The Ultimate Guide To Cooking Schools
Published: May 2009
By Shane Mitchell
On a quest to learn to cook like an Italian, <b>Shane Mitchell</b> joins a master chef in the Veneto for classes, vineyard visits, and market tours.<br>
PLUS: 33 more food adventures—from pressing olive oil in Provence to making mole in Mexico
1 Chef Claudio Pecorari is my new kitchen god. Standing in a doorway facing a flagstone courtyard, arms tucked under his tomato-smeared apron, he watches eleven novices clumsily rolling out ravioli and pronounces in his Venetian-inflected English: "Do not attempt to worry." Up to my elbows in sticky focaccia dough, I adopt his offhand coaching as a mantra for this culinary pilgrimage to northern Italy's Veneto region, where I'm hoping to expand my repertoire beyond red sauce and biscotti.
For the next seven days, I share this craving with classmates from Europe, Israel, and the United States. We huddle around steel prep stations at La Foresteria, the converted barnyard annex of a 14th-century estate owned by Count Pieralvise di Serègo Alighieri, a direct descendant of the poet Dante. About 20 minutes outside Verona, La Foresteria has eight modest guest apartments and a modern teaching kitchen. Potted caper shrubs dot a marble-smooth threshing floor. Stone barns are filled with wooden racks of drying grapes harvested from the count's vineyards. (He produces an exceptionally dense, garnet-red Amarone, one of the Valpolicella appellation's aristocratic wines.) Several times a year, the count rents La Foresteria to London-based Tasting Places for its culinary immersion courses.
It has often been said that the best way to comprehend a foreign land is to get its soil under your fingernails. But when it comes to grasping the subtleties of a culture, I'd rather break bread with the farmers and bakers. The next generation of cooking schools makes it possible to share cheese with a goatherd in the French Alps and sip mint tea with a spice merchant in the medina in Marrakesh. That's why I was tempted, despite my garbled Italian, to learn to cook like a Venetian.
Each morning, I wake to church bells ringing in Gargagnago, the village beyond La Foresteria's cypress-lined gates. Then comes my Merchant-Ivory moment. I throw open the shutters and can't help but grin at the view: rows of grapevines surround Casal dei Ronchi, the count's Renaissance-era villa. Downstairs, estate workers laugh over a quick shot of espresso. Tying on a white apron, I head for the warm kitchen. Chef Pecorari lets everyone in the class gravitate toward tasks that spark their interest. While Mary, Beth, and I make the focaccia, Lionel stirs sauces, and Stuart cranks out pasta. With Frank Sinatra crooning "Fly Me to the Moon" on the kitchen's boom box, Pecorari circulates the cutting boards as he adjusts techniques, instructing by anecdote (when kneading pastry dough, "think of your mother-in-law") and discoursing on emblematic Italian ingredients. Who knew there were almost 20 types of ricotta?
The Veneto, bordered by the Adriatic and the Dolomites, has a rich culinary history often overshadowed in American minds by olive oil-drenched Tuscany or pizza-loving Naples. (Tiramisu is the region's most recognized contribution.) Provincial Venetian cuisine was primarily influenced by early sea trade routes—it favors sweet-and-sour combinations (scallops with mint and ginger, stewed tripe with carrots) that could have been shaped only by the republic's ties to Persia and North Africa. Every afternoon, we break away from the kitchen to visit a winery, market, or other Veneto foodie shrine. At the 17th-century rice mill and farm owned by Gabriele Ferron (Italy's reigning risotto maestro) in Isola della Scala, my vocabulary expands with the subtle difference between common arborio and such micro-harvest varieties as stubby Vialone Nano and plump Carnaroli, chewy grains rare outside the Veneto. Later, Pecorari demonstrates how to make risotto al nero di seppia with Ferron's semi-fine Vialone Nano rice and squid ink. He cautions us not to over-stir so as to avoid glutinous results and even shows us a shortcut: instead of removing the ink sacs from fresh cuttlefish, Pecorari uses squid ink packets off the supermercato shelf.
