Meet the Woman Behind the Italian Diva Cooking Classes

Montclair resident Dedee Royale, 79, discusses her leap from dancing to teaching others how to cook.

Dedee Royale.

Dedee Royale, 79, isn’t your typical cooking class teacher. Yes, she loves food and yes, she happens to be an ebullient personality. But Royale didn’t grow up in a food family. “My mom hated cooking,” she says. And she didn’t get any formal culinary training until her late 70s (and then it was six weeks at the Milano Cooking school in Italy). In fact, Royale spent most of her life doing something else with passionate creativity. “I was a dancer all my life,” she says. Yes, she also ran a catering company in Connecticut, complete with French maid outfit (see below), but it took some decades, and some seemingly indomitable energy, for Royale to find her way to the helm of her Italian Diva cooking classes—one of the only places in Jersey you’ll find a vibrant, no-nonsense woman teaching you how to make pasta dough in a Cuisinart while also regaling you with stories of Gordon Ramsay or Tom Cruise (see below, she’s been busy). We caught up with Royale, who seems to be perpetually on the move (she literally pulled off at an exit en route to Boston to talk) to ask her why food has stayed in her life throughout her performing career and how a septuagenarian gets the idea to start a cooking class.

Table Hopping: Running a cooking class can be stressful at any age. Why now?
Dedee Royale: I welcome the challenge of adding new things to my life. I’m always doing something new! And at my age—well, just say I’m a “War Baby.” Just don’t say which war!

TH: Do you come from a food family?
DR: My family were not cooks at all. My mom hated cooking! She only cooked because it was a necessity. I kind of stepped into the kitchen atmosphere around seven, started making little hors d’ouevres—though I didn’t know that’s what you called them. I remember I took pieces of bread, flattened them, rolled them up with salt and pepper and a toothpick and called them “salt and pepper sandwiches.”

TH: According to your bio, that didn’t lead to culinary school. So what’s your background?
DR: My real background is I was a professional dancer, actress, performer. I’ve worked in some episodes of “Orange is the New Black.” I worked with Tom Cruise in the movie “Rock of Ages.” That was my real profession. I was a dancer my entire life.

TH: But you did have a catering outfit at one time?
DR: Yes, Le Petit Gourmet, in Milford, Connecticut. I opened that in 1976. I did private gourmet parties. I had my own little bistro storefront. It was all very French-looking. I was dressed as a French maid! It was a storefront for the business, then I went home and cooked with my customers.

TH: What led you to open a catering outfit as a dancer with no culinary school?
DR: It was the early ’70s, during my divorce. I thought “How do I support myself?” Well, I got the great idea: “I’m a great cook, I think I’ll open a restaurant!” But you know, people loved my food. I had people coming from all over Connecticut, Washington, D.C. People wanted to fly me to their homes to cook for them!

TH: I imagine that’s where you got some of the confidence to take a (seemingly random) chance and apply for “Masterchef,” Season 3, years later?
DR: Yes, it was in 2013. A friend called and said “Hey, Gordon Ramsay is in town auditioning for Masterchef. You should try out!” And I did! It was very rigorous. To be honest I wasn’t sure if I was too old. I didn’t know if I could cut it, but I did! Out of 50,000 people, I got it. When they called me I was like “Oh my god.” I was on the first episode only. But if you go to Season 3 and go to Episode 1, you might see me! I caught me!

TH: When—and where—did you finally get the idea for cooking classes?
DR: Actually in June of this year. I had to recover from knee surgery and was very limited in how I could get around. Being a person who’s always busy, I thought, “What am I gonna do with myself?” I don’t know how it popped up, but I said, “I’m gonna teach cooking!” Voila, the Italian Diva was born!

TH: Why “Diva”? Do you think you went with a character first because of your performing background?
DR: People always thought of me as a diva anyway. I started dancing at two and a half. I was always a performer, always up front. And cooking is a love of mine. I love teaching, I love good food. And I had to market myself. So I became the Italian Diva.

TH: What are the classes like?
DR: I’ve done about eight so far. There’s always a little glass of wine, then it’s time to cook! It’s all hands-on. I direct, that’s all I do. Everybody gets their hands in the dough, everybody has a cutting board. I make them read the recipe so they get used to my technique, but I tell them a lot of this is feel. Add a half a pinch of salt, add two, go by your own feel. How long do you cook it? Look at the color. Go by your eye. I want to help them develop their senses rather than just read a recipe. If you have to follow a recipe every second, you’re not really creating.

TH: So you teach cooking as another form of creativity?
DR: I teach how to be creative while cooking. Creativity has been a part of my persona forever. I even have a degree in Interior Design. I played piano and trained classically as a singer. I love being creative. I actually owned my own bridal shop where I designed wedding gowns! My late husband would say “Your tombstone is gonna have a long list on it: ‘Here lies Miss Dedee, who did everything!’”

TH: I know you don’t have a website, so how are you advertising the classes?
DR: Someone suggested I advertise on Secret Montclair. It’s a Facebook group. I threw in a blurb about giving a cooking class and people started calling me. I didn’t even have a schedule yet! Then I heard about Montclair Patch. Then at Williams-Sonoma one day, I asked “Do you ever do demos?” And she said yes, and I said “Well, I’m the Italian Diva!” Which [character] hadn’t even been quite born yet! I did a demo there about three weeks ago.

TH: That’s some guerilla marketing, fairly cutting-edge, FYI! So what’s student reaction like? Who’s coming?
DR: I’ve looked at the cross-section of people I’ve had. One married couple. I had a 13-year-old come with his father because the child expressed a desire to be a chef. I had these two single people show up and, funny, they’re dating now! I guess they found a common bond! I’m also offering “Little Chef” classes to kids who want to learn how to cook. Just starting that up.

TH: Any fall recipes you can tell us about?
DR: I recently did a pumpkin ravioli last week with a sage-pumpkin sauce. Then on the Monday before last, we did risotto with porcini. I had this couple, married for eight years; he’d never cooked in his life and he said, “I love it! I wanna do more of this!”

TH: It sounds like a filling syllabus.
DR: I’ll never be skinny, but we do eat well. I’ve been carrying these 20 pounds around for 20 years. I don’t see it going!

Dedee doesn’t (yet) have a website, but you can email her at [email protected] for more information on her upcoming cooking classes. She is planning something for the weeks prior to Thanksgiving and will probably have some holiday classes before Christmas, too. Just don’t expect the emphasis to be on turkey: “Our Italian Christmas in the past always had pasta and bresaola. At the very end, my mother would bring out a turkey, just so she could be more American. But no one ever ate it! By that point, we didn’t even want the turkey.”

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