Chef Walters Cooking School doesn’t look like much from the outside, but upon walking into the quaint little house at 162 Mayfield Ave. visitors find a fully fledged commercial style kitchen, …
Chef Walters Cooking School doesn’t look like much from the outside, but upon walking into the quaint little house at 162 Mayfield Ave. visitors find a fully fledged commercial style kitchen, warmed not just by the heat of the stove but by the charming personality of Chef Walter Potenza himself.
Stuffed Calamari, a tomato and mushroom salad, spinach stuffed filet of sole and handmade gnocchi were all on the menu for last week’s Wednesday night recreational cooking class. Classic Italian flavors and techniques were accompanied by lessons in history, chemistry and even a little gastroenterology as the charismatic Chef Walter showed participants a new way to look at food and how anyone can learn to cook with the right building blocks.
“We are not following a recipe tonight,” Chef Walter said as he led participants through the basic techniques of cooking. “The recipe, that is for you in the future. Tonight we learn how to see and feel the food being ready. We see how it comes together.”
Those taking one of the school’s culinary workshops are led through the making of several dishes and are given copies of the recipes for use at home, even if what they make in the class substitutes some ingredients. Chef Walter said that by changing things up in class students get the chance to see how to cook in the future without needing to follow directions word for word, as well as showing that ingredients can be substituted easily as long as their role in the dish is preserved. Where the recipe for the filling of our stuffed squid may call for bread crumbs as a binder, some of that bread was replaced in class with chickpeas as a way to add protein while maintaining the need for a binder to hold the filling together.
First coming to America in 1972 as a soccer player, Chef Walter ended up working part time with his cousins in their family restaurant which is where is first experience working in the food industry began him on a journey that would make his name memorable in the world of dining.
“I think it was before that in April of 72 I had my second Olympics tryouts and I passed those,” began Chef Walter, “My mother, she argued with my dad for a long time because my father never forgave her for bringing me here. He wanted to see me as a professional soccer player back in Italy.”
Chef Walter said he will never forget taking the train with his mother to Naples, Italy to get his passport. He left Italy on July 1 hoping to be back in Italy by October for the start of a new school year, a plan that would soon find itself changing.
Upon coming to America, began working for two of his cousins who had emigrated from Italy and become chefs here in Rhode Island.
“I have to say they were typical immigrants, whereas I wasn’t,” Chef Walter explained. “Where they came here for financial reasons, but I had not. All they knew was to share what they had learned as trade. They did not have the foresight to say maybe this kid has another opportunity.”
Despite his original plans to become an olympic soccer player, it is hard to imagine Chef Walter kicking a ball around as he enraptured his cooking class and showed them how to hold and use a knife like a proper chef. With smooth movements Chef Walter demonstrated proper technique and the importance of keeping your cutting board clean rather than letting it slowly fill up and become cluttered.
A year after arriving in America Chef Walter began working at Camille’s on Federal Hill. In his time there the chef said he cooked for Frank Sinatra, Liza Minnelli and even served Elvis Presley the last meal he ever ate in Rhode Island before his death in 1977.
This was round the time that Chef Walter decided it was time to go to college. He said he played soccer for Rhode Island College while earning his degree in Western Civilization. He ended up playing semi-professionally as a soccer player here in the states but the time came too soon when he could no longer keep up.
“I had a chance at the professional career,” Chef Walter said. “It required too many days out of the house. That would prohibit me from working or ever seeing my family. That was a detachment so to speak. So, I let that go.”
From that point on Chef Walter would only play soccer for fun. For work, he dove into the world of food head first, making his decision to help open a restaurant from scratch. Around 1980 he left Camille’s to open a restaurant on Federal Hill with three other Italians from the area which would be called Blue Grotto. He stayed at the Blue Grotto for about five years before deciding to open another restaurant all on his own.
“In 1985 I left them to invest in my own business in East Greenwich,” said Chef Walter. “My restaurant was called Walter’s. That was open to 2018 and we had closed that on our own terms. It was known as Walter’s rarely falters. You understand? That was the tagline.”
With his charm and charisma, it is no wonder students who come to his cooking school find Chef Walter so enchanting. It’s also no surprise that he caught the attention of Food Network as well.
Around 2004, Walter explained, after he had finished his first run cooking for winter olympics before becoming a consulting chef for them, even building the menu for the winter paralympic games in Salt Lake City in 2002 . The growing notoriety led to the creation of the Culinary Council.
The council, Chef Walter explains, helps companies to develop products. With his own experience developing the frozen pizza brand “Freschetta,” this was somethings Walter’s experience made him perfect for.
“After that I got a call from the Food Network,” he said. “They were in Providence with a guy named Tyler Florence. He was one of the initial network presenters. Then Mario Batali came in, then Emeril Lagasse, and then there was a big event in Rhode Island. The city (Providence) became very popular from 1995 and I was on Federal Hill with a couple of restaurants.”
Chef Walter said that in 2000 the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) came to town. Before he knew it, Chef Walter was asked to perform as one of the presenting chefs along with names such as Emeril Legasse, Julia Child, Martin Yan and “all these other big names.”
When the instructor of your local cooking workshop is connected to such amazingly famous names in cooking such as those it is no surprise that students would find themselves feeling like they’re learning from a master. With a passion for cooking and food that rivals any you may see on tv, Chef Walter has a way with food that clearly shows off the years of experience and growth he has gone through in his journey.
“We have all kinds of programs,” said the chef about his cooking school. “We also work for the state and Rhode Island labor department. Right now we are focusing on these recreational classes. What’s happening after COVID is these people are returning back home and they want to cook. We work with people who have celiac and are gluten intolerant. We work with people with nutritional issues. We try to teach very healthy and minimize the use of animal fat.”
Chef Walter said that his philosophy has never changed. Whether in a professional kitchen or at home, as a chef his concern is the health and enjoyment of his customer. In addition to teaching cooking skills Chef Walter’s school also teaches how to buy ingredients without waste, how to save money when shopping, how to plan personal menus for yourself or holiday menus for a group and that they even offer “in your home” cooking classes where you can invite friends over and Chef Walter himself will come over to run the class in your own kitchen.
Those interested in signing up for a recreational cooking workshop, or just learning more about the programs Chef Walters Cooking School has to offer can find them online at chefwalterscookingschool.com or give them a call at (401) 273-2652.
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