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The Triangle's cooking schools are as much about entertainment as learning to cook

There's no doubt about it--cooking has changed. Not just what we cook, but why we cook and what cooking means to us has taken on a whole new significance in the last 10 years. Food has always been entertainment--to "entertain" in one's home implies that food will be the main attraction--but cooking has not. The point of restaurants used to be that you didn't have to think about the cooking or the labor that went into a meal. Half of the magic of restaurants was that the food itself appeared magically, glided onto your table effortlessly, and existed for you only as a finished product. But no more.

The Food Network and high-gloss magazines like Food and Wine have transformed cooking, and now, as much as it is about nourishment, it is entertainment. Those of us who watched Julia Child or The Frugal Gourmet on PBS 20 years ago did so to learn how to cook something, and rarely did you find a fan of those shows who watched because the host chef was cute. These days chefs are celebrities, and not just on TV but right here in our local restaurants, gliding through dining rooms like rock stars at their own backstage parties. For the most part the true backstage, the actual restaurant kitchen, remains a place of sweat and work, but even that sanctuary of customer-free endeavor has been breached in some places. The open kitchen is more popular than ever, and some restaurants sell tickets for a table inside the kitchen, your very own "behind the music" kind of dining experience.

Cooking classes have changed, too. Cooking teachers used to be people who taught high school home ec, or in professional culinary training programs. Now, cooking teachers are everyone from chefs with publicists to food writers who teach out of their homes. Hands-on classes still exist, but the demonstration cooking class, invented by television and popularized by the Food Network, where students sit, watch, and if they're lucky, eat, has become the norm.

In the Triangle, when I began searching for cooking school options, I was overwhelmed by the choices. Choice is good, but there are different reasons why one might want to take a class, and the different classes cater to very different needs. I went to a few classes offered in the area to find out the differences and see what I could learn.

The demonstration class is by far the most common, but they do take a few forms. You can watch someone cook at Williams Sonoma, in instructor's homes, or in restaurants themselves. The difference is mainly a question of intimacy and class size, although the less intimate, larger classes usually make up for it by having more high-tech equipment and more organized formats. Hands-on classes range from sessions on knife skills or menu planning at schools like Chez Bay Gourmet and C'est si Bon to extravagant, all-inclusive packages at Fearrington House and The Siena Hotel. The obvious benefit of hands-on classes is that at the end of the day, you will have actually cooked something, and therefore be more likely to execute the same thing at home.

A Southern Season
The cooking school at A Southern Season in Chapel Hill is a beautiful facility, with state of the art equipment, well placed plasma TV screens to make sure you catch all the action, and a host of helpers running around making sure everything runs smoothly. These classes are demonstration only and obviously Food Network-inspired; the classroom is even set up in a similar fashion to cooking show TV studios, except that the audience sits at tiered tables rather than tiered seats.

While the appliances are definitely top of the line, they are purposefully residential models to add to the emphasis that the classes are meant to make you a better home cook. And I guess that some people really do have kitchens at home with granite countertops, Sub-Zero fridges and Wolf stoves.

A Southern Season is good at creating that glossy feel popular TV cooking classes have, and at least in the class I went to, the audience clapped when the chef finished preparing each dish. The school hosts many teachers, from celebrity chefs to touring cookbook authors to local teachers and chefs. The chef on the night I went was the Carolina Inn's Brian Stapleton, and I did not envy him. In this type of atmosphere, the teacher must cook, explain and put on a show, acting not just as a chef and teacher but as a comedian and salable personality.

Over the course of the night, four complete dishes were prepared, with Stapleton leading the demonstration, explaining as he went and the audience following along with the provided recipe packet. The host of helpers worked behind the chef to prepare the dish en masse for the audience. As we ate each course, Stapleton began the next course, and by the second course most people were done taking notes, giving in to the dinner and a show atmosphere. We were given two glasses of wine over the course of the evening, wines that the chef had picked to go with the dishes. (At one point Stapleton asked, "How does the wine go with the food?" and more than one of us replied, "The wine's long gone!") Every class is different, but this class focused on locally inspired cuisine, and Stapleton devoted a lot of time to explaining why local food is better and where to get it. The demonstrations were concise, some good tips were given, and the food tasted great. But the main attraction was the banter.

