No one can stick to a diet when Chef Biagio Longo comes to town.
On Tuesday evening, Longo, who is from Sorrento, Italy, flew into Atlanta and traveled to Liberty County to teach a six-day cooking class, offered and advertised through the Hinesville Area Arts Council.
Longo learned to cook in his mother’s kitchen and at 17, began to study at the Culinary Cooking School in the city of Piano Di Sorrento on the Sorrentine Peninsula.
His talent has taken him around the globe — he’s worked on cruise ships, in top restaurants and teaches classes around the United States — but most of his experience comes from the bed and breakfast, Mami Camilla, that he owns in Sorrento.
Longo takes command of a kitchen — his or not — and likes to do things himself.
He is, after all, a master chef and a classically trained Italian cook.
During Wednesday’s class, he chatted with the participants, pausing occasionally to carefully structure his sentences in English, as he set out ingredients on the large wooden island in his friend Lisa Braun’s kitchen.
"The good meal is everything. Any food is good. Me, I prefer simple food," he said matter-of-factly. "Not too many spices — simple."
His charming smile and booming voice leave little doubt that Longo is a man who knows what he’s doing in the kitchen. His white chef coat, in stark contrast to his denim jeans, gave him an authoritative but casual appearance.
Regarding his cooking staples, olive oil is one of the chef’s favorite ingredients.
He said he loves it because it goes well with Italian cuisine, but he’s particular about its use. Too much and you’ve wrecked an entire meal with an overpowering taste. Too little, he said, and it might be too dry.
Braun visited Longo’s bed and breakfast a few times during the past several years and kept in contact with him and his family. After building up a friendship, she asked him to come to Hinesville to teach cooking classes. He agreed.
"Biagio is very knowledgeable and particular about southern Italian cooking and he starts everything from scratch — literally made with his hands," Braun said. "I have learned from him the techniques that he uses and then I try to adapt those techniques to my own cooking style. The thing that I learned the most from him is that Italians never waste anything! They use leftover food for future dishes."
Before the class started in her home, Braun prepared her kitchen, stocking the refrigerator with fresh parmesan cheese, organic eggs, milk, butter and fresh basil, among other typical Italian food staples.
"Mastering a challenging dish is really all about the instructor. If the chef takes time to show you the proper techniques (and beginners take good notes), cooking is not really that hard," Braun said. "Of course, it’s my passion, so things that you love don’t seem as difficult! I would rather be in the kitchen than anywhere else."
As participants shuffled into her home Wednesday, peeling off coats and shaking Longo’s hand, an air of camaraderie settled over the scene.
Braun effortlessly slipped into her role as hostess, offering guests water with wafer-thin lemon slices and wine, all while scrambling around her kitchen, sporting a flour-smudged black apron emblazoned with the words "La Cucina Italiana."
Guests — two couples and three others — chatted and laughed as they draped themselves with aprons from Longo’s cooking school. The class started at 4:30 p.m., and participants were soon immersed in hand-rolling pasta dough, simmering tomato sauce and melting chocolate and honey for tiramisu.
Wednesday’s menu included potato croquettes, braised meat rolls in red sauce, hand-made egg pasta with Sorrento sauce and tiramisu.
Often, Longo will deviate from a set recipe, never making a dish the same way twice, said Braun, who frequently called across the kitchen to the chef as she scribbled his instructions for the students to take home later.
He mumbled and hummed as he went along, sometimes even singing to the food.
"The secret is to sing to the chocolate," he told a student, stirring melted chocolate for the tiramisu. Others worked on shredding fresh mozzarella cheese, peppering meat and chopping fresh basil to heap onto the scialatielli alla Sorrentina.
The chef said he loves teaching wherever he goes and often spends up to eight hours a day in the kitchen.
"For me, it is the same everywhere," he said of his passion for creating homemade meals. "I cook the same no matter where I am called. It is important for you to know … know that I love this country and enjoy spending time here."
Throughout the class, Longo dipped his finger into batters and sauces, critically sampling every ingredient that rolled across his tongue.
When he liked a dish, he told the students "perfect." When it wasn’t so good, he scrunched his face a bit and added dashes and shakes of ingredients until he was satisfied.
Students, struck by hunger pangs, sniffed the air and rubbed their stomachs, ready to partake of the savory smorgasbord of gourmet treats. When the potato croquettes — also known as crocchette di Patate — had been fried to golden brown perfection and plated up, silence filled the room as students bit into the appetizers.
Soon after, plates heaped with mounds of steaming pasta were passed around and chatter again ceased as participants focused on the tastes and textures of their meal.
"Delicioso," student Jeanne Burch said, kissing the tips of her fingers and fanning them upward. "[The pasta] … that was really fabulous."
After tiramisu was served, not a single word was spoken. The students’ expressions of bliss were unmistakable, and so speechlessness seemed appropriate.