I’ll give you three guesses as to what Barry Rabner, president and CEO of Princeton HealthCare System, was doing on Saturday night, March 8. Hint: He wasn’t wearing a tuxedo and eating rubber chicken for a good cause. And he wasn’t deciding between Meursalt and merlot at a table of potential donors to the new $441 million hospital.
In fact, Rabner, wearing an apron and his reading glasses, was carefully making paper thin slices of orange rind with a restaurant-grade paring knife to add to an already steaming pot of bouillabaisse. Alongside him, up to their elbows in squid, shrimp, tilapia, fresh thyme, fennel, and garlic, were his wife, Amy, a YWCA board member; Michael Strassberg, a Lawrenceville-based periodontist who floats between several dentists’ offices, and his wife, Ipek, who hails from Turkey. On the opposite side of the long prep table was David Clingman, a global wealth management director for Merrill Lynch, and his wife, Jessica, a stay-at-home mom; Barry Anderson, a pediatric cancer researcher for Theradex Systems at 14 Washington Road, and his wife, Dagmar Kraemer-Anderson, a former producer for German radio in Washington, DC, and an itinerant journalist and photographer.
Did the Food Network come to town and you missed it? No. These professionals were taking a couples cooking class at Ezekiel’s Table, a new cooking school run by Seattle transplant Marcia Willsie in a 300-year-old farmstead on Mercer Road, not far from the Princeton Friends Quaker Meeting house. The house was originally owned by Ezekiel Smith, an old Quaker bachelor, who died without a will or heirs. That was 1766.
Fast forward to 1999. Marcia’s husband, Bruce Willsie, was happy to be on a business trip to Princeton, where he graduated in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in international relations from the Woodrow Wilson School. Willsie, who was born and raised on Vashon, a sleepy, storybook island off the coast of Seattle, is the president of the Bellevue, Washington-based Labels and Lists, a privately held non-partisan national voter profile data processing company (if you want the names, telephone numbers, and addresses of all the white female registered voters in Deluth, Minnesota, Willsie’s your man). Clients include the polling industry, individual candidates, political parties, organizations running campaigns, independent expenditure campaigns, and political consultants.
Willsie had been hankering for years to move back to Princeton. "Here in Puget Sound, the temperatures aren’t as cold or hot, and there are days that stretch with seemingly endless gray and rain; I much prefer the change of seasons and more sunshine," he says. With two hours to kill before his plane home, he thumbed through a stack of real estate leaflets and saw Ezekiel’s house, nestled on three-and-a-half acres overlooking Stony Brook. Bingo. Marcia Willsie says her husband called her and said, "There is this house that is the coolest house, and this is how I think we can do it."
She says, "It’s like everything fell into place. I sort of felt like he’d never pulled anything like that before, so it must’ve been something that needed to happen." Bruce Willsie bought the house that same day.
Marcia Willsie saw the chance to realize a dream that had been squelched decades ago by her mother. "I always wanted to go to cooking school. But my mother worried I would become obese." Instead Willsie dutifully earned a bachelor’s in theoretical linguistics from the University of Washington in 1980, with the intent of teaching English as a second language. The next year, while applying to the Peace Corps, she met Bruce, who has just finished six years in the naval submarine service helping to operate nuclear reactors, primarily on the USS Hawkville, homeported in Pearl Harbor.
Bruce matriculated at Princeton at the unusual age of 25, with his wife in tow. He says he chose Princeton because he had not only fallen in love with the school and the town, but because Princeton was the only school that accommodated them with a married student apartment. Their daughter, Adriana, was born in Princeton in 1985. While living in Princeton, Marcia, who had become a Quaker at age 14, joined Princeton Friends Meeting.
"I remember when I first lived in Princeton there was no cooking school I could go to," says Willsie. With the purchase of Ezekiel’s house, "I was mulling in the back of my head, I really wish I could go to cooking school when I’m there; maybe I’ll start one." Adriana was then a freshman at Princeton. While son Tucker (who was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Bruce graduated from Harvard Law School in 1989), finished high school, his mom attended the two-year certified culinary professional program at Seattle Culinary Academy.
Willsie, 50, says that chef school was brutal. She was on her feet six hours a day, wielding knives and heavy trays among mostly men half her age. Her fellow students tended to be "the bad boys, a bit street smart, the kind of kids who maybe couldn’t get into college because of learning disorders. The thing about being in a professional kitchen is that it is attractive to people who can learn by seeing what’s going on."