Stapleton told us (in a very charming and self-depreciating way) at the beginning of the class that he had had a bad day, and the audience seemed to seize on this, teasing him and goading him. One member of the audience took him to task for putting peppers in his crab cakes, and it became the theme of the class, with Stapleton at one point declaring "Ben Barker (of the Magnolia Grill) likes my crab cakes!" Despite the bad day and the smarty-pants audience, Stapleton managed to pull off a show and some good food as well.

Bloomsbury Bistro
Many Triangle restaurants now host demonstration cooking classes on nights they would normally be closed. These classes are not usually held on a set schedule, but more as the chef is able to find time to put a night aside. At Bloomsbury Bistro in Raleigh on the night I attended a class late in the summer, there were people who had received the class as a gift for Christmas 2002, and this was the first time they were able to get in.

The atmosphere at Bloomsbury was much more intimate than at A Southern Season, and a half-hour social wine gathering at the start of the class set the tone. Unlike at the more formal classes, wine flowed freely here, and the danger was that you'd get too tipsy to understand what the chef was talking about.

Chef John Toler stood under a large hanging mirror, set up so the audience could see what he was doing, and he cooked things from the restaurant's menu, speaking steadily and with a shy smile. These were very complex recipes, and the class became more about sitting and watching and eating than learning how to make the food. Unlike at other classes, we were seated across from each other at long tables, and the class really did take on the feel of a dinner party rather than a classroom. If we were lucky, one or two of us might take the recipe packet home and try something--the zucchini vichyssoise Toler made as the first course seemed doable, but everything that came after served as proof that there is a reason you let professionals cook for you sometimes. Restaurant food is too complicated to be bothered with cooking yourself.

I'm interested in the pressure put on regular chefs now to become personalities, and I asked Toler about that after the class.

"It's not so much about that for me as it is a good way to interact with our regular customers," he says. "And I love to teach. In order to be in charge of a kitchen, to train people, you have to be a good teacher. I see this as a natural extension of that."

It's obvious that Toler's customers see the class much the same way he does, as a chance to interact, to find community in a restaurant they love. As much as it was about learning, the Bloomsbury class was about spending time with a chef in a restaurant among others who appreciate that chef and restaurant. And as a bonus they may learn how to make balsamic syrup while they're at it.

Chez Bay Gourmet
Chez Bay Gourmet, a storefront cooking school in Durham, does everything from cooking classes for Durham Tech, teaching students basic skills for restaurant work, to private lessons customized to teach the student whatever they want to learn. Chez Bay's regular classes are somewhere in between, set up classroom style, but with the expectation that you will have fun as well as learn something.

The major difference between Chez Bay and the other schools is that it's much more about the cooking and less about the show. Students made dishes from scratch, they were allowed to handle knives--in fact nothing was prepared that was not made by a student from beginning to garnish.

Students stand around a table in a giant kitchen that is different from home only in that it is much larger, has multiple stations, and has every pot, pan and low-tech gadget you could imagine needing. Each student is outfitted with her or his own cutting board, knife and tray for preparing ingredients for their dish. Chez Bay's classes run from knife skills to holiday baking.

The class I took was called "Paris Bistro," and worked as an introduction to French cooking, or as a way to learn some great recipes, even if you were already familiar with French food. Our instructor wrote the dishes on the board and let us select the dish we'd like to work on. Ingredients were handed out, and then students worked at their dish, with the instructor coming around and helping as necessary. I was taught how to core pears with a melonballer, we were each given a chance to help the crepe maker, and everyone took turns at brushing and rolling phyllo for the strudel. It reminded me of the first day of work at a restaurant--as much as I could do on my own, I did. I asked where things I needed were kept and I was given instruction on the things I didn't know. The obvious difference was that at the end of the day, I got to sit down and eat the food.

