America's Best Cooking Schools

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The latest hot travel trend: cooking school vacations

While serious foodies may think the Food Network's dueling Iron Chefs and Emeril's incessant exhortations ("Let's kick it up a notch!") will have a lot to answer for in that great six-burner kitchen in the sky, cooking school administrators acknowledge that these shows have sparked unprecedented interest in learning how to cook. If you add to that development a dollop of post-9/11 hankering to stay close to home and get back to old-fashioned nurturing, you've got a recipe for the latest hot travel trend: cooking school vacations.

"This will be our biggest year yet for attendance in amateur classes," says Richard Smilow, president of the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE, formerly Peter Kump's Cooking School) in its 27th year in New York City. Cooking, once something only your mother did (well, some mothers did), now suddenly seems to have, dare we say it, sex appeal.

"Cooking is a part of the new dating ritual," observes Larry Kaplan, a radiologist from Reading, Pennsylvania, who says that he hopes taking a five-day Asian cooking course at ICE will boost his post-divorce dating prospects. "It's a sensual experience of tastes," Kaplan says, "and it's a way to show caring that's a more intimate gift than taking a date to a restaurant."

And best of all, the growing number of weekend and weeklong cooking vacation packages at inns, B&Bs, and cooking schools are great bargains. The ethnic cooking classes, especially, provide an exotic adventure to foreign lands--without the expense or bother of leaving the United States.

We've picked the highest-quality cooking classes in America that also have the lowest prices available--and better still, are located in places where there's plenty more to do when you take off your apron. Whether for the weekend or the whole week, courses usually follow a similar routine: The chef goes over the recipes the students will tackle that day, offering insight and background on the cuisine, the ingredients, or the techniques required. At the end of class, the students sit down and dine on the fruits of their labor in a luscious multicourse meal, with lots of wine--and no cleaning up. It's one of the most soul-satisfying ways you'll find for getting your hands dirty since mud pies and finger paint--and this time, eating your creations tastes a whole lot better.

New York City:The Institute of Culinary Education (formerly Peter Kump's New York cooking school)

"We offer the widest range of three-, four-, and five-day cooking courses anywhere--we have nine teaching kitchens, open seven days a week, with technique classes in fine cooking, pastry, bread-baking, cake-decorating, and every ethnic cuisine from Italian and Japanese to Thai and Vietnamese," says Richard Smilow, president of ICE, which caters to professionals and amateurs alike.

And a variety of people are attracted to the classes for equally wide-ranging reasons. "We had one woman who used to work in the World Trade Center--and our bread-baking class was the thing that helped her come back to Manhattan without being afraid," Smilow says. Others come for the adventure. The adventure? "I see this cooking class as part of my adventure travel and adult education," says Larry Kaplan (who also hopes it will help his dating odds). "I've done motorcycle racing for a week, hang gliding, just found a bullfighting school. Cooking is not as suicidal--except when we get to the hot chili recipe," Kaplan says at the end of his Asian cooking class.

And the prices are very reasonable, especially for the quality of the instruction. Classes run from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and the school also offers a wide range of single-day workshops ranging in price from $85 to $100. Though the school has no arrangement with local hotels, there are many bargains to be had in New York City, especially in B&Bs, which few people know anything about (see Budget Travel's "New York Rooms Under $100" from the September/October 2001 issue).

Cost: Three-day classes, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., $275-$415; five-day classes, $495; tuition includes snacks, a huge lunch, and wine each day; hotels near the school: Chelsea Hotel, Chelsea Inn, Gramercy Park Hotel. For B&Bs under $100 per night, contact: Affordable New York City, 212/533-4001; City Lights, 212/737-7049;, 212/614-3034; Manhattan Getaways, 212/956-2010; New York Habitat, 212/255-8018.

Contact: The Institute of Culinary Education (formerly Peter Kump's New York Cooking School), 50 W. 23 St., New York, NY 10011, 212/847-0700,

Boulder, Colorado: Cooking School of the Rockies

The 12 students sitting around a huge stainless-steel table next to a vast, gleaming professional kitchen (complete with 12 burners, three ovens, and angled viewing mirror) are sipping fresh coffee, munching on crusty French bread with cream cheese and smoked whitefish as they go around the table explaining why they have come to Boulder to take this five-day course on "Basic Techniques of Cooking."

