Wearing a black apron in her brand new kitchen, Ashleigh Hutchison quickly sliced juicy red-orange peaches before placing them on a platter filled with fresh red raspberries and a goat cheese log rolled in toasted almonds. She drizzled honey over the entire plate and placed it at the bar beside fresh snap peas and other snacks.

Hutchison does not serve ordinary food because her kitchen is no ordinary kitchen – it is an alternative dining experience. Garden’s Kitchen Cooking Studio had its grand opening benefiting Transitions Mental Health Association (TMHA) on Aug. 2.

“I’m a self-taught cook, not a chef,” Hutchison said. “I’ve always worked the front of the house as a waitress or food server. I’ve been doing that since I was 16.”

Despite her lack of culinary training, Hutchison said her love for food and fresh, organic produce led her to an in-home catering business, and later to the concept of the cooking studio.

The grand opening was complete with a raffle, a large spread of food and wine, and live music by Acacia, a San Francisco-based acoustic band with a sound reminiscent of Jack Johnson and John Mayer. The kitchen is in a warehouse that was originally used as a plumbing venue, but was transformed by Hutchison and her husband, Drew, a contractor with Hutchison Construction, into a clean, modern and urban atmosphere.

For $60 per person, or $50 for seniors and students, guests can enjoy the modern yet welcoming décor and unique menu, which is a departure from the traditional San Luis Obispo dining experience. The studio, at 710 Fiero Lane, Suite 23, offers cooking lessons taught by Hutchison herself using almost all of her own recipes.

“Our produce is almost always organic and almost always local,” she said. “I’m a big supporter of the Cal Poly organic farm and local farmers’ markets. We get whatever’s in season. Sometimes that’s what rules what we’re cooking.”

Although the heat of the day crept into the studio, guests continued to shuffle in. The grand opening doubled as a gathering of Hutchison’s friends from across the state, including local winemaker and Cal Poly alumnus Ryan Render, who went to high school with Hutchison.

“This is such a great idea,” Render said of the cooking studio. “It’s kind of like being on a cooking show, watching the food being made, and getting involved. Then you get to go home and try to replicate what you’ve learned.”

Render, owner of Rendarrio Vineyards in Paso Robles, donated three liters of his 2006 Syrah as part of the grand opening raffle benefiting TMHA, a local nonprofit organization dedicated to helping at-risk youth and disabled adults through programs and other services.

“Ashleigh chose [to support] us,” TMHA Promotional Coordinator Lesta Travis said. “What we do is we take people who are diagnosed with a mental illness and we help them transition into the community after they’ve been stabilized.”

Among the cooking studio’s creative food spread was Spano’s Chocolates, specially-made chocolates designed by Hutchison herself. They look like your standard sweet treats, but are rather savory. They are topped with pine nuts and infused with salt, pepper and anise, a spice commonly used in Middle Eastern and French cuisine.

Hutchison spent years in San Francisco and Hawaii, and both food cultures influence her cuisine and menu items, she said.

“This is a place to just entertain,” she said of the studio. “It’s a home away from home, an extension of my home, and an extension of who I am.”

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