Owner Joel Goldfarb is trying to run a cooking school; this is not a wine-guzzling social event. He tries to have students keep their stations organized, no cell phones are allowed, and he would appreciate it if you don't show up in flip-flops. In a single class, you will certainly learn something, because you will make more than one dish. Take part in a cooking series at Chez Bay, and you will be more than a novice with one or two recipes under your belt.

Fearrington House
Aside from these more traditional cooking schools, a few luxury establishments in the area have hands-on cooking classes. Fearrington House, between Chapel Hill and Pittsboro, offers a cooking retreat that takes place over the course of 24 hours and includes an overnight stay at the Fearrington House Inn, dinner at the Fearrington House restaurant, breakfast the next morning, a half-day cooking class, and a chance to sit in the restaurant and eat the spoils of the class for lunch. The package is not cheap ($415-625 depending on the room you choose to stay in), but not that much more expensive than a night at the Inn and dinner at the restaurant would cost you. The classes themselves are hands-on and quite detailed. Unlike some hands-on classes, every student prepares every dish--the dishes are selected for each person to be able to make their own individual serving.

My class was small--10 people, mostly couples celebrating a birthday or anniversary. By the time we had made it to the actual class portion of the retreat, we had already spent an evening together at the restaurant and breakfast the next morning, so the class was friendly and comfortable. Our class was on cooking with herbs, so first thing we took a walk out to Fearrington's herb garden, where we picked the herbs we would use to cook. Back in the kitchen, we were divided into two groups, and each group was lead by a chef, walking us through each dish. Hands-on attention was given to each of us as we chopped, stirred and fumbled. The menu was not kid's stuff: herbed tomato and zucchini bake; goat cheese ravioli with fava beans and a spinach foam; slow baked mackerel with bay leaf; thyme-stuffed guinea fowl; and English summer pudding with clotted cream.

While the atmosphere is quite congenial, with pitchers of fresh lemonade and some of the prep done ahead of time, the chefs don't shy away from the nitty gritty aspects of gourmet cooking. My class was taught how to break down fish and small fowl, and while this was the least pleasant thing to learn, it was probably the one thing I learned that I couldn't have figured out for myself (do you know how to take a dead animal and turn it into dinner? You might think you do, but it's harder than it looks). Some of the Southern belles in my class were aghast at the sight of a dead fish on their chopping boards before noon, but they were sure happy and proud to be eating that same fish, nicely filleted and baked up, an hour later.

And talk about Food Network appeal--both executive chef Graham Fox and his sous chef are young, cute, charming British boys, the Fearrington setting is totally romantic, and the food they manage to get you to make is wonderful.

And a few more
There were a couple of classes I didn't make it to that deserve a mention.

At C'est si Bon in Chapel Hill, the motto is "We're not about the show, we're about getting your hands in the dough." The reason I was not able to get to a class is that the owner and instructor was in Italy hosting one of the culinary tours the school offers.

I also didn't do the Siena Hotel's "Day as the Chef" package, where the student gets the personal attention of Il Palio chef Jim Anile for the entire day. If you were to take this class, the two of you would plan a four-course meal, shop for ingredients, then work in the kitchen to make the meal. Then you sit down with three of your friends to eat it, along with wines you have selected to pair with the dishes you planned.

Who takes these classes? I must admit, I was expecting a lot of retirees and wealthy women with too much time and money on their hands. But I was surprised to find a lot of young couples, people who had just had a baby and were looking for a social outlet as well as a way to improve their domestic abilities (people who might have gone to a bar a couple of years ago but can't quite justify getting a sitter just to get out of the house to have a drink).

While many people expressed the desire to come away with one or two recipes they could use while entertaining to impress their friends, there were other reasons to have access to the knowledge of a professional chef. A young father in the Bloomsbury Bistro class mocked himself about the benefits of appearing to be a foodie. "Now in polite conversation I can bring up something like creme fraiche, and it goes over great. 'He's so cultured,' my friends will say." He nods knowingly and raises an eyebrow. "That's just the tip of the iceberg." And in almost every class, there were people there who had primarily come to be entertained and fed.

