Kitchen Wizards: Cooking schools help bring the fun back to family dinners

We all have hobbies that we find entertaining. One of my personal favorites is attending classes at cooking schools, a passion that began in Paris many years ago. Although I have since taught cooking classes and have done some catering, it is always refreshing to be inspired by other chefs.

For instance, while attending a class at the New Orleans Cooking Experience on Bayou Road, I experienced the technique of a quickly cooked roux made with bacon drippings instead of oil, stirred rapidly over a high heat (the normal route for me is to stir oil and flour over a low fire for about 45 minutes, then simmer the “trinity” of onions, celery and bell peppers). Some chefs swear by the microwave technique, although I beg to differ.

At Savvy Gourmet on Magazine Street, I learned from acclaimed chef Daniel Bonnot that you always discard the first crepe when making a batch, and you never add sugar to a crepe because it makes it stick. And I learned to do things with lamb that kicked one particular dinner party up a notch. Little things like that always make cooking in the kitchen a bit more fun. Like art, cooking is subject to interpretation and everyone has a different perspective.

I find that attending a cooking class in an intimate setting is always best. There are many large classes (40-50 students), including those taught at the New Orleans School of Cooking that offer typical Cajun and Creole fare catering to tourists; but I favor other settings such as the New Orleans Cooking Experience, Savvy Gourmet, and Kay Ewing’s Everyday Gourmet Cooking School in Baton Rouge. Some of the more tourist-oriented cooking schools tend to stereotype what is dubbed as Cajun cuisine, but it is far removed from the real thing. The word Cajun is too frequently used for marketing purposes in the Big Easy.

Attending a class at Savvy Gourmet, located at 4519 Magazine Street in New Orleans (504/895-2665) is a good way to say “Happy Valentine’s Day.” Enroll in a session with your significant other, then prepare a romantic feast together at home. “We offer much more than just Cajun and Creole at Savvy Gourmet,” says owner Peter Menge. “We love our Cajun and Creole culinary heritage, but we also do classes for locals. We do some private classes with food that is almost like a cocktail party with cooking happening. Our wine classes are more like gatherings, not a classroom setting. It’s all about having fun. We are about people coming together over good food.”

On Wednesday, February 13, there will be a Valentine’s Day workshop with executive chef Eve Cohen (who was the coordinating chef among 30 Louisiana chefs at the James Beard foundation’s “Celebration of New Orleans Cuisine” event post-Katrina). “Come to the class,” says Menge. “We will be cooking the perfect Valentine’s Day meal. Come and learn how to cook for your sweetie pie.”

Savvy Gourmet is a 4,500-square-foot combination cooking school, restaurant, full-service catering company, and a cookware and equipment store. The agenda includes hands-on classes with celebrity chefs as well as kids classes, wine tastings, and special events. On January 21, Savvy started a “food-to-go” service for take out that features family-friendly meals such as red beans and rice, macaroni and cheese, stewed chicken, and lasagna. But the classes are much more interesting than the to-go menu, featuring an array of culinary styles, from Thai to vegetarian and Creole, cocktails and canapés, and hands-on dinner party classes.

The setting is sleek and hi-tech; there is a mirror overhead in the kitchen where the chefs teach, a television monitor beams in the food channel, and there is cookware to browse through. Celebrity chefs have included Bayona’s Susan Spicer (who recently did a book signing there), Frank Brigtsen of Brigtsen’s, Donald Link from Cochon, and Tory McPhail from Commander’s Palace.

The New Orleans Cooking Experience (2275 Bayou Road, 504/945-9104) offers an entirely different setting, and is much more intimate. The highly personalized classes focus on authentic Creole cooking. Frank Brigtsen of the acclaimed Brigtsen’s restaurant (he is a Paul Prudhomme protégé) designed the curriculum and teaches classes there, in addition to Chiqui Collier who is a cookbook author, and Poppy Tooker, known as the “food diva.” She is a mainstay of the Food and Heritage program of the Jazz Fest. The founder is Judy Jurisich, a former television and marketing executive who is passionate about our culinary heritage.

Classes are limited to 10 and include recipes, wines, and conclude with a multicourse dinner party in the antique-filled dining room in the House on Bayou Road. It is a charming, historic inn located approximately 12 blocks form the French Quarter. The petite Creole plantation compound includes the main plantation house built in the 1790s, several cottages, Restaurant Indigo, and more than two acres of lovely gardens, a courtyard, and lawns.

The kitchen setting is cozy and on the day I took a class, we were served Creole cream cheese and pepper jelly on crackers, mango tea, and wine upon arrival. The three-hour class ended with everything we prepared being served in a formal setting on fine China. It is a total immersion experience. Cooking vacation packages are also available.

In Baton Rouge, the best place to go for a hands-on learning experience is Kay Ewing’s Everyday Gourmet Cooking School (16016 Perkins Road, 225/751-0698 or 225/756-2039). “I offer everything, from Italian to Chinese, Cajun and Creole,” Ewing says. “I’ll offer two three-hour classes a week in one session. I also offer kids cooking classes for ages 9-14 during the summer. There are classes on basics like knife skills, cooking terminology, measuring, and various techniques. I get all ages and all ranges of ability. When you learn a recipe and actually make it in the class, you are more apt to make it at home.”

The setting is very casual and classes are limited to eight people. “I find that people really like getting a whole menu when they come to class rather than focusing on one course or one theme,” Ewing remarks. “They eat the food and take home any leftovers.” Ewing offers culinary trips throughout the year as well. “Usually we do a trip in the spring and the fall. We are still working on our plans and may be doing Santa Fe in the fall.” Former trips have included Boston, Chicago, Santa Fe, London, and New York. Classes are held at the Royal Standard, which is a shop featuring home furnishings and gifts in Baton Rouge.


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