Menlo Park resident and chef Ursula Gallichotte's passion for cooking started in her grandmother's kitchen, acting as a sous chef and watching her grandma put together wholesome, home-cooked meals.
Today her extensive resume includes volunteering at Filoli for 15 years, hosting demonstrations and working at its quaint cafe cooking for visitors. She will demonstrate the art of cooking with chocolate when Filoli reopens for the spring season during its Valentine's Day-themed, two-day program called "Branches, Blossoms and Buds - Romance of the Winter Garden" on Feb. 13 and 14.
The one-hour presentation in Filoli's main kitchen will feature a brief introduction on chocolate, a demonstration on how to make a cocoa syrup as well as a rich and creamy drinking chocolate garnished with bittersweet chocolate chunks, mini marshmallows, raspberries and whipped cream and homemade chocolate-almond spread served on toast. There will also be time for visitors with an insatiable appetite for chocolate to ask questions about cooking with confectionery.
"I love cooking with chocolate because you know people love chocolate," Gallichotte said. "If somebody asks what you're having for dessert and you say chocolate, they don't care what it is. It's chocolate. It's good."
Visitors will not only learn about chocolate and see how the sweet treats are made, but they will get to taste it and even make it themselves at home because each person will receive a copy of the simple recipes, Gallichotte said.
"I'm really big on having things that are really straightforward, that people can take home and do -- that's my objective," she added.
Gallichotte learned very early on about preparing flavorful, healthful dishes since her grandmother was also a dietician. Her deep respect and appreciation for how food is prepared led her to the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco and France where she trained.
Gallichotte honed her cooking and baking skills at Bay Area restaurants (including Flea Street Cafe in Menlo Park), and through catering and providing private chef services. While she enjoyed the friendly and at times intense working environment in restaurants, Galichotte discovered a new love: teaching others to cook.
She became a cooking instructor at Home Chef in downtown Palo Alto and continued to teach classes at different sites after the Palo Alto location was gutted by a fire in 1999. Galichotte also shares her kitchen wisdom at classes at Sur La Table.
Although Gallichotte specializes in French cuisine, she admits to being "all over the map" when it comes to food.
"I've done Mexican food, South American food and Central American food. I've also done a little bit of vegetarian," she said enthusiastically. "I worked at a Buddhist retreat center for a while and I did all vegetarian. What was so wonderful was you'll finish cooking a meal and the people from the dining room would come and hug you to thank you for the meal. Most of the time in a restaurant, you don't necessarily have that contact with your customers."
Gallichotte said the "ultimate compliment" is seeing repeat visitors to the events she hosts at Filoli as well as at her cooking classes at the center, adding that she sees both professional cooks and people who are new to cooking at her lessons.
"There are people who have been really interested in cooking and have been cooking all over the world and people who are really knowledgable and then you get people who really aren't and it's fine. I think that the people who come in with no experience at all, when they leave they feel much more confident about doing stuff in the kitchen," she said.
Cooking is tactile and hands-on, Gallichotte said, and she enjoys seeing the interaction between the people in her classes and the whole learning process.
"I always tell people this and it is that there is a whole bunch of different ways to do things in cooking ... you don't necessarily have to do something a specific way," she said. "I say, 'Remember there is never failure in the kitchen. There are always learning experiences.'"
Over the two-day opening event at Filoli, visitors can stroll through the gardens in a guided camellia walk; watch cooking, floral or art demonstrations; discover the art and history of embroidery; and participate in children's activites.
What: Branches, Blossoms and Buds - Romance of the Winter Garden
When: Friday, Feb. 13 and Saturday, Feb. 14, 10:15 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Where: Filoli, 86 Canada Road, Woodside
Cost: $20 adult nonmember, $17 senior (65+) nonmember, $10 children (ages 5-17), free for adult members and children ages 4 and younger
Information: Visit filoli.org or call 650-364-8300.