Yes, I was entertained, and I ate some very good food. But am I a better cook? Did I actually learn anything? This may be an unfair question, seeing as I have had lessons before, the best kind of lessons that involved trembling in a kitchen as a chef screamed at me that if I didn't get it right my $7-an-hour job was down the toilet. Having cooked in restaurants certainly gave me a head start on many of my classmates, but I'm not a professional chef. And yes, I did learn some things. They are as follows:

From The Carolina Inn's Brian Stapleton at A Southern Season I got a great crab cake recipe (the one Ben Barker likes, peppers and all), and I got some good tips on how to saute properly, something that in all my years of home cooking has still been hit or miss.

At the Bloomsbury Bistro I learned to soak onions in ginger ale to reduce their harsh taste and make them more digestible. ("By the end of the week I will have told three of four people about the ginger ale thing," said the young father who had previously impressed friends with his creme fraiche knowledge), and I learned for the thousandth time that sweet potatoes are yummy.

At Chez Bay Gourmet I got some fantastic recipes, I was reminded how to use phyllo and how great it is, and I learned how to make crepes.

At Fearrington I learned how make English-style berry pudding, I learned how to butcher fish and guinea hens, and I learned not to drink too much wine the night before having to butcher said fishes and hens.

For those of us who have worked in the food industry, the whole phenomenon of kitchens as a place of glamour is a little bemusing. It's as if all of a sudden there were TV shows about the best data-entry specialist in the country, finishing documents in record time before a studio audience and shouting "BAM!" But if we are honest with ourselves, most of us came to this profession because there is an undeniable romance around food, and in some ways it is a part of life that is so important that this new emphasis on the origins of good dishes is only scratching the surface of the topic.

The good news is that if you love food, if you love to make it and talk about it and eat it, there's now another venue at which to do so. In many cases, you can get the class for the same price that you'd pay for the meal, so there's little to lose. The world can only benefit from more food, more good cooks, more places where food and life intersect.

Triangle cooking schools
Bloomsbury Bistro cooking class with Chef John Toler

The Bloomsbury Bistro has no classes scheduled right now, but will have more in the future. Classes cost $75 per person and include dinner, wine, tax and gratuity. Other restaurants that have been known to have in-house classes with similar formats are Grayson's Cafe and Fin's.

C'est Si Bon Cooking School
1002 Brace Lane, Chapel Hill
Contact: Dorette Snover 942-6550
Classes range from $65-75, are hands-on and include a full meal. School also offers culinary tours of Europe.

Chez Bay Gourmet
1921 North Pointe Drive, Durham, 477-7878
Classes are hands-on and range from $49-79 for individual classes, varying prices for cooking series. Meal and recipe packet included.

Creative Cooking with Sheri Castle
Chapel Hill, 967-5067
Classes taught in the home of Sheri Castle, food writer and professional cooking teacher. Demonstration-style class costs $45 per person and includes buffet-style meal and recipe packet.

Culinary Lessons at A Southern Season
University Mall, Chapel Hill 929-7133
Individual classes range in price from $30-100 (or even more if the Iron Chef is involved), are demonstration-style classes and usually include a meal and wine when appropriate.

Fearrington House Cooking Retreats
Eight miles south of Chapel Hill on US 15-501
542-2121 or e-mail
The cooking retreat lasts a good portion of 24 hours and includes overnight accommodation, dinner at The Fearrington House Restaurant, gourmet breakfast, hands-on cooking class, and lunch, as well as other goodies (apron, wooden spoon, recipe book and more depending on the retreat). Cost is between $415-625 plus tax, depending on your choice of accommodations.

Il Palio's "Day as the Chef" with Jim Anile
The Siena Hotel, Chapel Hill
Contact: Sasha Travers, 537-1500
Package costs $650 and includes a day spent planning, shopping for and preparing a four course meal alongside Il Palio's chef Jim Anile. Also includes your own chef jacket and dinner for four people including wine.

