it into small pieces and made a variety of munchies," including a baked Italian version of a beignet, he says. They also cut some into strips, deep fried them and sprinkled them with cinnamon and sugar, creating their own version of Mexican churros.

"If you have a creative spirit, you can turn your disaster around," DiMicelli says.

He also advocates experimenting with different cheeses such as ricotta or marscarpone in cheesecake for a different consistency.

Play around with spices and herbs and learn to trust your palate, he suggests. To those who worry about following instructions right down to the dotted "I's" and crossed "Ts", DiMicelli has this advice: Lighten up.

"You can take any recipe and improve upon it. Recipes are not etched in stone, and Charlton Heston is not going to come down off the mountain top and say you violated" a kitchen commandment.

DiMicelli's regard for improvisation is born of a life spent adapting to change, starting with the death of his mother when he was 7. The only son of a New Jersey family, the young DiMicelli found himself responsible for household cooking, and he learned to make even the failures presentable by the time his father got home from work.

Throughout high school and college, he worked at snack bars or as a short-order cook.

"I always had a fascination with cooking; I found it thrilling to create," he said. His family, however, didn't want him to go into the restaurant business and pushed him to become an accountant, then later a lawyer.

In the early 1980s, though, DiMicelli was ready for a change and decided to try catering, which he stuck with until a few years ago.

When business slowed, DiMicelli took a course through the North Orange County Regional Occupational Program in Fullerton to become a certified chef and wound up volunteering to help the instructor prepare for a culinary competition. Eventually, he was offered a job as an instructional aide and later helped fashion Saddleback Valley's adult education cooking program.

He has never again looked with longing at a law book.

DiMicelli also teaches restaurant classes on the legal liabilities of such things as no-smoking laws and employment discrimination.

Through teaching, he also gets to indulge his penchant for trying new things and delights in throwing a curve at his students' taste buds, such as introducing them to a cold sour cherry soup. Or a cold banana and strawberry soup, which one time turned out too sweet. Did he dump it? Hardly.

"We used it to make margaritas."

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