Duck dining: Charlottesville Cooking School teaches easy preparations for intimidating protein

We’ll quarter you—legs and thighs taken with but two cuts of a razor sharp Charlottesville Cooking School knife, breasts cleaved neatly from the sternum. Photo: Elli Williams We’ll quarter you—legs and thighs taken with but two cuts of a razor sharp Charlottesville Cooking School knife, breasts cleaved neatly from the sternum. Photo: Elli Williams

Albemarle County ducks, be on your guard.

You may have been safe before, owing simply to the fact that some people don’t know how to break you down and make you delicious. But that’s all changing. The Charlottesville Cooking School is training duck butchers by the classroom under the tutelage of Le Cordon Bleu graduate Tom Whitehead. The preparations are so simple, let no man henceforth be wary of the mighty duck.

On February 17, six new ruthless Muscovy marauders—not counting your faithful narrator—walked into the cold night air after more than three hours of hard training.

“We had a nice assortment of people who really wanted to learn,” said Whitehead, who’s been plying his trade at the Charlottesville Cooking School for about five years while also working at Sandy Motley Catering. “There are people that are very new…to people who just love to cook.”

There was the duo of Susan Quisenberry and Jackie Davidson. By day, the friends and self-proclaimed high-intermediate cooks practice yoga together. By night, they hone the art of crisping your delicate duck skin. The combination is deadly.

There was a young couple, still spry and in their college years, yet already yearning for the ability to seamlessly remove your legs and thighs in the wilds of the University of Virginia Grounds.

There was a nameless man-at-arms—a man so skilled with a knife and range-top he could have taken the mantle for master Whitehead if the duck wars got dicey. How duck-bloodthirsty is he? It was the second time he had taken the cooking class. It was just “time for a refresher,” he said, licking his chops.

If that’s not enough to scare you, my little duckies, how about an engineer from a local computer research firm who brought a scientific knowledge of boiling points and states of matter to the carnivorous proceedings? The training “was about techniques, not a recipe,” he said, noting that he and his fellow trainees would be prepared for whatever unforeseen circumstances might arise when their blade met your breastbone.

But enough preamble, ducks, and on to the gory details. First, we’ll procure you, perhaps with the help of the experts at the Free Union Grass Farm, from whence you are quite delicious. Then we’ll lay you prone on a cutting board. We’ll quarter you—legs and thighs taken with but two cuts of a razor sharp Charlottesville Cooking School knife, breasts cleaved neatly from the sternum. Next, we’ll brown your hindquarters and braise them in stock taken from your chicken brethren, liquid halfway up your succulent meat, for 30 minutes at 400 scorching degrees Fahrenheit, before mercifully turning you down to 350 to finish the job. Finally, we’ll score the skin of your breasts in a whimsical pattern and crisp the precious cutlets stovetop before finishing them, too, in a 350-degree oven.

The orange gastrique, composed of sweetened orange juice and vinegar, braised aromatic vegetables, and rice pilaf we pair with your flesh? We make it simply for our own amusement. If it suits our fancy, we shall substitute cherry juice for orange in our tart gastrique, and we reserve the right to put anything we choose in our rice, the bed on which we shall lie your delectable carcass.

There may be hurdles along the way, sure. Our training academy is not a large facility, and the forceful and confident among us tend to be more hands-on than the rest. Your breasts in particular can be difficult to butcher without losing too much meat, and a perfect medium rare can at times elude us. But with a few repetitions, we will prevail, oh subtle prey.

“Doing it by myself, I would allow myself twice the time,” offered Quisenberry, somewhat sadistically.

After learning the deadliest techniques known to waterfowl on the night my cohort and I joined the ranks, we seven samurai sat down to enjoy the fruits of our labor, tucking into duck two-ways even as the gamey scents of our glory dissipated above our heads.

At the end of our triumph, we celebrated with a flaming dough, crepe suzette, the batter crisped to perfection over medium heat in a non-stick pan, drenched in sweet liqueur and butter, and served tableside to our companions to show one and all that we, we apprentices of the great Whitehead, had become maestros of the mallard.

Indeed, the whole process was so simple and well-reinforced by our training at the Charlottesville Cooking School, our fearless leader assured us we shall be able to retire to our domiciles and accomplish the self-same feat under the watchful eye of our closest friends. No fear of failure shall slow us, and we shall call this event a “dinner party.”

Our high commander, the owner of the Charlottesville Cooking School, Martha Stafford, surely will be proud of all we have learned. In addition to overseeing the schooling of countless duck butchers, Stafford goes to great lengths to ensure her 6-year-old institution covers nearly all cooking basics, as well as more advanced cuisines from the world-over.

“Ever since I opened, I’ve been working on finding the right sort of teachers for the school,” Stafford said. “The teachers need to have formal training, but they also really need to interact with the crowd and love to teach. Everything Tom teaches, he enjoys teaching about…and eating.”

Cold. Blooded.

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