Williams Sonoma
Classes available at most stores
Classes at the Southpoint Mall store cost between $35-55 (most classes are $35), last for two hours and include full meal and recipes. Call 484-1706 for information and registration.

Cooking classes for kids
So you have a child who loves to watch cooking shows or refuses to read novels but brings home a cookbook from the school library every week? You might want to think about indulging their interest in a way that won't mess up your kitchen.

A Southern Season's cooking school regularly has "Kids in the Kitchen" classes. On Oct. 16 and 23, Barbara Ulam will lead a class focused on Halloween treats (for ages 6-10), and there are regularly classes for children and parents to come and cook together. These classes sell out quickly, but there's always more down the road. Visit for more information and schedules.

For a child who wants to make a longer commitment to cooking school, The Carolina Culinary Camp (run out of the Chez Bay Gourmet cooking school in Durham) offers summer camp and after-school programs. The summer camp focuses on nutrition, menu planning, creative haute cuisine and baking, as well as kitchen safety and other basic principles.

The after-school program has a broad focus that includes recipe preparation, cookbook writing, history, culture, food science and culinary techniques. There is even an emphasis on using math and science in the kitchen. When your child is done with the after-school program, they have a "gastronomic graduation" involving a banquet served for parents. Both programs accept children between the ages of 7-17. Visit for more information.

C'est Si Bon cooking school in Chapel Hill also offers culinary summer camp for kids as well as an ongoing evening program called "Turn the Tables," where you drop your kids off at 4 p.m., then come back and eat the meal they and their class have prepared (for ages 10-16).

Dorette Snover, the owner of C'est si Bon, also leads summer culinary tours for teens in Europe. Next summer the tour will be on the "Myths, Maps, and the Culinary Lore of Provence." (Does anyone out there want to be my mommy? Being 16 was rough, but I'd do it all again if someone would send me on this kind of summer camp.) The tour costs $1,450 and includes meals, accommodations and four cooking classes. Airfare is not included. For more information, go to

Pan-seared Coastal Snapper on Wilted Greens with Summer Corn and Jalapeno Relish
Serves 4
5 ears summer corn, off cob
1 medium jalapeno, finely diced
1/2 small Bermuda onion, julienned
1/4 cup red bell peppers, finely diced
1 cup watermelon, finely diced, reserve juice
1/2 bunch parsley, finely chopped
1 lb. spinach
2 cloves garlic
2 tbs. olive oil
1/4 tsp. butter
1 medium shallot, finely diced
4 6-oz. snapper filets

Shuck corn and remove all strings, take off cob. In medium stainless steel bowl, combine corn, jalapenos, onions, red bell peppers, watermelon, watermelon juice and parsley. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.

Rinse and dry spinach.

Using a thick bottom saute pan over medium high heat, add corn oil and seasoned snapper fillets skin side up, cook until golden brown (approximately 3 minutes). Turn over and place in 350-degree oven for 3 minutes or until done.

Using another saute pan over medium heat, add olive oil, spinach, shallots, garlic, salt, pepper and butter, stir until wilted. Place on plate.

Remove snapper from oven and place on top of greens. Spoon relish over top of snapper and drizzle liquid from relish around plate.

No Bread BLT salad
Serves 8
Balsamic Syrup:
1 cup balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
1 small strip orange zest
2 black peppercorns

Place all ingredients in a stainless steel or glass pot and boil until it has evaporated away and reduced to about 5 tablespoons. It should not be quite as thick as maple syrup while it is hot, because it will thicken once cooled. Strain and set aside.

1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 clove garlic
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1-2 ice cubes
1 packed cup fresh basil leaves
1 tablespoon lemon juice
salt & pepper

Place mayonnaise in a bowl and set aside. Place olive oil and garlic in a blender and liquefy the garlic for 5-10 seconds, then turn off. Cram and pack the basil down into the oil and add 1-2 ice cubes. Pulse the blender on and off a few times while intermittently scraping down the mixture until everything is completely pureed and bright green. Do not over blend or the oil will become warm and the mixture will turn brown. Immediately whisk the basil/garlic puree into the mayonnaise. Stir in lemon juice and season well with salt and pepper. Refrigerate until ready to use.