On a side note she adds, "I also learned a lot about drugs and sex." She remembers commenting in class one day, "Gee, Billy looks so unwell. He looks like he has the flu." And another student said, "No, that’s Ecstasy."
But those bad boys also took a great interest in the dilemmas of raising a teenage boy. When Tucker wanted to go to the parties that started after midnight, claiming "All the other parents let their kids go, my life will be ruined if you don’t," Willsie’s kitchen amigos pronounced sagely, "The parties that start after midnight are the ones you don’t want your kid going to." "They seemed to be really tough and smart people," Willsie says. "And they didn’t think too much about stuff; they didn’t contemplate. They knew they just had to act fast all the time and go with the flow." They also had a sense of humor. When one teacher retired, the students hired a stripper disguised as a health inspector.
She admits it was physically grueling, especially at the beginning. "I wasn’t up to par with them initially. We were on our feet from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. — and then most of them went straight to their jobs at restaurants."
Willsie would go home and test out her new culinary skills on Tucker, who fortunately was willing to try everything, as was Adriana when she came home on breaks. Once she starting cooking school, Willsie says, "the kids weren’t allowed to tell me something was good. They had to tell me about the mouth feel, the balance, how it looked on the plate."
Willsie also spent several years assisting chefs at Sur La Table’s flagship cooking store, where she had the opportunity to work with a number of chefs. She says the experience influenced her in three ways: "First, I noticed that some chefs were almost ritualistic about their recipes — there was only one right way to accomplish a dish. Some chefs were more flexible because they knew that foods and circumstances had a dynamic relationship. I decided that chef school would help me become more like the latter. Second, I noticed that sometimes the motivation for teaching a class is to sell equipment, and that might get in the way of the best teaching. Third, I noticed that people came to these classes for two reasons — to watch or to play. I definitely wanted people to come to my class to play."
Finally the little girl who had grown up learning to read by following the directions on the back of cake mix boxes was that much closer to becoming a real chef.
Born in Los Angeles, Willsie moved to Seattle at age 12 with her father, an electrical engineer; her mom; and four older siblings. When she went to college, her parents started Labels and Lists; later, they would lure their new son-in-law away from his practice in international law to run the business. They quickly made him president. And he then took the company national.
Marcia Willsie says she always wanted to cook, and remembers at age nine making her grandmother’s 80th birthday cake. "It was four layers high, like a Dr. Seuss cake. Whenever I had to do a report it was always about food. I did an oral report on potato chips in the fourth grade." Her culinary roots reach back to her maternal grandparents, who "were very aware of using whole grains." Her grandfather came from Italy and with his brothers bought thousands of acres in Orange County at the turn of the century for about 50 cents an acre. "I roll my own oats and grind my wheat," says Willsie.
At age 20, she went to visit a friend who was doing field work in Greece. "She was in some tiny village in the middle of Crete," remembers Willsie. "All the old ladies would show me how to cook. The village president came and said that he had found a husband for me, and I said in Greek, `but I’m still a little girl!’ He said, `So why did you come here speaking Greek and wanting to make Greek food if you don’t want a Greek husband?" I said, `I love to cook and talk.’"
Willsie cooked and talked her way through several foreign countries, including two trips as a Quaker in a multi-faith peace delegation, the Compassionate Listening Project, to Jordan and the Middle East prior to 9/11. "Whenever I traveled, I would find myself in somebody’s kitchen. Especially if you find yourself in some pensione or bed and breakfast, there’s a wife who’s running things. You don’t even have to speak the language. You watch them and you can identify the spices."
Bruce Willsie, who has an avid interest in American Colonial history, got Ezekiel’s house for a relative steal at $500,000, then shelled out another $500,000 during an 18-month restoration and renovation he orchestrated long distance from his office in Bellevue. The kingpin of the restoration team was architect T. Jeffery Clark of 116 Commons Way, a former president of the Historical Society of Princeton whose restoration of Avril and John Moore’s Tusculum cottage in Princeton, built by John Witherspoon three years before he signed the Declaration of Independence, was featured on HGTV. Also on the team were contractor John Garretson of Garretson Custom Builders of Eastampton, NJ, and painter Ed Canzano of G&G Projects in Ringoes.
Marcia Willsie says her husband "was born 150 years ago. He loves old things." One day, when she was sitting at his office desk, she happened to see an eBay posting on his computer screen: "Congratulations, you’ve won a pair of pewter candlesticks."
"Then I saw another posting announcing he had won a $2,000 harvest table that was being shipped to his `facility.’" She asked her husband what was going on and he said shyly, "I was going to have the whole house furnished in antiques for you." Chivalry is far from dead in the Willsie household.
