Ask Trip Coach: Cooking Schools

Boiling, baking, frying, and making that perfect French soufflé—it may sound like a lot of work. Actually, it's the perfect excuse for a vacation.

By Brad Tuttle, Tuesday, May 18, 2010, 12:00 AM

Ask Trip Coach (Illustration by Chris Gash)

READERS' TOP QUESTIONS

How do I find a reputable school?
Well, it turns out that it's not as straightforward as you'd think. Unlike hotels or even voluntourism organizations, the best of which are vetted by respected agencies, cooking courses are often one-offs, run by people you've never heard of. There's no global clearinghouse or accrediting agency, and as a result, basic Web searches can be more confusing than productive.

The best place to start is the official website of the country or region you're interested in visiting. Tourism bureaus often evaluate and approve culinary courses along with other travel resources. Visitbelgium.com, for example, devotes a page to 12 top schools around the country, including one in Brussels with a weekly class taught in English and a name that says it all: Mmmmh! British Columbia's website, hellobc.com, lists 10 well-established cooking schools, searchable by region. (Interested in harvesting local greens on Vancouver Island or grilling lamb in the Okanagan Valley wine country?)

For now, the closest thing to a clearinghouse is cookingschools.com, which is owned by the job-hunting specialist Monster. It caters to food-service professionals seeking serious semester-long programs, but some of the listed schools offer weekend or one-day classes appropriate for travelers.

This is also a good time to tap into social networks for more under-the-radar listings. Foodie forums on chowhound.com and epicurious.com are good places to seek recommendations. Similarly, tripadvisor.com has a surprising number of cooking school threads (last count: 1,260). Finally, keep an eye out for foodtrekker.com from the International Culinary Tourism Association. The site will launch later this summer and is slated to include a global guide to cooking courses, culinary tours, and farm-to-table dinners.

How will I know if a school fits my needs?
You just have to ask the right questions: (1) Is the class in English? Sounds obvious, but if you find yourself trying to flambé, dictionary in hand, more than your dessert will go up in flames. (2) Is this course for beginners? You don't want to be bored or, perhaps worse, in over your head with a cleaver. (3) What's the ratio of students to instructors? If it's higher than 6:1, you might not have much of an opportunity to get your questions answered. (4) How long will we actually be in the kitchen? At some schools, you can spend half your time in a tour bus or socializing over cocktails. (5) Will we cook dishes I can prepare at home? If all the recipes rely on an obscure Laotian root or some über-expensive industrial appliance, you might be better off watching the Food Network.

What's a good price for a class?
There's no easy answer to this one. Prices are determined by the desirability of the location, the level of individual attention, and the celebrity status of the instructor. In other words, they're all over the place. That said, there are general rules of thumb. In Europe, it's rare to find a full-day program for less than $200, and that price can soar in locations like Provence or Tuscany, where a five-hour, five-course meal instructional often tops $350. In the U.S., a short group class (two hours or so, with 12 or more students) costs around $50. At the other end of the spectrum, one-on-one tutorials can climb to $600 a day. In Asia, travelers will find an equally large disparity. An introductory cooking class at the Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi in Chiang Mai is $154 a day, but a similar lesson covering the same curriculum at the Thai Cookery School, 10 minutes away, runs only $31 (thaicookeryschool.com).

Are there ever any deals?
The short answer is no. Unlike flights or hotels, prices at cooking schools remain pretty constant. That said, one piece of advice still applies for bargain hunters: Buy in bulk. Chef and author Samira Hradsky, who teaches out of her Paris apartment, lowers the price from $250 to $200 a day if you sign up for more than one course (foodunitestheworld.com).

Is there anything I should do before showing up?
Sure. Consider it your prep work: Read about dishes and ingredients you're likely to encounter, and try out a recipe or two at home. Whether it turns out delicious or dreadful, you'll almost certainly arrive in class primed with questions. When you're there, remember to take notes (it's not the same as reading handouts later). And bring a digital camera too; the visuals will be helpful when you try to re-create the recipe on your own. Finally, consider booking a room with a kitchenette so you can practice what you learn while the lessons are still fresh—and while you have access to all those fantastic local ingredients.

EXTRA CREDIT!
Key phrases to sweet-talk your instructor.

Italy
"La ricetta è della sua nonna?"
Is this your grandmother's recipe?

Thailand
"Sai prik ig noy, dii mai?"
Perhaps a few more chiles?

France
"Pourriez-vous me conseiller un bon vin?"
Can you recommend a good wine?

U.S.
"You should be on Top Chef."

DRESS CODE DON'TS
Four items not to wear on your first day at school.

Dangling jewelry: Cuisinarts can be cruel.

A sweater: Wouldn't you rather bake the ingredients?

Flip-flops: One dropped rolling pin...

Chef hat: Don't even think about it.

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