"My wife wants me to be the cook of the family and my mom didn't cook, so I'm here to learn and maybe even to instill some better eating habits in my kids," says Chris Pritchard, of Louisville, Colorado, near Boulder.

"I don't want to embarrass myself when I entertain," says Mary Delaney, a sales manager for Qwestdex in Denver.

In the classical techniques course, students learn handy tricks like shaping your fingers into a claw so that you slice vegetables without slicing your fingertips, or knowing when meat is properly cooked by using the feel of the flesh in different parts of your hand as a guide. Other special five-day "Cooking Vacations" here (available from April through October) focus on desserts and bread techniques as well as ethnic cuisines such as Asian, Mediterranean, Italian, and more.

For the five-day courses, the $575 tuition includes plenty of eating--breakfast, snacks, and a huge full lunch with wine that rarely leaves you wanting much for dinner. If gazing at the mountains constantly in your line of sight anywhere in Boulder isn't enough for you, here are a few budget tips on local food and fun: Japango sushi restaurant on Pearl Street offers half-price dishes and drinks before 6 p.m., The Med restaurant has $1 tapas midweek from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., and the Basemar Cinema Saver movie theater only charges $3.

Cost: $575 tuition, includes five days of classes, breakfast, snacks, huge full lunch with wine each day.

Contact: Culinary School of the Rockies, 637 S. Broadway, #H, Boulder, CO 80305; 303/494-7988,

How to go & What to do: Fly into Denver and drive 40 minutes to Boulder. Walk off all those calories at the downtown Pearl Street pedestrian mall, where you'll find the Boulder Arts and Crafts Co-op displaying the talent of local artists.

Hudson Valley, New York: Inn to Inn Cooking Vacations

Here you'll find a truly moveable feast. Each day you travel through the lush green Hudson Valley a couple of hours north of New York City, starting with a tour at, perhaps, a local vineyard for a wine-tasting or at a sheepherding farm where a French master cheesemaker explains the process and offers samples.

Then, the main event. Over three days you travel to three different vintage inns where the top chefs and often the pastry chef as well-trained in Europe and at culinary institutes--give you their undivided attention. They take you, hands-on, through the steps for cooking up their favorite four-to-five-course meals. Afterwards, you sit down and savor what you've just helped prepare--along with the chef's selection of wines.

"My wife gave this trip to me as a birthday present--she didn't come, because she can't even boil water," says Roy L. Johnson, Jr., a senior vice president of Bank of Louisville, who had a ball pinching gnocchi in the same way that chef Allen Katz, owner of Allyn's Restaurant, had showed the class of nine.

"I especially liked when Chef Allen sat down with us for the meal and admitted that he had a made a mistake on one of the dishes," Johnson says. "You learn that it's OK, that cooking's not rocket science; it should be creative and fun." Johnson's only regret was that he hadn't allowed enough time beyond the three-day cooking classes to tour the richly historical countryside. "I made a few side trips, to Cold Spring where George Washington camped out, to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown (two hours away), and to a very old cemetery," he says. "But I wish I had known that West Point was only ten miles away." That's why he's coming back as soon as possible. "Next time I'll take my wife," Johnson says. "She won't attend the cooking lessons, but she'll love exploring the Hudson Valley."

Cost: Three-day classes, Tuesday to Thursday (or weekends in winter) limited to 8-12 people; $380 includes snacks, huge lunches, wine; participants get 10-percent or greater discounts at the following vintage Inns: Aubergine, The Grand Dutchess, Le Chambord, starting as low as $85 per couple per night.

Contact: Maren Rudolph, President, Vintage Hudson Valley, provider of Inn to Inn Cooking Vacations, P.O. Box 288, Irvington, NY 10533, 914/591-4503,

How to go & What to do: The cheapest flights are usually into Albany International Airport, though Stewart Airport is closer to most of the inns. The region's attractions include West Point, Baseball Hall of Fame (Cooperstown), the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival in Garrison, Vassar College art gallery (free), Bardavan Theater in Poughkeepsie, the Olde Rhinebeck Airdrome (Rhinebeck), and the Vanderbilt and Franklin D. Roosevelt estates in Hyde Park.