During a shopping expedition to the Caprino Veronese market, everyone in the tiny hill town seems to be showing off a baby, a dog, or a tractor. Women chat at stands selling olives, soppressata, rotisserie chicken, and tiny fried shrimp. Men sip caffè corretto (espresso with a shot of grappa). Neatly dressed members of a Venetian pride organization hand out pamphlets touting the region's agriturismo.
Back at the estate, the class gathers at a long table in the count's tasting room to sample the day's lesson (pasta e fagioli, pappardelle with hare sauce) paired with local vintages. Alighieri's single-estate Recioto is a knockout with Pecorari's chocolate-almond torta. Pity I'm not allowed to take more than two bottles on the flight home.
We make only one outing to Venice, 90 miles away, but it starts gloriously at the fish market on Campo de le Beccarie near the Rialto Bridge. Seafood has been sold in this spot for almost 500 years; under stone columns supported by decorative monkfish, fishmongers display ice-packed trays of scallops, spider crabs, and schilie, the minuscule gray shrimp that inhabit Venice's lagoon. Men in knee-high rubber boots and plastic aprons off-load crates from motorized gondolas. Pecorarihaggles with a stocky lady monger: veraci clams for spaghettini alle vongole, mussels and cuttlefish for zuppa di pesce. I beg him to buy silvery sardines so he can teach me a native favorite—sarde in saor (marinated sardines with sautéed onions and raisins), a humble sailor's staple that perfectly embodies the nexus of Venetian cuisine.
On our final day, the class heads for Verona, where we watch the regional chapter of Movimento Raeliano trying to convince pedestrians that aliens have landed in the Piazza Bra. Restaurants lining the city's main square advertise pastissada de caval, or horsemeat stew. The Veronese eat my friend Flicka. Pecorari explains that it's an ancient practice. I'm not sold, so I settle for Verona's other specialty: baci di Giulietta, meringue cookies (chocolate for Romeo, vanilla for Juliet), which honor the city's fictional lovers.
For our last supper, we cast off splotchy aprons for Giorgio Soave's Groto de Corgnan in neighboring Sant'Ambrogio. I watch my classmates try the chef's exquisite lardo stagionato, thin slivers of pure pork fat drizzled with Valpolicella olive oil, for the first time. It's an acquired taste but they don't hold back. Immersion, finito.
Tasting Places, 877/695-2469; www.tastingplaces.com; from $3,150.
SHANE MITCHELL is a contributing editor for Travel + Leisure.
Learn from English-speaking experts, browse ethnic markets, and savor the local cuisine and the culture. Here, 14 more cooking schools, from Sicily to Shibuya.
2 SICILY | 5 DAYS
Devotees of authentic melanzane a cotoletta (breaded eggplant) and involtini di pesce spada (swordfish rolls) can learn the ropes from cookbook author Anna Tasca Lanza at Casa Vecchie, her family's winery outside Palermo. Guests stay in converted farm houses and take trips to observe shepherds hand-pressing cheese (ricotta originated in Sicily), to shop at a market in the village of Vallelunga, and to lunch at a mountain trattoria. Lanza prepares an elaborate final feast of Sicilian specialties. PALERMO, ITALY; 39-092/154-4011; www.absoluteitalia.com; FROM $2,790.
3 BRITTANY | 7 DAYS
Seafood is the focus of a "Liaisons Délicieuses" apprenticeship in the kitchens at La Ville Blanche restaurant on the Granite Coast near the Gulf of St.-Malo. Star chefs Daniel and Jean-Yves Jaguin share regional cooking secrets (pollack and green asparagus, brill with pickled radish, roasted local lobster). Expect trips to an oyster farm for briny belons or shopping for globe artichokes at the Lannion marché. In the evenings, head "home" to the 18th-century Château de Kerivon, where your host, Viscount Gérald Rogon de Carcaradec, doesn't skimp on the champagne cocktails. 877/966-1810 OR 202/966-1810; www.cookfrance.com; FROM $3,390.