6 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 minced shallot
1 teaspoon chopped thyme
1 tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

In a small, non-reactive bowl, whisk together all ingredients except for the olive oil and allow flavors to develop for 5 minutes. Then slowly whisk in olive oil. Adjust salt and pepper then refrigerate until ready to use.

1 pound fresh mozzarella, diced or small cherry-sized balls
zest of half a lemon
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon chopped thyme
salt & pepper

Taste the mozzarella to see how much salt it will need. Stir together lemon zest, olive oil and chopped thyme. Salt and pepper this mixture as you see fit, then toss the cheese in it well to evenly coat. Refrigerate until ready to use.

16 slices of thick, good quality bacon
1-2 tablespoons sugar
freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place the bacon on a sheet pan then lightly sprinkle the surface with sugar. Grind fresh pepper to taste over everything. Bake until crispy, 8-12 minutes, then carefully remove bacon to a paper towel. Keep bacon at room temperature until ready to serve.

3 cups rinsed and dried romaine hearts, chopped
6-8 ripe tomatoes, sliced

Use cold plates. Slice the tomatoes and arrange them on each plate. Lightly sprinkle with salt. Toss the romaine with the vinaigrette to taste, then divide evenly over the tomatoes. Drizzle the entire plate with aioli, then place a few drops of syrup over everything. Arrange bacon and cheese around salad and serve immediately.

The aioli and vinaigrette can be made up to one week in advance. The balsamic syrup keeps indefinitely refrigerated. Marinate the cheese up to two days in advance.

Soupe au Pistou
Serves 6
1/2 cup dried white beans, soaked overnight and drained
1 bay leaf
2 1/2 cups water
2 1/4 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion or 1 large shallot, minced
1 stalk celery, cut into 1/2-inch dice
2 medium carrots, cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 bell pepper
1/2 teaspoon thyme
4 cups stock
pinch salt & pepper, or to taste
2 cups fresh basil, chopped
1/2 cup olive oil

In a small saucepan, combine the beans with the bay leaf and 2 cups of water. Cover partially and simmer over low heat until tender, about 45 minutes. Discard the bay leaf.

Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large saucepan. Add the onion or shallot, celery, carrots, bell pepper, thyme and the remaining water. Cook over moderate heat until the water has evaporated and the vegetables soften, about 10 minutes.

Add the stock and a pinch each of salt and pepper; bring to a simmer. Add the cooked beans along with any remaining cooking liquid. Cover and simmer over low heat about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a food processor, combine the basil and garlic and process to a paste. With the machine on, slowly pour in the remaining olive oil. Transfer the puree to a blender and blend until very smooth. Scrape the puree into a bowl and season with salt.

Season the soup with salt and pepper if needed. Remove the soup from the heat, stir in the basil puree. Serve.

English Summer Pudding with Clotted Cream
Serves 8

3 lbs. mixed fruit (raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries)
2 tbs. Framboise
1 loaf white bread
clotted cream
1 lb. raspberries (for syrup)
1 1/2 cups water (for syrup)
1 cup sugar (for syrup)

Lightly grease a 1-qt mold or eight 150-ml molds. Wash all the berries and allow to drain.

To make the syrup, simply boil the water and sugar for a few minutes until clear and allow to cool. Make a raspberry puree using 1 lb. of raspberries and powdered sugar. Bring to a simmer. Take half the puree and mix with the other berries and Framboise. Take off the heat and allow to sit at room temperature.

Meanwhile, remove the crusts from the bread and cut each slice into thick strips. Always keep a disc shape for the top and bottom. Dip the bread in the other half of the raspberry syrup and start to line the mold, starting with the base and working up overlapping with every slice you put on. When done, place the fruit inside. Place the bottom of soaked bread on top. Cover with plastic wrap. Place a plate on top and something to weight it down.

Chill for a few hours, but overnight would be better. Turn out and serve with cream.

More by Besha Rodell

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