Culinary Class

IT’S A LOT MORE THAN COOKING…

BY DONALD CHARLES RICHARDSON

On a quiet afternoon, an American tourist wandering around a shop in Rome struck up a conversation with the young woman behind the counter. After chatting for a few minutes, the saleswoman looked curiously at the customer, then leaned forward and confidentially asked why the visitor was shopping instead of sightseeing. “After all,” she whispered, “you have everything in the U.S.”

It’s true that finding things to bring home is becoming increasingly difficult. Every fashion house in the world is represented in the U.S., and American jewelry shops not only have a full range of pieces created in America, but an elaborate and extensive collection of European designs as well. That leaves T-shirts, baseball caps and coffee mugs. Do you really need another one?

There is one other thing, one aspect of a vacation that won’t shrink, fade, or crack over time: memories. Walking through the Piazza San Marco late at night, your first moments in the Basilique du Sacré-Coeur, watching the Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London… while cooking dinner.

For some people, the last thing they want to do during a holiday is see the inside of a kitchen. But there are many others who find the opportunity to learn a new dish to be a marvelous souvenir. Coming home with cooking knowledge has several advantages. It’s not something that needs to be declared at customs. An innovative dish can kick your confidence up a notch and make you feel like a real chef. And, of course, once a group of friends are gathered around your dining room table, you’ll have the perfect opportunity to tell your trapped guests all about your vacation.

Cooking classes have in fact become a staple at leading restaurants and hotels all over the world. At the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, the hotel’s chefs, under the direction of executive chef Siegfried Eisenberger (1998 coach of the Apprentice Team and captain of the U.S. Culinary Olympic Team) guide novices to gourmets through topics such as Entertaining at Home, Summer Grilling, Hors d’oeuvres Made Easy and Dessert Specialties. To make you feel even more official, the Broadmoor will arrange for you to take your apron home with you.

In the summer, guests at the Hasting House Country House Hotel on Salt Spring Island in British Columbia are invited to catch Dungeness crabs. You’ll board a boat, help pull up a crab trap, and learn how to clean and prepare your catch. Finally, the executive chef teaches guests how to cook crab specialties and everyone sits down to a communal dinner.

Then there’s the Borgo Santo Pietro, a 13th-century villa surrounded by 13 acres of gardens in the Tuscan hillside not far from Florence. In this peaceful setting (800 years ago pilgrims rested here on their way to Rome) cooking classes are held in the kitchen, under the guidance of chefs Richard Gynn or Nicole Ianesi. Guests have the choice of cooking a pasta, bread, or dessert item. If you want to truly indulge in Tuscan cooking, each year in April and October Borgo Santo Pietro offers a three-night, two-day Tuscan cooking experience. This special package features a visit to the cheese production hub in the local village of Palazzetto and a tour of the herb and vegetable gardens at Borgo, guided by the veggie garden keeper, Davide. After gathering ingredients, cooking classes begin with traditional Tuscan specialties: breads, antipasti, pastas and sauces.

Also in Tuscany is Villa Le Maschere. Built in the 16th century by the Bettini family, this villa is situated in the hills of the Mugello region near Lake Bilancino. The stunning site is important not just for aesthetic reasons but because Mugello has the highest agricultural production rate in all of Tuscany. In its panorama, white wild boar and sheep feed on chestnuts and porcini and the region’s famous cattle graze freely. Naturally, this location has a dramatic effect on the cooking classes.

Master Chef Fabio Matteo Danzo begins his classes by selecting from the region’s (and the season’s) freshest ingredients. Students prepare a meal at the hotel’s Il Pioppo Nero restaurant. Once the cooking is completed it’s tutti a tavola overlooking the Tuscan countryside from which the wonderful meal emanated.

The Greeks are famous for their hospitality, particularly around the dinner table; it’s not unusual for meals to go on for hours. One of the most famous areas for food is the island of Crete. Here, not only is the cuisine delicious, it’s also rumored to be one of the healthiest diets in the world. The Cretans eat primarily only what they grow or make. At the lovely Avli in Rethymnon, the cooking classes are relaxed events. Guests are invited to gather in the garden restaurant (one of the most beautiful locations on the island), where the chef teaches about Cretan food. Next, everyone adjourns to the kitchen for a practical lesson featuring local ingredients. Of course, all sit down together to share the meal and a bottle of the local wine.

Chef Philippe Masseglia at the famous Le Bartolomeo restaurant at the Hotel Guanahani on St. Barths also takes a casual approach to cooking classes. Guests who dine at his restaurant and like a particular item on the menu can simply ask how it’s made. They’re invited into the chef’s kitchen where he greets them as friends, opens a bottle of wine, and teaches them how to prepare their favorite dish.

Nearly everyone (except maybe Greeks and Italians) agrees that French cooking is the ultimate gastronomic experience. The French take both cooking and eating very seriously and the country abounds in cooking classes. These two are bound to whet the appetite.

In the Loire Valley, the Château Hotel de la Bourdaisiere is a magnificent 15th-century castle owned by Prince Louis Albert de Broglie. In this sophisticated and majestic environment, the park and the gardens are cultivated in the big market garden tradition. To bring to light the simple beauty found in a vegetable, the master gardener sets flowers and aromatic herbs in original arrangements in crannies of chestnut trees around the property. There are also 80 acres of park and historic gardens including a grand vegetable garden, famous for its collection of 650 tomato varieties (the château hosts an annual tomato festival). Here, cooking classes are many and may include harvesting produce from the garden, preparing lunch or dinner under the guidance of the chef, and even tours of local vineyards.

The Château d’Ancy-le-Franc, in Burgundy, is a Renaissance palace. It’s considered a work of art, by the famous Italian architect Sébastiano Serlio, master of symmetry and of 16th-century architecture, who was summoned to the French court by François I. The château sits on the lands of the Dukes of Burgundy and contains the largest collection of Renaissance murals in France. Cooking classes are taught by Parisian chef Judicael Ruch and take place in the old kitchens, which in the 17th century belonged to Louis XIV’s famous minister, the Marquess of Louvois, and once even hosted the king. Each course is paired with Laroche wines from the region.

There’s more to gain than simply learning how to sauté or mix. Along with chefs and other students, you’ll meet sommeliers, gardeners and pastry experts. And once you arrive back at home, you can enthrall your guests with tales of kitchen adventures as you serve your latest accomplishment. As Julia Child said, “Dining with one’s friends and family is certainly one of life’s primal delights, both soul-satisfying and eternal.”