4 PROVENCE | 1-4 DAYS
La Mirande lures top local chefs for star turns at Le Marmiton, a cooking atelier set in the hotel's rustic 19th-century kitchen. Cuisine de grand-mère expert Frédérique Feraud-Esperandieu goes earthy with eggplant tarte Tatin, while Mas des Herbes Blanches's Eric Sapet prefers ris de veau (sweetbreads). Luckily, you won't have far to travel after a three-course homage to tomatoes or foie gras with cèpes rotis by Jean-André Charial—the hotel's toile-filled guest rooms are only steps away. La Mirande's own Jérôme Verrière will introduce you to his secret sources for local honey, olive oil, and herbes de Provence. 800/553-5090; www.chateauxhotels.com; FROM $120.
5 ENGLAND | 1-4 DAYS
Anglophiles with a clotted-cream fixation can lord it up at Swinton Park. The 30-room castle-hotel is the new home of TV chef Rosemary Shrager, a cheery advocate of modern British cookery who still loves "fat rascals" (currant-studded tea cakes). Classes revolve around a massive Aga stove (an oil-heated, cast-iron marvel) and a newly restored, four-acre walled kitchen garden. The four-day course kicks off with a classic English tea. Whether your sessions focus on game or fish, you can spend afternoons tooling around the 20,000-acre estate and trout farm in a Land Rover, or else head to nearby Masham for a pint of Old Peculier ale from Theakston's Brewery. 44-1765/680-900; www.swintonpark.com; FROM $175.
6 SPAIN | 7-10 DAYS
Despite Catalonia's current flirtation with seaweed foam and liquid ravioli, Jonathan Peret and Alicia Juanpere remain preservationists at heart. At Can Miquelet del Mano, a restored stone house in the Priorat, the couple imparts valuable history lessons along with epicurean ones. Morning outings to vineyards, olive groves, and castles of Knights Templars are paired with afternoon instruction exploring early Roman and Moorish influences on Catalan fish stew, esqueixada (salt cod salad), and quail with black sausage sautéed in rancid wine. 800/601-5008 OR 941/723-7588; www.catacurian.com; FROM $2,480.
7 MOROCCO | 10 DAYS
Come with gastronome Peggy Markel to the casbah. During the Feast for the Senses tour in Marrakesh, ethnobotanist Gary Martin shares the history of North Africa's herb and spice trades. Chef Baija, of the 10-room Jnane Tamsna guesthouse in Marrakesh's La Palmeraie oasis, will hold daily lessons on couscous, tagine, kefta (meatballs), hand-ground ras al hanout spice mix, and bread baking in a Berber clay oven. (After hours, lounge by the villa's torchlit pool.) Students also go for wild-caper hunts in the Ouirgane Valley and hikes among walnut groves in the Atlas Mountains. And don't miss the chance to sip mint tea while browsing for mosaic tableware at Meryanne Loum-Martin's Ryad Tamsna gallery. 800/988-2851 OR 303/413-1289; www.peggymarkel.com; FROM $3,895.
8 NEW ORLEANS | 1-5 DAYS
Let the good times roll during a jambalaya session with Creole expert Frank Brigtsen, a James Beard Award winner and disciple of Paul Prudhomme. The New Orleans Cooking Experience concentrates on Big Easy standards: crawfish étouffée, filé gumbo, trout meunière. Five-course meals are served in the formal dining room, wine cellar, or garden. On Saturdays, the class hits the Crescent City farmers' market or plays Bubba Gump on a local shrimp trawler. NOCE's Judy Jurisich, a New Orleans native, will also steer you to the French Quarter's best B&B's and jazz joints. 504/522-4955; www.neworleanscookingexperience.com; FROM $150.
