What kind of home cook are you? Are you ready to become a “Chopped” champion or are you challenged by dicing a stalk of celery into uniform pieces?
Regardless of your culinary skill set — or lack of one — cooking classes are where to find the ingredients for a more kitchen-competent you. They’re an ideal addendum to the upcoming holiday cooking season, when you want to wow your friends and family with a full spread, or simply bring a dish to a dinner, maybe for the first time. Bonus: The classes make great gifts.
We found a shopping list of local companies that sponsor cooking classes, and it’s easy to connect with them. With some variables, the model is to visit the website, choose a class or classes that interest you, register and pay. In class, you’ll get tips, advice and recipes from the pros, learn new techniques to show off at your next dinner party or holiday meal, and add figurative and literal spice to your repertoire. Or you can simply start a repertoire.
Most classes are hands-on experiential. The sharing-learning dynamic is imbued with teamwork spirit and social interaction with friends (and soon-to-be friends) gathered for a common goal.
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Bonus: You get to eat what you cook, and classes are just plain fun.
“Nobody comes to my classes grumpy, and they leave with skills they never thought they would have,” said Paulette Bruce, owner of the Good Eats cooking-class school at East Bay Restaurant Supply in Sacramento. “When the clouds part, they’re like, ‘OMG, this is fun and I learned something!’”
Generally, more women than men attend classes, though that demographic is reversed at outdoor grilling and knife-skills sessions. Menus can be season- and holiday-driven, but a smorgasbord of options are listed year-round — simple to complex, straightforward to elegant, international, regional and health-conscious. Perhaps the most valuable takeaway is how to make home cooking easier, and getting answers to those nagging culinary questions.
Most programs offer instructions for children (age ranges vary), which dovetails with the parental longing to divert their kids from the digital universe and into a real, shared experience.
It’s common for classes to sell out to companies that use them for teambuilding sessions. Families often buy them for private parties to celebrate anniversaries and reunions.
More people than ever are signing up for cooking classes, for a host of reasons, said the instructors we visited.
“Having a real experience is why these programs thrive,” said Lori Friedli, cooking school coordinator at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op. “It’s one thing to watch a TV cooking show, but totally different when you’re picking up a knife and interacting with the food, then going home and being able to make pasta from scratch.”
“There’s a resurgence of people getting back into the kitchen and cooking, and they want the skills to do it,” said Susan Shenk, culinary specialist-instructor at the Williams-Sonoma store in Pavilions.
Also turning up the flame on our cooking consciousness is the media’s perpetual stew of all things food, from the Cooking Channel and Food Network and to newspaper food sections, and online and print magazines such as Saveur, Cook’s Illustrated, Gourmet, Art of Eating and Food & Wine.
Not to overlook our ongoing love of cookbooks, which publishers can’t seem to print fast enough? Cooking software and videos notwithstanding, 17.8 million print cookbooks were sold in the U.S. in 2017, according to the market research company NPD Group. That figure is expected to have grown by year’s end.
Locally, we have more than a dozen well-attended farmer’s markets specializing in locavorism. Plus, we’re constantly reminded that we live in the nation’s Farm to Fork capital and we’d be foolish not to take advantage of it, as so many restaurant chefs have done.
Then there’s the travel factor: Americans returning from vacations in Europe are inspired by the meals they had there and yearn to try their hand.
And people are trying to eat healthy foods.
“I hear more questions about healthful eating than ever before,” Bruce said. “Is olive oil good for you? Should I buy grass-fed beef or what I find in the grocery store? What about wild-caught fish versus farm-raised? People are more aware of the food they’re putting into their bodies, and they want to know how to cook it.”
All those ingredients help fill cooking classes, but beyond them is something less tangible. Call it nostalgia or a revolt against convenience, but a growing number of longtime home cooks are searching for a bit of their past.
“Sharing food is intrinsic, and a lot of older people come here because they’ve lost their sense of connection between friends and family and food, which they grew up with,” said Cindy Baker, programming director for the Murer House and Gardens in Folsom. “They want that home-cooking smell filling the house again.”
Younger home cooks are also looking for connections, said chef-instructor Roxanne O’Brien, who teaches American regional and Mediterranean cooking at American River College’s Culinary Arts & Hospitality Management program.
“Cooking is about a sense of community, and everybody searches for that in one way or another, regardless of age or status,” O’Brien said. “Going to culinary school is a commitment, but taking a cooking class immediately gives you new knowledge and bragging rights with your friends.”
One scene at a recent Good Eats class could be indicative of where a new generation of home cooks is going. As their first-ever cooking class was about to get underway, thirty-somethings Rich and Barbara Reiller took a minute to chat.
“I think Rich and I are equivalent cooks, and we take turns being the chef and the sous chef in our kitchen at home,” she said.
He added: “We’re always experimenting, whether on the grill or the stovetop or in the oven. Our takeaway tonight would be more creativity and new ideas.”