The Art of Dining
July 3, 2008 · Updated 5:13 PM
"Frances Maxwell wants to bring the old-fashioned, Southern dining experience to Whidbey Island, complete with some tongue-tantalizing twists of her own.The award-winning chef, who came from the Northwest from Georgia, recently started a unique culinary business - called Frances Cooks - out of her Greenbank home. She teaches and demonstrates the fine arts of cooking and dining while providing hungry guests with a traditional Southern brunch, a variety of unusual dished in a four-course meal or, when the weather warms up, a sunset picnic.It seems like people have forgotten how to dine, how to break bread together, she said. It's been a real concern of mine.In fact, Maxwell becomes teary-eyed when telling a story about a young Whidbey woman who confided in her that she has never dined.Food and dining has been an important part of her life over the last half century. Maxwell raised a family on old family recipes in rural northern Georgia. She has taken dozens of cooking classes and taught dozens herself. She worked with a famous restaurant chef in Atlanta. She even traveled to Asia to learn about cooking. She is a founding member of the International Association of Cooking Schools.Last February, Maxwell was one of three chefs chosen from the entire Northwest for the Master Chef Culinary Olympics in New York. She won several awards, but didn't come home with a medal.A big part of the dining experience, she explains, is atmosphere. Her home, which a friend named Blessingsum Cottage, is designed and landscaped to look and feel like a southern garden cottage. Guests sit down in a home surrounded by flowers - in the summer - and decorated with interesting antiques to table settings that were passed down from older, Southern generations.There's no fast food in her business. She says the dining experience can take up to two and a half hours for a four-course meal. She says she likes to bring the courses out one at a time so that people have time for plenty of conversation.Then there's the food. One of her four-course meal might start with a carrot bisque, then move onto a French tomato salad, a main entree of pork tenderloin marinated in Jack Daniels and end with a pear tart. Or if she's in an Asian mood, she might slip in one of the authentic Mandarin Chinese dishes she learned from hanging out for countless hours in the kitchen of Atlanta's famous Forbidden City restaurant.The guests can sip wine at a table in her front room and watch her cook - and teach - from the adjoining kitchen. Or they can skip the learning and just eat.Maxwell asks the clients to pick a main entree - perhaps garlic roasted salmon or stuffed rolled chicken breasts - but she prefers to choose the rest of the dishes by what's in season. Or by whim.I'm more of a by-gosh-and-by-golly chef, she said.Her brunch is a more traditional, southern experience. To get an authentic Georgia ham (salt-and-sugar, cold-cured pork), Maxwell said she has to contact her old butcher in Atlanta and have him send them to her. She cooks the ham with an impressive-looking decorative crust. Then there's homemade apple sauce, cheese grits (known as polenta in these parts), yam biscuits from an old Williamsburg recipe, and chocolate fondue when strawberries are in season. She even makes her own mustard from whole mustard seeds.I'm trying to do something that is a little different, she said. I want to give people something they've never had before. I want it to be fun.-------------Frances CooksChef Frances Maxwell's new business, Frances Cooks, is located out of her Greenbank home. She offers a four-course meal with instruction and recipes for six people at $325. Her traditional southern brunch, also for a party of six, is $180. This summer she will offer sunset picnics. For reservations or information, call (360) 331-6204. "