9 SEATTLE | 1 DAY
The Puget Sound is ringed with small organic farms, so spend a day at Persephone Farm with Northwest Essentials Cookbook author Greg Atkinson. You'll gather the freshest vegetables and berries for a four-course meal (corn pudding, fresh pea soup, a goat cheese sampler, berry tartlets) in a converted barn at Farm Kitchen, west of downtown Seattle. Or join Atkinson for the annual Winter Oyster Bash (January), when you wade in the waters at Taylor Shellfish Farm to gather native Olympias and eat them alfresco with chilled Northwest Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc. Atkinson will show you how to shuck, steam, and grill your own bivalves over an open flame. 206/842-5756; www.northwestessentials.com; FROM $95.
10 MEXICO | 7 DAYS
In the colonial city of Puebla, noted chef-historian Ricardo Muñoz and author Marilyn Tausend explore Latin America's original fusion cuisine. The Culinary Adventures trip pays homage to 16th-century Spanish nuns who first made mole poblano in the Santa Rosa convent; it then ventures to Huaquechula to honor eccentric Day of the Dead rituals. Stuff chiles en nogada (pork and fruit with walnut sauce) in a private kitchen, visit the Cacaxtla ruins, and tipple fermented pulque (a tequila predecessor once brewed by thirsty Aztecs) at a barbacoa feast. Since you'll be staying in a converted convent (Hotel Camino Real Puebla), do your best to avoid immodest renditions of "La Cucaracha" in the hallways. 253/851-7676; www.marilyntausend.com; FROM $2,700.
11 PERU | 7 DAYS
We say "potato," Peruvians say "papa." Of course, the former Incan empire has culinary cred beyond its native tuber. Let's not forget Nobu Matsuhisa, Lima's best-known export, as well as pisco sour cocktails and ceviche. Start your Andean expedition with Peruvian classics—lomo saltado, arroz con pato, and causa limeña—at Lima's Le Cordon Bleu, and finish with Nobu's mentor, chef Humberto Sato, at his Japanese-Latin restaurant Costanera 700. For something to show the folks back home, learn how to layer a pachamanca. This ancient Andean barbecue is made by roasting meat over hot stones and banana leaves in a covered pit. 866/645-2846; www.latindestinations.com; FROM $1,843.
12 INDIA | 3 DAYS
If you don't know your biryani from your vindaloo, culinary guru Saurav Banerjee will point the way to enlightenment. At Vanyavilas, a luxury tent camp in northern India's Ranthambore Game Reserve, he presides over a professional kitchen where a piquant mix of Rajasthani, Hyderabadi, and Avadhi cuisines reflect the region's Spice Route influences. Help prepare nalli gosht (lamb shank simmered in onion-tomato gravy), dal makhani (black lentils with fenugreek), and akha palak (spinach with cumin and garlic). One morning is devoted to bread-baking and home cooking with the women of Sawai Madhopur village. 800/562-3764; www.oberoihotels.com; FROM $150.
13 BALI | 1 DAY
At Amandari in Ubud, chef Michael Goodman opens the door to Balinese life with an early-morning trip across the Ayung River Gorge to the locals-only Blahkiuh market. Here you haggle for prized black rice, green papayas, and galingale, which will find their way into spicy curries made at an 18th-century family compound in the Bongkasa village. Guests sip sweet Kopi Bali (coffee) before learning to grind spicy sambal pastes and preparing gulai ayam (chicken curry) or babi guling (roast suckling pig) in an open charcoal stove. After a house temple offering (the Balinese equivalent of saying grace), lunch is served in an open-air bale above the jungle gorge. 800/477-9180; www.amanresorts.com; FROM $130.
