The first time Jill Prescott tried to saute shrimp, the recipe called for clarified butter. She followed the instructions exactly, or so she thought. “Of course, I had margarine,” she says with a laugh. “You ever try clarifying water and chemicals? I turned up the heat high, and it started spattering all over the place. I almost burned down the house. I could never figure out why I couldn’t do it. I thought butter and margarine were the same thing.”

From that inauspicious beginning Prescott went on to cook well enough that she now teaches others. She’s got her own show on PBS and a cookbook (both called Jill Prescott’s Ecole de Cuisine), and at the end of this month she’s bringing the Jill Prescott Culinary School, her academy for recreational chefs, to the Merchandise Mart.

Prescott’s transformation began in 1976 with a gift of cooking classes at Carson Pirie Scott from her husband at the time. Her teacher there was Richard Grausman, then the U.S. representative for Le Cordon Bleu cooking school. Prescott drove to Chicago five days a week from Waukesha, Wisconsin, to take his class–that’s seven hours of driving a day. On her way home each night she’d stop at the grocers he recommended, then redo that day’s lesson in her own kitchen, often cooking till six o’clock the next morning. “I wanted to cook everything right now,” she says. “I was so excited. Sometimes my husband would wake up to pork and prunes at 3 AM.”

Grausman eventually hired Prescott as a teaching assistant and asked her to help test recipes for his cookbook, At Home With the French Classics. She asked him where to continue her education. “I recommended she go to France,” Grausman says.

She packed up her belongings and left her husband and four children–all under the age of 12–for three months to study at La Varenne, a Parisian culinary school, in 1986 (the school has since moved to Burgundy). There she learned the fundamentals of French cooking: using the best ingredients and traditional techniques to make sophisticated but unpretentious dishes. “All the pieces of the puzzle were solved for me in Paris,” she says. “If you’re a runner, you can’t run in flip-flops. It’s the same with cooking: you need to have the right tools and ingredients.”

But when she got back to the States after those first French classes (she’s gone back 24 times since), Prescott found she couldn’t re-create the dishes she’d learned to make there. She researched the ingredients she’d bought from American grocery stores and figured out they were the problem. “I knew all the techniques, and I shipped boxes of the right equipment home,” she says, “but my shrimp reduced in cognac sauce didn’t work because you can’t reduce inferior cream.”

She searched for places in Wisconsin to buy quality ingredients and finally found V. Richard’s Market, a gourmet grocery in Brookfield. She was there so frequently, asking them to import and track down special ingredients, that the managers asked her to teach a few classes. “I really didn’t think it would be something I wanted to do, but then I thought, Why not?” she says. “I taught my first class, and it was packed.”

In 1987 Prescott received her advanced diploma for culinary arts from La Varenne, and a year later she opened her first cooking school in a one-room shop in Elm Grove, Wisconsin. She was turned down by two banks for loans–“They told me a cooking school would be a worse investment than a restaurant,” she says. But after a local grocer, Grasch Foods, agreed to cosign a loan for her (they figured her enterprise would bring them business), the school flourished. A year later she moved to a larger suburban Milwaukee location. That place was doing pretty well, but it got a jolt one day with the arrival of a fairy godmother. “I got a call on my answering machine,” says Prescott. “‘Hello, this is Julia Child.’ I thought it was someone playing a joke, actually. I erased it. Then a copy of The Way to Cook came in the mail with a note from Julia: ‘You have this wonderful school, and I would love to come and visit.’ I wrote back in ten seconds: ‘When can you come?’ ” Child had heard about Prescott’s school through the American Institute of Food and Wine, an organization they both belonged to. She came to visit, then signed on as a guest instructor, teaching three classes between 1991 and ’93. Since then Child has stayed in Prescott’s life, giving her advice from time to time and arranging meetings with other famous chefs, like Simone Beck, one of Child’s coauthors on Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

In 1994 Prescott moved her school to a shopping center in Kohler, Wisconsin. “I wasn’t sure if I could do this in a big city,” she says. “Looking back, I should have gone straight to Chicago. It was very hard for some of my students to find me [in Kohler]. I had many students come from places as far away as Alaska, fly to Chicago, and drive four hours to get to my school.”

Last year Prescott applied for a spot in the Merchandise Mart’s new aggregation of high-end home-design businesses, Luxe Home. The space she got is 7,000 square feet, the largest facility in the country dedicated to amateur cooks. “The prep room alone is the size of my entire first cooking school,” she says. The new place has four kitchens and will offer 700 to 1,000 classes a year. That’s two or three separate classes every day, on such subjects as classic French cuisine, pastry, seafood, bread, and pasta. They’re offered in one-day, weekend, or one-week programs, all designed specifically for recreational chefs. “She’s created a school that doesn’t presently exist for the average food enthusiast,” says Grausman. “She’s bringing very high standards, professional standards, to a nonprofessional group. There’s very little education available today to the amateur chef.”

“I don’t want anyone to have to go through what I did,” Prescott says. “I will probably never have a lot of money, but I will go to my grave knowing that I taught people how to cook and how to tell the difference between quality food products and marketing hype.”

Bob McKinley, a former Chicago accountant, credits Prescott with prompting him to attend culinary school. “She was in her mid-30s when she started her formal cooking education, and it really inspired me because I was 45 when I took my first class with her,” he says. “I asked myself, when I’m 50, what did I want to do? I didn’t want to be an accountant anymore. Jill was a big inspiration to take your passion and run with it.” McKinley, who retired from accounting to run his own catering business, will be working part-time at Prescott’s school as a chef’s assistant.

The Jill Prescott Culinary School is in Merchandise Mart Plaza, suite 107, 312-822-8100. Classes, ranging from $75 for a three-hour session on apple pie to $1,200 for a six-week classic French cooking intensive, start on May 1.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Rob Warner.