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Recreational Cooking Classes

In the picturesque city of Santa Fe, New Mexico, the Inn on the Alameda offers a three-day, two-night Muy Sabroso (Spanish for “delicious”) cooking experience. For a fee of several hundred dollars a person, guests combine an evocative travel experience with a demonstration cooking class at the Santa Fe School of Cooking, several luxurious breakfasts, and an afternoon wine and cheese reception.

At Erna’s Elderberry House Cooking School in Oakhurst, California, near Yosemite National Park, guests pay $1250 to combine a stay at a “castle-hotel” with a series of three eight-hour cooking sessions, each day concluding with a sumptuous six-course dinner. Hands-On Gourmet in the San Francisco Bay area creates custom cooking “events” for corporate and private sponsors for groups ranging from 10 to 150 participants. Corporations use the events for team building and motivational purposes, as well as to entertain and reward their employees.

Recreational cooking—for fun, education, and just plan socializing—is alive and well in the United States. From elaborate “cook as you go” vacations to evening classes at local cookware shops, community organizations and schools, Americans enjoy learning more about cooking, doing it with other people in a group, and feeding themselves rather well in the process.

Cook’s Kitchen in Madison, Connecticut is typical of an independent culinary supply and equipment store that makes a major business out of offering classes, tastings, and cooking demonstrations in the region it serves. Guest chefs conduct cooking demonstrations aided by a 42-inch plasma screen television that allows even the shortest spectator to see what is going on. The chef may show how to make home-made pasta, grill meats, fabricate fancy desserts, or construct Japanese sushi. The company also conducts tastings of wines and specialty foods, including the organic extra virgin olive oil it imports into the United States from Chile. Its hands-on classes, limited to 10-12 participants, run up to three hours, covering subjects ranging from cedar plank cooking ($75) to basic knife skills ($55). A wide variety of cookware stores, catering establishments and specialty food shops, including many branches of the national Sur La Table chain, arrange similar courses and events.

Tacoma Community College in Washington State offers food courses for $35 an evening. Classes, held at a local community center, have included “Dinner Rolls,” “Adventures with Tofu,” “Vegetarian Cooking,” “Italian Flatbread,” and other stimulating specialty subjects. Alvin Community College near Houston, Texas offers a program called “Food for the Fun of It” in which seniors are trained to make coffee cake, and children get to attend a special class in which they make their own breakfast.

The Mt. Vernon Extension Center of Westchester Community College in New York State also offers children’s classes; its Junior Chef Academy has courses with names like “Fun With Healthy Foods” and “Snack Attack.” Kapiolani Community College in Hawaii runs a community culinary program in which the chef takes participants shopping at open markets in Honolulu’s Chinatown, then brings them back to the kitchen to help them turn their purchases into delicious Asian/Pacific fusion foods; fee is $90 for the full experience. Oregon’s Mount Hood Community College gives a series of $34 cooking sessions that in 2006 included “Autumn Soups and Stews,” “Cuisine of Mexico,” “Foods of Japan: Sushi,” “Mediterranean Cuisines,” and a range of special holiday feasts.

With the popularity of food television and the rise of the celebrity chef, it seems every American wants to get out into the kitchen and get more out of the cooking experience. Classes, tastings and demonstrations are available at all price levels; recreational cooking classes are offered for home cooks of all levels of ability. The home cook can spend just a few dollars at a simple get-together or spend thousands for a luxury week of cooking in an exotic resort or a major food city like New York or San Francisco. Culinary and wine tours of other countries, Italy and France in particular, attract many Americans. There is something for every cook.

Even the major professional cooking schools are getting involved. New York’s Institute of Culinary Education, in addition to its extensive professional training programs, operates a recreational division that serves over 20,000 students with over 1,500 courses a year: “Dairy-Free Chocolate Desserts,” “Rustic Chicken Dinners,” “How to Weave An Edible Sugar Basket,” “Creative Mediterranean Cuisine;” the list seems endless. A typical single-session class lasts four to five hours, has 10 to 16 students, and costs $90 to $100 per person.