14 THAILAND | 6 DAYS
Four Seasons Chiang Mai chef Pitak Srichan turns up the heat in a teak kitchen pavilion above northern Thailand's Mae Rim valley. Red chiles, fermented fish sauce, and curry paste—key ingredients of 16th-century royal Thai cuisine—spark Srichan's practical lessons on pork spare rib soup and banana-blossom shrimp salad. Ice-cold Singha beer helps extinguish flames during tastings, but you'll want to keep a steady hand for the fruit and vegetable carving session that follows. Pick up etiquette tips during a fingers-only Khantoke dinner of sticky rice and minced meats. On a foray to the bustling Tanin market, don't miss the region's famous sausages and fiery bird's-eye chiles—one packet will last a lifetime. 800/332-3442; www.fourseasons.com; FROM $435.
15 TOKYO | 1 DAY
In a country that has dozens of words for rice, food writer Elizabeth Andoh's Taste of Culture is ideal for visitors. A frequent lecturer on both sides of the Pacific, she conducts market tours that include depachika, or department store food halls, to deconstruct Tokyo's more puzzling snacks. Head to Tokyu Food Show in the Shibuya train station for osouzai (deli takeout) such as sautéed hijiki (a calcium-rich sea vegetable) and broiled kabuto (fish heads), or enter the miso boutique at Takashimaya (Futako Tamagawa branch), which has more than 70 varieties of artisanal fermented soy paste. Andoh will introduce you to such savory treats as kombu ame (kelp candy) and pressed rice omusubi, Japan's answer to PB&J. www.tasteofculture.com; FROM $50.
'At Faith Willinger's house [Florence; www.faithwillinger.com], we cooked in a pan made of solid silver. It conducts heat better than copper—Italians are obsessed with it'
'At La Varenne [Burgundy; www.lavarenne.com], Anne Willan will have you out there first thing in the morning milking goats and making cheese'
'I'm fascinated by Japanese cooking. Toshi Sugira of California Sushi Academy [Venice; www.sushi-academy.com] teaches 100 ways to prepare bluefin toro'
International Wine Academy of Roma
Daily tastings, half-day courses, and master classes on Italy's great producers in an intimate setting above the Spanish Steps. 8 VICOLO DEL BOTTINO, ROME; 39-06/699-0878; www.wineacademyroma.com; $25 membership fee
Beringer Master Series on Food & Wine
Meet Napa's top vintners and chefs during one-on-one cellar tours, dinners, and "make your own" wine-blending sessions. ST. HELENA, CALIF.; 707/967-4451; www.beringer.com; from $95
Cakebread Cellars Wine-Food Experience
Why settle for a boring wine tour?Jack and Dolores Cakebread will arrange wine-and-appetizer pairings based on recipes from their new cookbook. RUTHERFORD, CALIF.; 800/588-0298; www.cakebread.com; from $20
Wine merchants from Morrell & Co. pick South Africa's best vintages during a pampered eight-day tasting trip in the Stellenbosch region—with stays at many of the Cape's most luxurious hotels. CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA; 800/992-2003; www.travcoa.com; from $6,295
Howqua Dale Gourmet Cycling Tour
Take to the road on a six-day cycling trip around Oz's premier wine regions, with overnights at B&B's along the route. ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA; 800/504-9842; www.gourmetontour.com; from $2,300
Four Seasons Palm Beach
Play hooky with chef Hubert Des Marais on a half-day deep-sea-fishing expedition for amberjack and snapper in the Gulf Stream. An advocate of sustainable fisheries, he shows you filleting techniques and discusses piscine preservation. Back at the restaurant, he'll cook your catch of the day as you look on. PALM BEACH; 800/432-2335 OR 561/582-2800; www.fourseasons.com; from $625
Mansion on Turtle Creek
Grill and chill with Dean Fearing at his summer barbecue bash on July 10. If you can't stand the Texas heat, hold your horses until his "Hands-on Experience" classes kick in again this fall. DALLAS; 800/527-5432 OR 214/559-2100; www.mansiononturtlecreek.com; from $125
