Courtney Contos was raised in the restaurant business. Her family ran the legendary Chez Paul in Chicago, as well as other culinary establishments with chefs who hailed from France.
Following the family path, Contos decided to go to restaurant management school, where she became so intrigued by the cooking classes that she next enrolled in culinary school to better her skills.
Upon graduation, from Kendall Culinary School in Chicago, Contos began an internship with famed Chicago restaurateur Charlie Trotter. She subsequently started a private catering business with clients from across the country. Fifteen years ago, she decided to try her hand at teaching and opened The Chopping Block in Chicago.
When she relocated to Vermont, she started the cooking school at the Inn at Essex and five years ago, she opened Chef Contos Kitchen and Store in Shelburne Village. “I wanted to look out the window and see other stores,” she said of her chosen location, “and I liked the community.”
This year marks the third time that Contos’ school was named one of the best cooking schools in the country by Food and Wine Magazine. Her classes, all limited to nine students, routinely sell out.
Contos tries to get her ingredients as locally as possible and uses Jericho Settlers Farm as one of her main sources. “About the only things I can’t get locally are sesame seeds and olive oil,” she said.
And although she is a master gardener and won an award for the vegetable garden at the Inn at Essex, Contos no longer has time for gardening. She has taught 130 classes a year for the last five years and says that she has never repeated a lesson. “For every single class we put everything into it,” she said “and then it never happens again. We’re always thinking about what comes next.”
Many of her students come from across the Eastern seaboard, along with a sizeable contingent from Montreal. There are so many repeat customers that often Contos recognizes each of her pupils.
In addition to teaching, Contos sells cooking utensils and hostess gifts at her location. “I’m like William Sonoma’s rich aunt,” she said. “Everything is here for a reason and has a story.”
Three employees help her juggle both ends of the business. More juggling will be required when Contos opens a new location on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. in 2018. She has family there, and is excited about the possibility of working with what she describes as a “culinary tropical forest” with mangoes, pineapples, and bananas.
Contos said her favorite ingredient is tahini, but she has difficulty naming a favorite dish or dishes since that varies with the seasons. She teaches ethnic cooking classes like “curry in a hurry,” and spends a lot of time on soups and salads. There are girls’ nights, as well as movie-based lessons and “cook the book” classes, which are followed by Skype sessions with the cookbook authors, from Bangladesh to Brooklyn.
Contos doesn’t have a lot of time to relax, but when she does, it’s on trips with her husband to Mexico or Montreal. Her time is even sparser now that she is writing a cookbook. She is still working on a name for the tome, but notes that its contents will match her school. Perhaps when she is done, some other cooking class will have a “cook the book” class, Skyping with her.