Okay, I admit it: once I’m home, it’s difficult to get me back out. Of course, there are exceptions. The promise of good food is always an enticement. Learning something new is another. So, I’ve never regretted attending cooking classes.
“You learn the how and why that go unexplained in most recipes,” says Dan Cheung, the owner and co-founder of Nourish, a company that offers cooking classes in Vancouver. “Things like how hot a frying oil should be or why it’s best to use a spoon to peel ginger.”
Knives pose another challenge. “Most people don’t know how to properly sharpen and use a knife, which is why a paramedic friend of mine sees more cuts than any other accident,” Cheung says. “We make knife skills a part of every class because they make cooking safer, faster and everything looks and tastes better when you know how to professionally dice an onion or julienne carrots.”
Cheung and his wife, Abbey, opened Nourish after reading Michael Pollan’s best-selling The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which helped them understand the strain that a typical North American diet puts on both human health and the environment. “We show people how to prepare delicious, healthy meals that are mainly plant-based,” Cheung explains. “People have the option to add meat or another protein, but perhaps in a smaller quantity or less often, so it’s healthier and more sustainable for the planet.”
Starting with always-popular French and Italian cooking lessons, Nourish has since branched out to include Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and Middle Eastern cuisine based on student feedback. “If an ingredient is difficult to source, I find a replacement,” Cheung says.
Nourish also holds classes for children and their parents or grandparents. “I love that we’re reconnecting families with the art of cooking, instead of relying on fast or prepackaged food that can be full of salt and sugar,” he says. “The main goal is to have fun, which is the case judging from the smiles we see.”
“Fun is number one,” says Marina Mellino, the owner and founder of the Spice Chica in Calgary. “I always break the ice with my humorous food adventures and within five minutes, everyone is laughing as they share their own good – and bad – food experiences at home or while travelling.”
Tricks of the trade are a main reason people turn out even on a blustery night. “For instance, I show people how to make my signature gnocchi with ricotta cheese with three simple ingredients and just one or two tools,” Mellino says.
Saffron, garlic and oregano transport her back to her childhood in Argentina, where she learned to cook from her Russian-Italian grandmother. Unable to find Nonna’s wonderful spice blends in Canada, Mellino has concocted her own – always experimenting to add inventive, healthful twists. “Beet powder, for instance, is great with olive oil and lemon for a salad dressing,” she says.
The Italian-cooking classes fill quickly with people eager to prepare comfort food. French cuisine remains the stalwart for learning classic techniques. Other food cultures are generating greater interest, too. “Our Mexican classes are popular because people want to know how to make tasty guacamole,” Mellino says. “And we make our tortillas from corn, which is great for anyone with a gluten intolerance.”
Empanada-making is another favourite activity. “We spend a lot of time learning how to make those wonderful folds so they stay closed,” Mellino says, adding that virtually every culture has some version of an empanada. Think samosas, pierogis, calzones, roti and Jamaican patties.
Toronto’s multicultural character also sparks a steady demand for lessons in international cuisine. A popular school is the Dish Cooking Studio, where owner Pam Pridham delights in sharing her passion for global cooking and travel. “It’s so much fun to discover something new and outside the North American palate,” she says.
Cooking lessons at Dish are complemented by a café where people can taste what they’d like to learn and can later purchase featured ingredients. “If you need lemongrass for a Thai dish or preserved lemons for Moroccan food, we have all that,” Pridham says. “If you don’t have time to make a reduction, we have that ready for you, too.”
Classes vary from the one called Own the Kitchen, in which students learn to make every aspect of a simple three-course meal, to skills classes that are more like chef school and provide the know-how for using a knife or making various pastas from scratch.
Having fun while doing good is possible with the Pay It Forward classes. “You not only prepare comfort food for your group, but additional meals for a local shelter,” Pridham says.
Dish Cooking Studio simmers with new ideas, such as the Yoga + Brunch sessions taught by a yoga instructor with a flair for vegetarian fare, or the Cooking with Bourbon class. “We tend to offer the more exotic classes – Japanese, Argentinian, Balinese – on Friday nights as a great way to ‘travel’ without leaving the city,” Pridham adds.
“Food is fashion,” she says. “If you don’t keep up with trends, you quickly become outdated in this business. Dish has been around for more than 20 years because we know the classics but make a point of staying current.”
Ateliers & Saveurs is another cooking studio always thinking outside the pantry box. Founded in Old Montreal, it offers cooking courses, wine tasting sessions, and cocktail lessons that have become so popular, they’ve led to the opening of schools in the city’s Plateau Mont Royal neighbourhood, Quebec City and soon Laval.
Classes for tapas, antipasti, or three-course meals that would impress any guest often have a waiting list. So do sessions that feature wine-tasting basics or mixology, such as the tequila three ways with complementing appetizers.
“You not only learn the basic skills, but have a unique, fun experience,” says Nicolas Bernault, Atelier & Saveurs’s marketing director. “We enjoy a lot of repeat business with people returning to try new things each time.”
The new stuff might include preparing a “Bon Brunch” that begins with mimosas and features butternut squash soup, pancetta chips, and duck skewers with sautéed fingerling potatoes. Yum!
“Our Midi Express, with a price staring at $20, is hugely popular,” Bernault adds. “You spend 30 minutes learning how to prepare a meal and then enjoy it as your lunch.”
Scheduled classes are currently in French only (what better way to improve language skills?), but English can be arranged for groups.
Now, I’m hungry… •
Ateliers & Saveurs
Nourish Cooking School
The Spice Chica