Spend an evening with Chef John Besh in the penthouse above his kitchen, where he'll reveal secret recipes for signature dishes such as pork belly and lobster choucroute during a five-course, hands-on extravaganza. NEW ORLEANS; 504/299-9777; www.restaurantaugust.com; from $1,250, including stay
Rising Berkshires star J. Bryce Whittlesey collaborates with guest pastry chef Bill Yosses of Citarella for a course devoted to all things chocolate. Truffles, molten cakes, and ganache are certainly worth the sugar rush. LENOX, MASS.; 413/637-0610; www.wheatleigh.com; from $125
Home Hill Inn
Seasonal cooking weekends with chef Victoria du Roure. Make bouillabaisse, veal stew, pissaladière, and pastries from her Provençal-inflected menu. PLAINFIELD, N.H.; 603/675-6165; www.homehillinn.com; from $1,380
Château du Sureau
Chef James Overbaugh and wine director Chris Shackelford host new No-Cal "cook your own" lunch seminars at Erna's Elderberry House restaurant. OAKHURST, CALIF.; 559/683-6860; www.chateausureau.com; $230
Villa San Michele School of Cookery
Tag along with a princess to study Tuscan entertaining during behind-the-scenes palazzo visits. The guest chef series also highlights regional wines, cheese, and pastry. FLORENCE; 800/237-1236 OR 39-055/567-8200; www.villasanmichele.com; from $975
Claridge's Masterclass Programme
Whip up a cream tea, champagne cocktails, or canapés in half-day Saturday tutorials at this Art Deco temple of Brit gastronomy. LONDON; 800/637-2869 OR 44-207/629-8860; www.claridges.co.uk; $130
The Peninsula Hong Kong
At the hotel's Spring Moon restaurant, a master will guide you in the Art of Chinese Tea. Explore rare white, green, and oolong varieties, proper brewing techniques, and tea ceremony rituals. 800/223-6800 OR 852/2920-2888; www.peninsula.com; from $13
Culinary Institute of America
The Harvard of cooking schools, with campuses in Hyde Park, New York, and the Napa Valley. Enroll in the Boot Camp program for intensive training. 800/285-4627 OR 845/452-9600; www.ciachef.edu; from $160
École Ritz Escoffier
If you want to learn formal French cuisine, this academy is the place. The hotel also has theme workshops and short-term courses. PARIS; 888/801-1126 OR 33-1/43-16-30-50; www.ritzparis.com; from $60
French Culinary Institute
A star-studded faculty (André Soltner, Jacques Pépin, Jacques Torres) oversees culinary, bread, and pastry art programs, as well as skill-building short courses for home chefs.NEW YORK; 888/324-2433 OR 212/219-8890; www.frenchculinary.com; from $895
Institute of Culinary Education
Offers career training in culinary arts, pastry, and restaurant management, and informal courses like wine appreciation and baking. NEW YORK; 800/522-4610 OR 212/847-0700; www.iceculinary.com; from $85
Le Cordon Bleu
With 25 institutes in 15 countries, this school has fusion cuisine covered. In Paris, the Four Seasons Hotel George V "French Culinary Adventure" combines a quickie (English-speaking) course with a Left Bank market tour. 800/457-2433; www.cordonbleu.edu; from $430
Southern Foodways Alliance
A valuable resource for American culinary traditions. Director John T. Edge says the annual three-day symposium at Ole Miss is "like a tent meeting for the true believers of Southern food."
OXFORD, MISS.; 662/915-5993; www.southernfoodways.com; $375
This sleek cultural museum/education center has daily epicurean seminars, exhibitions, two weekly farmers' markets, and a restaurant dedicated to Julia Child. NAPA, CALIF.; 888/512-6742 or 707/259-1600; www.copia.org; FROM $12.50
This organization's worldwide chapters arrange field trips and fare fests. The biannual Salone del Gusto in Turin is foodie heaven. 212/965-5640; www.slowfoodusa.org; FROM $25