Cooking School: Don't Get Burned

Head off disappointment by asking the right questions before you go

Last year my husband and I visited Santa Fe, where we experienced our first taste of authentic Southwest cuisine. Who knew there were so many New Mexican chilies and local spices? Delighted by the bold flavors, we bought a cookbook from the Santa Fe School of Cooking; the guacamole recipe was superb. So this year, when we decided to vacation in Santa Fe again, my son and I signed up for a class at the school for $70 each.

Let's just say the class was not as satisfying as the meal. Don't get me wrong: Our chef, Rocky Durham, was very knowledgeable, and the food -- featuring a low-carb Southwestern lamb dish -- was delicious. But before you attend any cooking course, some words of caution:

-- Check whether you'll actually be doing the cooking. We discovered when we got there that this was a demonstration class, not a hands-on lesson. When we signed up online, the Web site made no mention of this. As expert as Durham was at making Rack of Lamb Adovada (marinated in red chilies) and Grilled Eggplant Enchiladas with green chili pesto, among other dishes, we wanted the experience of preparing the meal ourselves. The site did say that some classes were demonstrations and some were hands-on, but it didn't specify which were which. When told about this, cooking school owner Susan Curtis said she would make the Web site clearer. Still, she advised, "it's a good idea to call."

-- Beware of marketing pitches. In a lighthearted way, our chef confessed that he was asked to "push sales" of the school's products -- and throughout the 2 1/2 hours he reminded us how we could purchase everything from a stove-top roasting grill to whole spices at the adjacent store. I respect that the school holds local goods in high regard. But the hard sell was a bit much and made us question whether the school existed primarily to bolster store sales. Curtis' response: The school has nine chefs, and each presents the course in his or her own way.

-- Find a menu you can replicate at home. Our fare was too complicated for even the chef to prepare in the given time. After seasoning the lamb, making the green chile pesto and red chili sauce, and mixing the red chili hummus, we ran out of time to assemble dessert. Somehow, the fresh fruit with vanilla crème fraiche miraculously appeared as we finished eating our main course.

-- Make sure the kitchen is properly equipped. For a final flourish, the lamb was seared in a cast-iron pan to blacken it. Opening the window to the balcony as well as the door leading into the building, the chef warned that the chili could let off an acrid smell. It sure did. The three women at the table closest to the stove inhaled smoke and started coughing until they had to step outside for air. A less-than-appetizing moment. Curtis admitted the vent in the room is "not real adequate." But she says the hood of an overhead vent would block students' view of the chef, making it necessary to use TV monitors.

I did learn a few things: Use whole spices, and grind them for maximum flavor. How a chef seasons with salt separates good cooks from great ones. Blacken a chili to make it easier to peel. Don't feel you have to stick to a recipe -- something I can relate to since I can never replicate a meal. Finally, find a cooking class that lets you cook -- and breathe -- easily.

By Joyce Barnathan

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