What Cooking Classes Teach


I USED TO THINK chat 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 1 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, ! 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 noncelebrities 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.

THERE ARE TWO kinds of classes: demonstration and participation. At demonstrations a teacher stands at a counter covered with bowls and premeasured 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.

Most cooks who do demonstrations know that their primary job is to keep an audience amused for however long it takes to get through the recipes. For instance, people come to watch Sheryl Julian. who gives demonstrations at the Hotel Meridien in Boston, not because she trained at the Cordon Bleu (she did) but because she gets a crowd going. “Make sure your butcher is afraid of you,” she’ll say in the middle of boning a leg of lamb. “You’ll get the best meat.”She interrupts with little quizzes—What two foods were always served on white napkins in Victorian England? Asparagus and ice cream—and gives almost as many tricks as Wolfert does. Put plates in the freezer so that ice cream will stick to them. She has an unerring sense of when her audience is restless or hungry. “I’m passing around these cookies now, even though I haven’t shown you how to make them yet,” she said at one demonstration. “You all look like you need a pick-me-up.”

As MUCH FUN as watching a showman can be, a participation class is where what you learn really takes, because it enters your sensors7 memory and not just your notebook. Being warned by a teacher at a demonstration not to incorporate flour into bread dough too fast is different from being shown how to turn a lumpy mess in front of you into satiny dough. At a participation class the teacher can rescue you by adding more liquid (which makes the dough look like it belongs in a cement mixer) and then pummeling it until it looks like something you’d consider eating once it was baked.

’That happened to me at Bugialli’s school in Florence. (Bugialli also teaches in New York City and gives demonstrations all over the United States.) I saw the first day why Bugialli is extremely popular: he takes away fear of cooking. After a forty-five-minute lecture the twenty or so students in a class divide into teams and start on the recipes. The idea is for each student, no matter how inexperienced, to get through them. Bugialli comes along and cuts half a rabbit the way he wants students to cut the rest, or shows how finely chopped the carrot and onion mixture for the beginning of a pasta sauce should be, or dresses a salad. Mix salt with vinegar first, because oil won’t dissolve salt. He acts as if there’s no trick at all to making fresh pasta or stuffing a breast of veal with a complicated forcemeat and weighting it overnight. Students take his cue. They run their handmade pasta dough through a machine and cut it into tagliatelle, tie the breast of veal the way he showed at the lecture, and beat mayonnaise by hand, as he insists. The students may not have his finesse, but the food gets made and tastes good.

I felt the same sense of relaxed collaboration in New York City, at the classes of Lydie Marshall, a teacher of French provincial cooking. Both teachers have outgoing, forgiving personalities that break down inhibitions. After Bugialli and Marshall set things in motion, they give most of their instructions from the other side of the room, while in the middle of something else, and each team gets the idea that it is responsible for the final dish. In retrospect I realized that no one at either school made a decision without the teacher’s approval. As I sat having coffee with Marshall after a class, she went down a list of the students, telling me who could work with whom and who needed the most help and at which points. I’d had no idea that she was aware of any of these things. Marshall and Bugialli are model teachers, but a participation class does not require such magnetic leadership for success, the way a demonstration does. Being able to use your hands and palate is instructive by itself.

AN INCREASINGLY popular way to study cooking is to take a course abroad. Most food tours are really restaurant visits with an occasional demonstration by a professional chef, who may or may not be able to teach. A lew’ schools in Europe, however, offer participation classes to enterprising tourists. Spending a vacation in another country taking a cooking course might seem like a waste of good sightseeing time, but you could find yourself agreeing with the theory that the ideal place to understand a culture is at the table.

One of the oldest and best of these schools is Marcella Hazan’s, in Bologna, which I visited recently. Hazan’s books are written with American readers and the ingredients available to them in mind. In their week-long classes Hazan and her husband, Victor, who is an authority on Italian wine, give students an idea of the compromises involved in trying to duplicate Italian cuisine with what is available in American grocery stores. The Hazans conduct tours of markets and cheese factories and vineyards (Bugialli does this too) and have bread, cheese, and wine tastings at breaks in each class. Learning why foods are combined the way they are makes students understand the variants in Hazan’s books and what further substitutions they should make depending on what they can get. If you can’t find fresh rosemary and sage, buy only whole dried leaves and chop or crumble them to release their flavor. Hazan does most of the cooking in her classes, which frustrates students; she is by turns maternal and brusque, which intimidates them. Still, by the end of the course they know a great deal more about Italian food and wine than they did at the start.

