Photos by Cole McCauley

Story by Sarah Chaney

Lofty yellow ceilings, a table dressed in provincial cloth — it seems more like a depiction of the French countryside than a Chapel Hill cooking school.

“That’s what we were going for,” said Dorette Snover, who owns C’est Si Bon cooking school in Chapel Hill with her husband Rich Snover.

After I spend several minutes getting to know Rich and Dorette in their kitchen, they beckon me outside. We amble through a garden filled with apple trees, fig trees, blueberry bushes — almost every kind of fruit and vegetable you can imagine, waiting to burst forth come spring. Next to the garden is a 1,000-square foot kitchen and dining room. We begin and end the tour of this cooking school at one of Rich and Dorette’s favorite places: the table. It’s the best place, they say, to learn about humanity.

“The table just makes life easier,” Rich said.

Both children and groups of adults filter through the doors of C’est Si Bon, which is French for “It’s So Good.” Unlike many cooking classes that teach proper knife-holding mechanics and the best tricks for the perfect chiffonade, C’est Si Bon courses focus on sharing a meal without a smartphone. Often critiqued for being behind the times, this vision at the heart of French dining represents something deeper than the cuisine itself: the people around the table.

February 6th, 2016 – “The table just makes life easier,” said Rich Snover. Rich and Dorette Snover own C’est si Bon Cooking School in Chapel Hill. Their vision runs deeper than teaching people how to cook. The past 19 years have been filled with bringing back the social importance of gathering around a table.

Shielded under trees whose branches sprawl out in so many directions they create only small windows through which the sky becomes visible, Rich and Dorette’s cooking school was once — a few decades ago — just a home off a dirt road.

Hurricane Fran hit in September of 1996, and many of the trees that loomed over the houses in the Snovers’ neighborhood gave way. The very table at which I sat swirling my mug of water as Rich and Dorette recounted C’est Si Bon’s origins was constructed from one of those trees.

Dorette began cooking with many of the neighborhood children post-Fran, and in 2001, the couple built the cooking school building, complete with its subtle French flair.

“Teachers don’t get any credit anymore. Teachers, even at Chapel Hill, are taken for granted. So when we teach a group of people, or even one-on-one, and they say that teaching them how to cook really worked for them, when they bring what they learn back home to show their friends and family – that’s so satisfying.” – Rich Snover.

Rich and Dorette’s cooking knowledge stems from Dorette’s rich culinary education and the couple’s travels through the south of France. A binder of recipes easily weighing five pounds almost makes Dorette smile as big as the framed photo of her and Julia Child. For Rich, his greatest pride comes from his cappuccino, which he guarantees is the best around.

The children who come to Rich and Dorette’s classes learn to develop a palate, they say.  

Children, who are often told what to eat, make and critique recipes for themselves such as beef dishes stuffed with goat cheese, mustard greens and mushrooms — and everything is from scratch.

“You have to taste (the ingredients) as you’re cooking,” Dorette added.

Some of their students have gone on to be photographers, Food Network employees and writers. But mainly, Rich and Dorette hope they continue to value cooking in the home.

“Going out of your comfort zone is fun when you’re with other people. That’s what you’re all doing today,” said Rich. Undergraduates in the Kenan-Flagler business school gather around Rich Snover. The students aren’t too familiar with one another and will be spending the next 18 months together under the Global Program. This day is set up so that they can build relationships and community within their team.
The kitchen gets prepared. Ingredients are hidden inside baskets, utensils are laid out and C’est si Bon awaits for the guests.
“The recipes might not be right. You’re going to need to make enough to feed 20 people. Some people in this room might be allergic to nuts, others might be vegetarian – you need to compromise. You get 90 minutes to complete your recipes. Go,” Rich said. Today the students will be competing against each other in an “Iron Chef” type of competition.
“There is something you can touch on your body, in public, and that’s about what the texture of the dough should be before you’re ready to cut the pasta,” Rich pinches his earlobe to show Ankit the texture the dough needs to be.
“The Camino Trail in Spain is incredible. You spend your days hiking through little villages and gorgeous landscapes. But the cool part was dinner. It wasn’t in the big city. Usually dinner was with other strangers on the trail with you. We would gather around the table in a village together somewhere and be in community. Most of the time we didn’t speak their language, but we could always bond over a meal. That’s what we want to accomplish in America.” – Rich

C’est Si Bon operates at full force over the summer, when four interns and two other staffers help with the summer camps and cooking classes.

Rich and Dorette also encourage team building. In early February, a team of UNC-Chapel Hill Kenan-Flagler students, who would spend the next 18 months together under a global-learning program, gathered around Rich.

“Going out of your comfort zone is fun when you’re with other people,” he said. “That’s what you’re all doing today.”

Competing against each other in an Iron Chef type of competition, the students laughed as a clump of flour exploded upon the table, covering their aprons.

For Dorette, this is what it’s all about:

“We get to see the kitchen transform in a couple hours. In that time, strangers become friends and stories are being made.”

Cole McCauley contributed reporting.

 

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