I used to think that learning to cook was a matter of being able to read. I made sure that a half-teaspoon of salt was perfectly level and that I took out the pot roast after two and a half hours exactly. If the veal stew called for Chardonnay and I could find only Chablis in the cabinet, I looked for another recipe. I took the same pleasure in cooking that I did in making bookshelves in shop class. I was excellent at following directions, the longer and more specific the better.
I considered myself pretty much the equal of the authors of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, still unsurpassed as a teaching cookbook, and of Marcella Hazan, whose Classic Italian Cooking is another fundamental text. After all, I could make any of their recipes with precision.
Then I started going to cooking classes and found that the goal of a good teacher is to liberate students from cookbooks. I saw teachers deviate shockingly from recipes and heard them tell students to do the same once they understood the underlying principles. “A recipe is only a blueprint,” Paula Wolfert, a virtuoso teacher, likes to say. The best teachers show both the structure of a dish and how to alter it without ruining the end result. They insist that students feel and smell and taste and make terrible mistakes–learning to fix something is often more instructive than learning how to make it.
- I was introduced to cooking classes at a school in Florence run by Giuliano Bugialli, a native Florentine and the author of three cookbooks in English. I left so exhilarated by the camaraderie I felt and the courage I had gained to tackle new materials that I searched out schools closer to home.
- Most communities offer some kind of cooking classes, and the best way to find them is to ask at a gourmet shop. The shop itself might sponsor classes, or it might refer you to local cooks giving lessons at home. Supermarkets often run classes as loss leaders. Many community colleges offer series of cooking classes.
- If you don’t turn up anything after a few tries, you can write to the International Association of Cooking Schools (the address is 1001 Connecticut Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. 20036) for a list of schools in your area. Needless to say, the quality of instruction varies. But I learned something at each of the two dozen or so classes I’ve been to, even if it was only that nothing would make me like Tex-Mex.
- After watching many food celebrities and non-celebrities teach, I came to a few conclusions about what makes a cooking class valuable, and I reconsidered what can and cannot be learned from books.
Kinds of Classes
There are two kinds of classes: demonstration and participation. At demonstrations a teacher stands at a counter covered with bowls and pre-measured ingredients (having been admonished more than once, I’ve disciplined myself to get everything ready and measured before I start cooking) and works through a series of recipes. Students ask questions, take notes, and, depending on the teacher’s patience, sneak up to the table and taste dishes in progress. Everyone gets a little taste of the finished dish. Demonstrations are cheaper and easier to set up than participation classes, in which students work together under a teacher’s supervision. For that reason they are more common.
Demonstrations are frequently given by visiting chefs or cookbook authors on publicity tours. They’re shows, and a performer like Paula Wolfert not only entertains (even though you’re supposed to watch the long mirror above the demonstration table, Wolfert’s gestures and expressions are too good to miss) but also inspires students to go home and practice new techniques.
The cook has to be a cross between a stand-up comic and a professor. Wolfert, a self-described show-off as well as an erudite food scholar whose field is Mediterranean cuisines, can galvanize an audience. So can Bugialli and Jacques Pepin, an experienced French chef and teacher who is one of the most admired and best-paid of all cooks who demonstrate. These three teachers use recipes as an excuse to give a steady stream of hints and explanations of basic techniques.
At cooking classes you pick up little tricks that make you feel like an insider. Teachers usually mention some in passing, and I always make sure I get them down. Leek tops and tomato peels in a stock absorb the scum. Suggestions like this are gold nuggets that make a class worthwhile, whatever the dross content. They also fill the minutes when a sauce has to reduce or meat has to broil–minutes some teachers let stay empty. Wolfert throws off more ideas, major and minor, while waiting for onions to soften than do most teachers while making a whole menu.
Giving the whys at every step is the mark of a good teacher. “Can you believe I’ve taken this long to spread this cake batter?” Flo Braker, the author of The Simple Art of Perfect Baking, asked at a recent demonstration, after compressing a whole chapter into the explanation of one recipe. Braker was so eager for students to understand what she was saying that she carried around bowls of batter and meringue to show exactly the consistency she recommended. To make a meringue mount fully, wipe the bowl with a few drops of white vinegar and don’t start adding the sugar until the egg whites begin to foam. She refused to move on to the next step until she was sure that everyone was following her. I’ve been to demonstrations where I didn’t know what was going on and was too embarrassed to ask. Braker encouraged stupid questions.