TEACHERS ABROAD, especially chefs who don’t have premises where they can hold participation classes, can be excused for slighting basic techniques—they have a whole set of attitudes and flavors to introduce, and not much time to do it in. You would think that cooking teachers in America would take the time to start at the beginning. Yet the majority of brochures for cooking classes advertise novelties like do-ahead Chinese appetizers and “hors d’oeuvres a la microwave.” People seem to prefer learning exotic party recipes to mastering one or two important principles—or at least the organizers of the programs think they do.

I recently went to what looked like one of those novelty classes: “Fall for Italy,” given by Sally Kofke at The Cookingstudio, a well-equipped teaching kitchen at King’s Supermarket in Short Hills, New Jersey. Kofke is one of many teachers around the country who have studied with famous cooks in situ (New York, France, Italy) and returned to spread the word in a more complete way than those stars passing through ever could. Kofke has taken several courses from the Hazans. Having recently spent a month going to classes in Florence, Venice, and Bologna, I didn’t expect to learn anything, but of course I did. Kofke has a cooking school in her house, in Montclair, New Jersey, where she teaches basic courses, and she knows how to pack a lot of techniques into one class. She ordered quail that hadn’t been cleaned, for instance, and made students learn what to snip off and what to leave on (it was a participation class). Many had never seen a quail or used dried porcini mushrooms, and they came away wanting to experiment with both. I looked at The Cookingstudio’s list of classes, assembled by Joanna Pruess, the school’s director, with new interest. Even if a teacher is not a foreigner or classically trained, he or she can bring students far forward and pass on valuable advice. From Kofke: Use a tall, narrow pot when poaching pears, so that you can use less liquid and make a more intensely flavored syrup. Enthusiasm, a modicum of ability, and a desire to help students improve are more important than cachet or diplomas.

A useful class is not one that gives you some good recipes—although it’s a pleasure to find them—but one that teaches techniques and introduces you to the unfamiliar. People who ask me about cooking courses want to learn the basics. The classes they seek are the most important and the hardest to find. Schools seem to start by offering one-shot classes, then series of classes with themes, and finally techniques classes if the others have made money.

Two schools that do offer an impressive variety of techniques classes for both beginners and aspiring professionals are Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School and the Academie de Cuisine, in Bethesda, Maryland. I went to a class in New York on poaching. The teacher, one of many at Kump’s school, was phlegmatic, and I got classroom fidgets. But I learned more about the science of cooking, about choosing ingredients and figuring out how to use them without consulting a recipe, than at almost any other class I have attended. By the end of the class the students knew what liquids to poach what foods in and for how long. They had learned all about butter sauces like hollandaise and bearnaise. They had boned several kinds offish.

This sort of class helps you at the supermarket on the way home from work, and at the stove on a weeknight. It also helps you figure out which recipes are likely to work. Knowing what happens when butter and egg yolks are heated together makes me better able to read directions for sauces. I’ve become much better at spotting trouble in cookbooks than I used to be. But I’ve also begun to see that memorizing elementary principles and forcing myself to fly solo, no matter how uneven the results, is more valuable than reading the newest book of glamorous recipes.

At a demonstration in Boston to benefit the new American Institute of Wine and Food, based in San Francisco, I watched Julia Child make a brioche dough in a food processor. “Wouldn’t that be better in a mixer with a dough hook?” I asked Sheryl Julian, who was standing next to me. She shrugged and kept looking at the mirror. “You don’t understand,” I said. “That’s the kind of question that keeps me up nights.”

She turned to me. “Then you’ll never be a cook,” she said. “You can learn how to do anything else by studying harder and harder, but the only way to learn to cook is by doing it. You want to know which way is better? Make it both ways and feel the dough. I’m way behind where I should be because I spent too many years wondering whether to use the mixer or the processor.”

I realized how far I am from overcoming my craving for explicit directions. I still gravitate toward the cookbook section in any bookstore. But I know that short of having a group to collaborate with every night, classes are the best place to start learning how to be a cook.