Edward Eveleth usually rock-climbs or hang-glides when he wants an escape from his job at Phillips Publishing in Potomac, Md. But this year, the 31-year-old product manager spent part of his vacation in Paris, dedicating four days to an intensive course on French Regional Cuisine at Le Cordon Bleu. Eveleth was taught how to fillet fish and bake pastries by the same instructors that train some of the world's premier chefs. "It was an opportunity to really learn about cooking and to be immersed in French culture," he says.
Eveleth is among a growing number of professionals looking to enhance their culinary skills and gain cultural experiences. Of course, you don't have to go to Le Cordon Bleu to prepare fine cuisine. There are hundreds of programs for food enthusiasts. You can take a quickie course on grilling meat or spend your holiday exploring Italian regional cuisine. Besides traditional cooking schools, programs are offered everywhere--from supermarkets and restaurants to cookbook authors' homes. Price tags vary immensely. A three-hour bread-baking course at a local cooking school may cost $30. Five luxurious days with Italian author Lorenza de'Medici at her villa near Florence will set you back $4,700. "A lot of schools are figuring out there are many people who don't necessarily want a degree," says Annie Copps, program mana-ger at Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust, a Cambridge (Mass.) cooking association. "But they want to figure out how to make sushi or good soup."
Those who want to find the ideal culinary experience should consult ShawGuides' comprehensive The Guide to Cooking Schools ($19.95) or search its free Web site. In evaluating courses, consider whether you want to prepare the food yourself or watch an experienced chef apply culinary magic. Do you want to study a specific cuisine or learn basic techniques? Not everyone wants to spend eight hours in a kitchen with saffron-stained hands, so pick a program that suits your interest level and skills.
Of course, you'll often learn a lot more than how to dice onions. At Julie Sahni's School of Indian Cooking, toasting and grinding your own spices, making homemade cheeses, and baking Indian breads are only part of the experience. Sahni also explores the history, culture, and religion behind her dishes. Groups of three students spend the weekend at her Brooklyn Heights (N.Y.) apartment sitting around her kitchen counter hoping to absorb the techniques that helped establish Sahni as an award-winning cookbook author. "You work in the kitchen with her," says former student Donna Daniels. "Everybody takes turns preparing certain items."
That's more personalized attention than you'll find at a larger school, of course, but bigger institutions offer a greater breadth of classes. At The New School for Social Research in New York City, you can choose from a diverse menu of courses including Introduction to Wine, Thai Cuisine, and The Cooking of West Africa. "Cooking is a wonderful window into culture," says Gary Goldberg, executive director of Culinary Arts at the New School.
RICE BOWL. If poking around in the kitchen doesn't provide enough of a kick, try one of the many offerings that pair food preparation with another art. On July 19, for example, students at the Southern California School of Culinary Arts in South Pasadena, Calif., will spend the afternoon preparing a traditional Japanese meal. Afterward, they will pack up their chicken teriyaki and tamagoyaki (a Japanese omelet) into "Bento boxes," the lacquered boxes used to take out food in Japan. Students will then enjoy the various soy-seasoned dishes at the Hollywood Bowl while listening to Beethoven.
That's a far cry from the intensity of Eveleth's experience at Le Cordon Blue. By 9 a.m., he was in class watching master chefs whip up a series of dishes. During the afternoon session, he got to prepare the recipes himself. It wasn't all serious. During the class, Eveleth and his fellow students snapped pictures of each other in their sous-chef hats and stained aprons. They also got to sample their Gteau Niois puff pastry and other fare. Alas, one unintended consequence of taking any cooking class is you may put on a few extra pounds.