When son Tucker got into Princeton, he deferred for a year, and the Willsies made the move from Seattle. (Bruce continues to split his time between Seattle and Princeton.) "I wanted to get started on the next phase of my life," Willsie says, "and my husband really wanted to be here, so I felt like if I moved here (first) it would be like moving the ark of the covenant."
One of the first things Willsie did was find herself a business coach. She met someone who recommended Linda Sepe of Pennington. "I interviewed her and found out she was a Quaker and she had run a cooking school. It doesn’t get any better than that." Willsie says her natural tendency is "to fill needs as they appear to me, very organically," so Sepe has forced the question, "Where do you want to be in five years and what are you doing now to get you there?" Willsie’s answer:
"In five years, I’d like to have the following experience: I’m wandering through the farmers market, where I run into several of my longtime students. We fall into an animated discussion about the exciting plans we have for the items we are purchasing — and, the folks we are buying from? We know them all by name."
She has already laid the groundwork for much of that vision. Simply by tooling around in her Mini Cooper, she has met Bob Riggs, the innkeeper at the Inn at Glencairn in Lawrenceville, and offered her services to help him with their afternoon tea. Just a bit down the road from the Inn, she found Cherry Grove Farm. "There was Carter Cunningham behind the counter. And I said, `I’m new in town. I’m going to start a cooking school. Can you tell me what’s going on here in terms of the local organic movement?’ And she said, `Honey, sit down and take notes.’ Sometimes I would just come in the store and sit in the big rocking chair. It was like Mayberry RFD." She got hooked in quickly with the Lawrenceville Culinary Partnership, a consortium of Lawrenceville restaurateurs and farmers.
She also joined the Princeton Newcomers Club, where she met Amy Rabner and Dagmar Kraemer-Anderson (who brought their husbands to the bouillabaisse class). She wrote and produced brochures, which she placed in strategic locations like Cherry Grove Farm, Griggstown Market, and Village Bakery in Lawrenceville, whose owner, Karen Childs, will be teaching baking classes, $85 each or $400 for the series, at Ezekiel’s Table in April. Willsie’s April classes, $50 to $65, include knife skills, pasta, fish, lamb, and grains. She’s also holding two one-week camps for kids in July.
In November, 2007, she launched her website, www.ezekielstable.com, through GoDaddy.com, which she says was a breeze and very inexpensive. "They do the design and updating and teach you how to do your own updating." A former Red Cross volunteer, she says her biggest challenge has been "learning how to be a business person. It’s been hard for me to actually charge money. When it’s hospitality, you’re used to doing it for free. It’s hard to be managing money when you’re also doing creative things like writing and cooking. It uses convergent and divergent thinking."
On a recent Wednesday morning, over bowls of steaming carrot soup made with a relish of basil, limes, pickled onions, and serrano chile, Willsie spills the beans on her philosophy about cooking. "For me cooking is one of the healthiest ways that I can approach social justice. I’ve spent my whole life thinking about social justice; as a Quaker you kind of have to. We do so much damage to the environment and with our eating and there’s so much improvement that we can make there.
If you learn about cooking you can choose how you want to consume.
"Our eating habits have a huge effect on our environment and on the general care of the earth’s creatures. The high density nature of feedlot meat is responsible for a huge portion of our carbon footprint in the form of methane gas (not to mention the CO2 created from cross-country shipping and refrigeration). It ruins the soil, pollutes the water, causes the most inhumane treatment of animals, necessitates the use of hormones and antibiotics in our food, and creates waste in packaging. I don’t want my family to eat that way, and I want to encourage others not to as well.
"I love having farms near my house. I know the livestock have pretty good lives. (As farmer Kelly of Cherry Grove Farm says, `Only one bad day.’) So, `buying local and organic’ is a form of social justice that puts me in better relationship with my community and makes me a happier person."
Willsie acknowledges, though, that these choices can cost a little more. She uses less meat and tends to buy cuts that can be braised. "Also, I have to be more flexible in order to use what is locally available. But I know that my food money is helping to maintain the local farms, and is a healthier option. I feel that the more people know about their food, and the more they know about cooking, the more they will move in a direction that is better for the earth and for their bodies. Food is such a joyful activity for me, knowing that I can try to encourage people to do less damage to their environment just by learning a few skills and knowing what’s available."
