BRANDON – Nine pairs of bright eyes followed the big man in black as he moved purposefully around the gleaming kitchen. Arranged along the countertop at the Rolling Pin Kitchen Emporium, youngsters from the Seminole Tribe of Florida's Tampa Community were about to get a Saturday lesson in the joys of cooking from Chef Dave West.
Hand-washing areas were the first stop. West then assigned his young charges to one of three work stations in the “culinary center” of the store.
Each youth, ranging in age from 7 to 15, would prepare his or her own pizza, create calzones and top it all off with a dessert of Nutella and bananas on sweetened dough.
Issac, 13, began by turning yeast into dough.
“It's better to be a little dry than wet,” West instructed. “It takes a long time. It needs to be a ball. We might make four balls. One mess equals four meals.”
The hands-on class, where participants take an active role in cooking, is one of several types offered at the Rolling Pin. Socially interactive classes let attendees be as involved in the process as much or as little as they want. In demonstration classes, participants watch the action, and get to eat the results. Skill building, corporate events and private parties are on the table, too, said West, and they've proved to be popular.
“There are only two dates left for private parties between now and the end of the year,” he said.
The Sarasota native spent 29 years working for McDonald's Corp., retiring in 2003 as director of operations. While there, he met his wife, Karen, who manages the retail portion of the store. The couple operated several Rolling Pin stores, a franchise operation that went out of business in the late 1990s.
“We acquired the rights to the name and trademarks and reinvented ourselves,” he said.
That reinvention included refrigerated foods, a wine bar, and 15,000 to 18,000 individual items in the retail portion of the business.
“(Karen) manages to cram everything in that she can,” said West.
But the chef in West longed for roux and reductions. He attended the French Culinary Institute in New York City, graduating in the top 5 percent of his class.
“I like to cook,” he said. “It's a good creative outlet.”
He presides over 60 to 70 percent of the classes, while 18 guest chefs – local and celebrity – guide the rest.
West, however, doesn't like to bake.
“A few people do both, but most specialize,” he said. “Bakers have to follow a recipe: There's a science to it. Cooks or chefs don't typically follow a recipe. Cooks put things together.”
And he does like putting things together. About twice a year, West digs into his refrigerator and throws anything that's in a jar or bottle into a pot. Then he adds, reduces, tastes and adjusts until he has “refrigerator barbecue sauce.”
“The bad part is you can never do it again because you don't know what you did,” he said.
He also makes his own stock, using whatever is leftover in the freezer. “Everything gets saved and frozen. The refrigerator is for milk and vegetables. Freezers should be much larger.”
“I'm a big proponent of making your own,” said West. “It takes no more time to make a gallon than a quart.”
Most people have three to four months of food in their pantry, said West. “They open the pantry door and see nothing to eat. Meaning, they have to cook. People have to be able to plan for food to eat. We try to have ways for people to plan.”
One of the best ways to start is by buying rotisserie chicken, he said.
“It's very adaptable. There's nothing wrong with buying a chicken that's already been roasted.”
West said people have begun to cook again, partly due to the recession.
“They don't have the money or time to go out with people as much,” he said. “It's cheaper, saves time and brings the family back together again.”
And cooking inspires people, West added.
“Restaurants always have the same menu and you don't get to meet people. Here we have a great chance to meet people.”
Debbie Ploor and Kathy Greene are two of his customers, and two of the women behind the recent White Ribbon Soiree to benefit Prelude to a Cure, a nonprofit set up for the thoracic oncology program at Moffitt Cancer Center. Ploor, Greene, Tonja Stuart and Rosie Petrilli organized the fundraiser in memory of their friend Barbara Bauer, who died of lung cancer in November 2012. The committee approached West about providing the event's repast.
Held Nov. 8, the menu of heavy hors d'oeuvres included such tempting bites as Asian pork potstickers with chili ginger dipping sauce, steak and blue bruschetta, mini crab cakes with remoulade sauce and saffron arancini with smoked tomato fondue, among others.
“We put the vegetable crudités in shot glasses or little cups,” said West. “It's amazing how people will eat it like crazy.”
Eleven of the Rolling Pin's 100 volunteer assistants planned to be on hand. “I always make way too much food,” said West.
“Dave has been a wonderful support. He gives back to the community a lot,” Ploor said prior to the event. “It's going to elevate the evening into such a lovely affair. And his wife Karen knows all about wines and they've been very helpful in telling us what we need to know about pairing it with the food.”
The Rolling Pin also participated in the Tampa Bay Wine and Food Festival in September that benefits the Brandon Community Foundation, and the Vine and Wine Festival in May, which raised funds for A Kid's Place in Brandon, a shelter for abused, neglected or abandoned children.
The Wests consider charitable contributions carefully.
“We want to make sure they actually benefit from it,” he said. “We try to stay on things that are food-oriented, food-driven.”
Just like the Rolling Pin's culinary classes; almost 4,000 in the seven years the Wests have operated the business.
“Our objective is to have full classes and we feed ample portions,” said West.
The surfeit of sustenance was evident in the children's class, an outing arranged by Marsha Roberts of the Seminole Tribe of Florida's Parks and Recreation Department.
Moms April Simmons and Myra Simmons helped the youngsters make the dough-based creations, aided by Rolling Pin assistants Keri Wickham, Karen Reid and Joan Rhyne.
West, long practiced in the culinary crossfire of the kitchen, moved swiftly from station to station with advice and admonishments.
“Elias, you're good, don't play with it.”
“It's stuck? Lift it up and give it a little flour. It doesn't have to be perfect.”
“Put some basil in. I'm watching.”
Each child made a pizza, selected toppings and popped it into the oven.
William, 12, liked cutting and mixing the ingredients. Jesseca, 8, preferred making the pizza, and Katie, 9, thought it was fun to knead the dough.
“We get to experience a lot of new things we don't learn around the house,” said Melody, 15.
Michael Jean Jimmie and her husband, Chris, watched with their two youngest while their older children took part in the class.
“They just want to learn new things and I like them to have some kitchen skills,” said Michael Jean Jimmie. “They love it.”
Finally it was time to eat.
Pizza was the first course, followed by calzones.
“What's in it?” West asked. “Parmesan.” “Sausage.” “Ricotta.” “Spinach.” “Mozzarella,” came the replies.
“Ya'll ate spinach! You did it and you didn't die or nothing.”