Whether you consider yourself a gourmet cook or a novice, there’s always something new to learn about food. That’s the case at local culinary centers where people are eating up the cooking classes, from basic knife skills courses to more complicated ones like making fondant. “The classes are really designed for anyone. You don’t have to know your way around a kitchen to attend,” says Matthew Sheeter, general manager and instructor at The Viking Store. “No matter who shows up, the classes always turn out well. The key is making them appealing and age-appropriate.”
A current favorite tackles the newest craze in baking. “It’s making ‘cake balls,’ which are bite-sized pieces of cake,” Sheeter explains. “We make homemade cake, shape it like a meatball, and soak it in rum or dip it in chocolate. They look beautiful on a platter, and are perfect for parties.” Another popular class, ‘From Farm to Table,’ takes advantage of seasonal produce. “The recipes change as the seasons change,” he says. “For instance, the soup uses summer vegetables in the summertime, and fall vegetables later in the year.”
At L’Ecole Culinaire, classes go beyond culinary skills. The school’s ‘Kitchens with a Mission’ series donates 20 percent of its proceeds to charities. “The chef instructor picks the charity for each class,” explains culinary events coordinator Elizabeth Schuster. For example, part of the proceeds from a recent ‘Cooking for Fido & Fluffy’ class benefited Stray Rescue. Other beneficiaries include Operation Food Search, American Diabetes Association and Haven of Grace. “I’d say about half our guests come to the classes based on which charity is benefiting.”
Class topics are determined with input from the chefs and participants. “We go to our chefs first and ask that proverbial question, If you could teach any class, what would it be? We also make really good use of that guest comment card,” Schuster says. Popular classes include ‘A Culinary Trip to the Orient’ and a college pizza class where co-eds learn to make different doughs and sauces from scratch.
The goal is to make every class an experience. “It’s more than just learning to make something,” Schuster says. “For instance, ‘Danke Schoen,’ a class where we make a five-course German meal, also features a German accordionist who plays while we eat.” A class called ‘Girls’ Night Out with Chef McDreamy’ features the school’s own chef Jamie Manley. “Chef Manley is very tall, good-looking and very charming.”
No matter the theme, it’s up to the instructor to set the stage and get everyone engaged. “The instructor’s passion for cooking and teaching should come through from beginning to end,” says Kathy Mistretta, culinary coordinator and chef instructor at Straub’s. Mistretta likes to begin her classes by dispensing useful tips. “I always start by talking about the importance of having good knives and using them properly,” she says. From there, the discussion usually leads to other information such as using proper cookware, the difference between regular and convection ovens, or the best way to cook bacon.
It’s all about getting participants to realize that learning about food is a long-term process, Mistretta says. “You look for the ‘aha’ moment in their eyes, that’s when you know they’re excited about being there,” she says. “When you get all these foodies exchanging ideas, the class just moves itself. We all end up sharing, and that’s when the classes become memorable events.”