Willsie has been pleasantly surprised by the cross-section of working professionals who have attended her classes so far. Her students have variously included a retired professor, a technical sales person, lawyers, a contractor "who could sharpen a knife like the big boys," and a surgeon who wowed her with his pasta-making skills. "He had the way with his hands. The flour just fell into place for him, he was so precise and meticulous, and the flour just said, `I’m yours.’"
She’s had people with and without kids, and people with medical issues "from all that eating out, who need to cook at home so they have a little more control over what they eat." And she’s had "private school moms in high heels. God knows I could never cook in high heels."
At Willsie’s classes (she also offers private parties for up to eight), everyone does prep work and gets a turn to play on the big-boy stove, a 22,000 BTU BlueStar – a good deal hotter than a typical Wolf or Viking’s 18,000 BTUs. Then everyone sits down to eat a candlelit meal in the dining room, which boasts a fireplace and period antiques. At the table Willsie regales guests with tales of the house’s colorful history. She and guests also swap insider foodie information. At the bouillabaisse class Ipek Strassberg, a native of Turkey, volunteers that she gets the unusual ingredients for Turkish cuisine at Ethnic International Holding at 4 Corporate Drive, No. 4, in Cranbury (609-395-8513). And Willsie shares one of her favorite websites, ansonmills.com, which offers organically grown varieties of heirloom corn, rice, and wheat.
Willsie also hosts small corporate events. In the fall of 2007 Kirsten Braley, a financial advisor at Wachovia Securities in Princeton Forrestal Village, who met Willsie at Princeton Newcomers, hosted a group of prospects and clients at
Ezekiel’s Table. Willsie concocted a pre-Thanksgiving menu, with each participant making their own little Cornish game hen. Later, at the dining room table, Braley spoke informally about financial issues and decision-making. "I wanted to show these people that I appreciated them. When you’re talking over a dining room table, you can learn so much more about them."
Braley, who lives in Ewing, says she and her boyfriend used to take cooking classes at Classic Thyme in Westfield. Classic Thyme’s owner, David Martone, was quoted in a March 8 New York Times article as saying, "People have become a lot more interested in learning. A lot of them watch the Food Network. They love the little tips – the way to cut an onion, the way to peel something quickly, the way to slice an avocado or mango. And the beauty of what we do with the classes where you make a meal is that you put something in a pan and you can see it, smell it, taste it. You don’t get that with TV."
It’s the same at the bouillabaisse class, which Willsie begins with a brief introduction as everyone sits in their Ezekiel’s Table aprons, nibbling new potatoes stuffed with duck confit and sipping Chardonnay at the long cherry kitchen table made by Seattle woodworker and Quaker John Prescott. "Cooking is the single most important thing you can do to gain control over your life," Willsie tells the group. She then launches into "things we do in a busy kitchen," pointing out the "sanitation cloths" – kitchen towels dipped in a bleach mixture, and citing rules of the road: never put a knife in a sink full of water (someone could reach in and cut themselves); when you walk through the kitchen with a knife, hold it down at your side and announce "sharp."
As different teams tackle a salad of bitter greens with warm goat cheese and hazelnuts, the bouillabaisse, and the dessert, something called a jalousie (puff pastry filled with a chocolate hazelnut/dried cherry mixture) and ice cream flavored with leaves from the bay tree in her kitchen, Willsie, like a good waiter, simply appears where she’s needed most. Here she gives tips on holding a knife with the pincher grip; there she instructs how to puree the soup in the blender (only fill half full, place a towel on top of the lid as you hold it, and turn the blender on in quick short spurts). Here she shows how to quickly skin a garlic clove by pressing down on it with the flat side of a kitchen knife, there she demonstrates how to properly cut an onion in a fan so the pieces don’t fly everywhere. She lets on that Nassau Street Seafood will give you free fish bones for stock, that shrimp shells are "liquid gold" that you can keep in your freezer, and that you should place food items in odd numbers on a plate to make it more aesthetically appealing.
If there’s one thing Willsie wants you to take away, it’s knife skills. "If you can cut and cut quickly, I don’t understand how eating out or buying packaged food will save you any time. And it’s grounding; there’s really something about just cutting vegetables after you’ve been stressed out." She also hopes her classes will help busy families have more meals at home. "People don’t eat anymore; they feed. So many families don’t even sit down together. I think sitting down together is the first thing you should do — if that means take-out then do it." And if you’ve been to one of Willsie’s classes, you’re likely to swap that pizza box for a little Italian number of your own.
Ezekiel’s Table, 974 Mercer Road. Owner: Marcia Willsie. 609-240-7712, www.EzekielsTable.com.