Walloon Lake Village, Michigan: Fonds Du Cuisine Cooking School

"Our name means 'the fundamentals of food,' so we focus on good foods, simply cooked," explains David Beier, chef and owner of the Fonds Du Cuisine Cooking School at Michigan's Walloon Lake Inn. Beier, who trained with European chefs and worked in 18 restaurants, has been teaching "techniques, rather than recipes" for the last 18 years.

"You can get recipes on the Internet, but I teach how to thicken a sauce, sharpen a knife, braise, saute, how you can get organized in the kitchen and make the most of the few hours you have there, techniques that allow you to look at any recipe and be successful," Beier says.

The series of classes is very intimate, usually about four to six people, so everybody can be involved in cooking an entire meal. The four hours of daily instruction (from Sunday to Thursday, October through March) are an intensive but highly sociable experience.

"The view on the lake here is beautiful--and the students usually drain the wine bottle at the three-course midday meal they share," Beier says with a laugh. Those who don't go to their rooms for a nap can spend the rest of the afternoons in the beautiful outdoors. The inn is situated right on the 35-mile, turquoise, sandy-bottomed Walloon Lake, just a few miles from some of the best downhill (and cross-country) skiing in Michigan, and less than a mile from Lake Michigan. In winter there is also ice-skating (indoor and outdoor rinks) or snowshoeing. In spring, there's morel hunting.

Cost: $400 per person (double occupancy); $440 for a single, includes four days (16 hours) of classes, four nights at the inn, breakfast, and a huge lunch/dinner daily; classes run from Sunday to Thursday, October through March excluding the holidays (though Chef Beier is willing to adapt the timing to suit groups).

Contact: David Beier, owner and chef, Fonds Du Cuisine Cooking School at Walloon Lake Inn, P.O. Box 459 Walloon Lake Village, MI 49796, 800/956-4665,

How to go & What to do: The closest airport is PLN in Pellston, Michigan, 45 minutes away; Traverse City Airport (TVC) is 75 minutes. Skiing, ice-skating, hiking at your doorstep.

Oakland, California: The Art of Thai Cooking

Loha-unchit grew up in Thailand, learning her country's subtle spicing and techniques at her mother's side. She has been teaching cooking classes in California since 1985 and has written two books: Dancing Shrimp: Favorite Thai Recipes for Seafood and It Rains Fishes: Legends, Traditions and the Joy of Thai Cooking. Her classes are as complex as the flavors of her native land.

"I teach about harmonizing flavors-blending hot, sour, sweet, salty, aromatic, bitter, astringent--all the aspects of taste," Loha-unchit explains. "I don't separate the food from the culture, so people get a cultural experience here, too. It's creative; it's casual--like having a group of friends over to your house," she says.

And that is, in fact, what Loha-unchit is doing, as she teaches the classes out of her home. "The kitchen is cozy," says Dallas resident Gregg Stone, director of business development for a software company. It's not what he expected when he first came to Kasma's class last summer, but he soon realized the homey setting was a plus. "I think the fact that it was a normal kitchen (with the added feature of a second gas range and an assistant to help clean up) took some of the mystique out of the cooking process--and it kept the cost down," Stone says. "The price was very reasonable--you can't believe how stuffed with fresh ingredients her refrigerator was for that class each day."

The tuition includes all-day classes, preparation of five to seven dishes a day, meals throughout the day, and food field trips. "Kasma took us to an outdoor Oriental farmer's market and to Oriental grocery stores in Oakland," Stone says. "We jumped the BART and went to San Francisco's Chinatown. And I went to a grocery store in Berkeley called the Berkeley Bowl--an old bowling alley converted to a grocery store with a produce section second to none." Though accommodation is not included, there are B&Bs and hotels within walking distance of the class.

What does Loha-unchit want students to take away with them (besides some good Thai green chili curry paste)? "I want them to see that cooking is therapeutic," she says. "Working with ingredients is tactile; if you focus on the senses and the process rather than the results--and you keep tasting and making adjustments, you don't have to worry about the results. It will always be good."

Cost: The $500 tuition includes five days of classes (with a maximum of 12 students) in summer only (though single classes run March through October), from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., field trips to Asian markets, breakfast, snacks, lunch, and wine; Kasma has a list of nearby B&Bs and motels starting as low as $65 per night. Kasma also takes groups on cooking tours of Thailand: $3,350 for 28 days, including airfare from the West Coast.

