Who's Cooking Now?
With the help of cooking schools, it could be you
By Sara Bir
On a Wednesday evening, 15 people from the East Bay, Napa, and even as far down as the Peninsula have gathered at Ramekins, relinquishing prime evening relaxation-at-home time to learn about . . . knife skills?
The youngest person in our class is a very gung-ho lad of 13; the oldest is in his 60s. Only half of us brought our own knives, and some of them are very dull. No worry, though--that's why we're all here, to master (or at least better comprehend) basic knife skills. Most hands-on classes at Ramekins involve cooking an actual meal that the students will sit down and eat at the end of the class, but tonight our rewards will be expertly minced shallots and finely julienned zucchini.
There are many ways to learn about cooking, but when you boil it all down, there's only one way to learn how to cook--and that's by cooking. You can watch the Food Network until your eyeballs fall out, pore over cookbooks as if they were the latest Harry Potter installment, and spend hours in Internet chat rooms, yapping away at the best way to zest a lemon or how long to marinate a steak.
But that's all just prep work. It takes firsthand experience burning a few crêpes, curdling a hollandaise or two, and baking a génoise with all the lightness of a lead brick. People used to learn to cook from other family members (well, many still do), but if your mom and pop's cooking made your family groan, there's still hope--and it comes in many forms. Making mistakes in the presence of a helpful chef-instructor might be embarrassing, but he or she can tell you what went wrong and how to fix it. At home, you're on your own.
2003 Food and Wine Issue
What Chefs Really Eat: Do chefs hoard deep, disturbing food vices? It depends on whom you ask.
Wine Alive: Biodynamic wines, where flaws are welcomed and individuality is coveted.
Life's Too Short: Michele Anna Jordan's philosophy involves eating well and living well.
There are culinary schools, both for professionals and for home cooks, peppering the entire Bay Area. We in the North Bay are lucky to have some of the best ones. And no matter what type of experience you're looking for--intensive, hands-on instruction, celebrity chefs, or low-impact demonstrations with lots of breaks for sipping wine--there's something for everyone.
We're at Ramekins in Sonoma, a school for home cooks that opened in 1998. The school was nominated for an IACP Best Cooking School of the Year 2002 award--a pretty impressive feat for an establishment that's only been around for five years. Ramekins, which is also a bed and breakfast, has two instruction kitchens for both hands-on classes and demonstrations (demos, if you want to sound like an insider). Chef-instructors include both local luminaries like John Ash and Joanne Weir, as well as culinary superstars such as Martin Yan, Mark Miller, and Paula Wolfert.
After a lecture from chef-instructor Charles Vollmar, we proceed to our stations, set up with cutting boards and a potpourri of raw fruits and vegetables. We hack our way through onions, garlic, celery, carrots, cantaloupe, and herbs. Some students dice their vegetables into tidy, uniform little piles of perfection. The guy next to me can't seem to get past the onion, and there's a confetti of misshapen chunks all around his station. When we peel potatoes with paring knives, though, he shines. "I was in the Navy," he says, smiling, "and I had to do this for six months straight."
Even if he doesn't have a knack for handling a knife right off, he's consistently upbeat and enjoying himself--which is the point. A good attitude is the key to coming out of a class enriched. In the end, there are good schools and bad schools, but the important thing to remember is that a bad student at a good school will still wind up being a crummy chef.
Here are some of the many resources to lead eager students on the road to slicing and dicing like a pro.
Beringer Master Series on Food and Wine
More of a fantasy camp than a cooking school, but if you have the bucks and the burning desire, then this one's for you. For the next session on Aug. 1, you can cavort with Jan Birnbaum of Catahoula Restaurant, be a winemaker for a day, and share a glass with Bill and Dawnine Dyer of Dyer Vineyards. 2000 Main St., St. Helena. 707.963.7115. www.beringer.com.
La Buona Forchetta
At the Applewood Inn, indulge fantasies of celebrity chefdom. August offerings include "Pasta, Pasta, Pasta" and "Summer Luncheon Party." 13555 Highway 116, Guerneville. 707.869.9093. www.applewoodinn.com.
Not a cooking school per se, but plenty of demos on a daily basis--many free with admission. 500 First St., Napa. 888.51.COPIA. www.copia.org.
The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone
Unlike the school's East Coast sister campus, Greystone offers just professional development classes and no degree programs, but they do have a baking and pastry certificate course. 2555 Main St., St. Helena. 707.967.1100. www.ciachef.edu/greystone.
The Institute for Educational Therapy
The Natural Chef program trains students to cook healthful cuisine for both home and professional applications. 7981 Old Redwood Hwy., Ste. F, Cotati. 800.987.7530. www.iet.org.
Meadowood Wine Center at Meadowood Resort
More for wine education than cooking, but they do have cooking classes, as well as wine and food seminars for home cooks. 900 Meadowood Lane, St. Helena. 707.963.3636. www.meadowood.com.
Napa Valley Cooking School
An intensive, hands-on professional program led by executive chef Barbara Alexander. The maximum number of students per class is 16, and all students participate in an externship. 1088 College Ave., St. Helena. 707.967.2930. www.napacommunityed.org/cookingschool.
Ramekins Sonoma Valley Culinary School
Corporate classes, winemaker dinners, and culinary tours add great flexibility to Ramekins' programs, plus out-of-towners can stay at the B&B. 450 W. Spain St., Sonoma. 707.933.0450. www.ramekins.com.
Santa Rosa Junior College
Good things have been happening for SRJC's culinary program, who this year moved to a fancy new standalone Culinary Arts Center at 458 B St. in Santa Rosa's Brickyard center. 707.527.4011. www.santarosa.edu.
Sparks Professional Chef Training School
Sparks periodically offers one-day cooking classes and two- to three-day cooking intensives for home cooks, as well as a six-month, three-days-per-week program for people who want to pursue a career in vegan cooking. 16248 Main St., Guerneville. 707.869.8206. www.sparksrestaurant.com.
Mark and Susie Lindsay head this school, which is devoted to Mediterranean cuisine. All classes are held in well-equipped, professional kitchens and are limited to eight students. P.O. Box 732, Corte Madera. 415.924.2551. www.tavolafestiva.com.
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From the July 31-August 6, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.