any talk about Linda Wyner as Pleasanton's Rachael Ray without the network broadcasts. Considered compliments, those comments are far short of the mark, though, when it comes to measuring the accomplishments of Wyner, who opened Pans on Fire in downtown Pleasanton five years ago. A college degreed food anthropologist (UCLA), she was a business entrepreneur long before coming to Pleasanton, and after graduating from the University of San Francisco with a law degree, became a nationally known litigation lawyer and a malpractice specialist.
So how does an anthropologist skilled at finding "cuisine" artifacts in the desert move to a store at 310-B Main St. where her cuisine recipes and desserts win top honors from hundreds who are her customers and cooking class students? The transition actually started in the hot desert temperatures when Wyner said she'd had enough and moved to friendlier, more comfortable and less back-breaking duties. As a jobs program coordinator for the U.S. Department of Labor, and with a master's degree in Manpower Administration, she started a business "incubator" where those she had been helping to start their careers could have offices and the tools and consultation they needed to succeed. Based in Denver and with three business centers and 130 "suites" as her clients, she accepted an offer she just couldn't refuse and, still in her 30s, opted for an early retirement.
That's when law school and Wyner's interest in serving the legal needs of those in business came together. Besides cooking and always trying new recipes at home with her husband Larry, a college professor, she majored in the legal aspects of preparing wills, trusts and estate planning while also serving as editor in chief of the law journal at USF. It was her writing skills that brought another career change when she was asked to write a food column for a local newspaper. Her inner-self as an excited, inquisitive food specialist got the best of her, leading to her purchase of the old Ruma's store in Pleasanton in November 2006.
Two "people" at Pans on Fire are as important to Wyner as the food and pots and pans: One is Jenny Howard, her store manager who shares Wyner's talent and enthusiasm; the other is "Betty," a not-real person dressed as a modern day Betty Crocker who is positioned by the front door and has fast become part of the Pans on Fire team. Behind Betty is a store filled with products ranging from a 79-cent citrus peeler to a Swiss Diamond skillet with the coating of manocomposite that holds its non-stick properties even at the hottest temperatures. Teflon, Wyner explains, is bonded onto pans at 750 degrees, compared to the 2000-degree-bonded manocomposite. Top of the line gas ranges can heat pans to 850 degrees. Wyner leaves the results of those temperatures in terms of bonding stability for the rest of us to consider.
Pans on Fire's cooking classes are well known, although her two-and-a-half-hour "Knife's Skills" class was new to me. Choose a knife that fits your hand, learn how to master the dicing, chopping and six other "cordon bleu" knife cuts, and you're a master ready to compete alongside the best of chefs. On Sept. 23, she starts the first of a series of Italian regional cooking classes where students have a chance to prepare specialties from 12 culinary regions, each with its own distinct ingredients, recipes and testes.
Then comes "Thanksgiving 101," one of Wyner's most popular classes where "graduates" leave with the skills to prepare a full-course Thanksgiving dinner -- turkey, dressing, sides and all -- in just three hours. Wyner guarantees it. "It's one of the best holidays of the year," she says, "so why spend so much time in the kitchen?"
By the way, more men seem to be signing up for Wyner's specialty cooking classes, which may explain why so many students want to know how to get out of the kitchen quickly.