Contact: Kasma Loha-unchit, P.O. Box 21165, Oakland, CA 94620, 510/655-8900,

How to go & What to do: San Francisco is 20 minutes away; you don't have to rent a car--Kasma picks students up from the Bart station one mile away. Five-day classes are also available, but only during summer months.

Essex, Vermont: Whisk Away Weekends at the New England Culinary Institute

Though the New England Culinary Institute (NECI) offers a rigorous professional training program, its weekend packages are decidedly low-key. There's only one main cooking class (though you can pay extra and take another). The rest of the time you spend eating at the Institute's two excellent restaurants, kicking back in the school's award-winning country Inn at Essex, and enjoying Vermont's scenic countryside and the towns of Montpelier and Burlington.

"I've always enjoyed cooking but I never cooked with my girlfriend - so we went together and had a great time," says Mike Bruno, director of online marketing at iMarket inc. in Waltham, Massachusetts. "And the food at Butler's [the Institute's fine dining establishment where the advanced second-year student-chefs cook] was four-star," Bruno says.

As for the price for the weekend, Cathy Whalen, a high school teacher from Plattsburgh, New York, who went with her mother, says at first she thought the rate was high. "But after we went, we both thought it was quite reasonable for what you get--the Butler Inn was the best food I've ever had in my life--and the Sunday brunch buffet..." Cathy sighs at the memory. "I thought the students must have worked for a week on it." The price covers two nights at the inn, two dinners, continental breakfasts, a huge Sunday brunch--"and in our room, there was a gift of a chef's hat and apron waiting for us," says Bruno.

Though you spend less time in class instruction than at other schools, you get many opportunities to think about and watch food preparation. "At the NECI Commons restaurant (where first-year student-chefs toil) there are windows so you can watch the students preparing the foods in the kitchen. I watched them do desserts," Bruno says.

Cost: Chef Inn Training: $189 a couple for a three-course dinner demonstration.

Contact: The Inn at Essex, The New England Culinary Institute, 70 Essex Way, Essex, VT 05452, 800/727-4295 (ask for reservations),

How to go & What to do: Burlington International Airport is minutes away, with a free shuttle to the inn. Nearby there's the University of Vermont, Shelburne (art) Museum, several downhill ski areas and golf courses, scenic cruises and fishing on Lake Champlain, and Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream Factory (closed on Sunday).

Quakertown, Pennsylvania: Cooking at The Inn at Turtle Pond

"Your vacation begins with a dinner I prepare for your arrival on Friday evening," chef and host Una Maderson explains. And that's just for starters. Saturday morning, after a breakfast of juice, fruit, yogurt, homemade granola, and quick breads, you roll up your sleeves in her fabulous kitchen, with huge windows overlooking a two-acre lake and 24 acres. Maderson specializes in Mediterranean/Middle Eastern, Asian, and vegetarian foods but will tailor the cooking to her students' needs.

"I bought the weekend for my husband as a birthday gift--I just went along and hung out, walking the trails around the lake, and I got to eat the wonderful food," says Kathy Williams of Teays Valley, West Virginia. "Una has a wonderful log house--she and her husband are so interesting and cultured," Williams says, "it was more than my husband and I imagined it could be. I can't wait to go back." "She made me feel a lot more confident as a cook," adds Dean Williams, a land management professional. "I was always intimidated by fresh herbs--how to prepare them and use them. And I never would have considered undertaking puff pastry before. But Una is very patient and knowledgeable," Williams says.

Cost: $330 includes two nights at the inn, two days of classes, and all meals.

Contact: Turtle Pond, Inc., 210 Axehandle Rd., Quakertown, PA 18951-4904, 215/538-2564, Web address:

How to go & What to do: Turtle Pond is 90 miles west of New York City and 45 miles north of Philadelphia; airports include Philadelphia International Airport, 45 minutes away, and Allentown (ABE airport--Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton), 25 minutes away. Nearby towns offer hot-air ballooning, an antiques center, and the year-round Main Street Theatre. New Hope, about a 20-minute drive east, on the Delaware River, is full of art-and-antiques shops. Doylestown, the county seat, a 25-minute drive south, is home to the James A. Michener Art Museum, the famously eclectic Mercer Museum, and the Moravian Tile Works.

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