One of the first things I do when planning a trip is to find a cooking class. It seems like the best way to get to know my destination. Food tells the story of a place: its history, culture, geography, and resources.
Besides, I have to eat. What better way than to participate in preparing my own meal? Learning about the ingredients before setting out to chop, stir, bake, or whatever I’m instructed to do, helps me appreciate what’s involved. It’s almost always harder than it looks.
Paris Cooking Class…where it all began!
My favorite kind of cooking class is when we shop before starting, letting the markets and shops decide the menu. That happened in Paris, where the meal included a bit of horse meat–lean and tasty, cooked with bacon–and tiny yellow Mirabelle plums that became a scrumptious tart. Both are unavailable in the United States (horse meat is illegal, Mirabelles are only from Lorraine, France) so the class was a way to experience foods that I’d never get to try without traveling. Unpasteurized cheese? Oui!
Since the class was in English, I met fellow tourists and we chatted about our time in Paris, sharing tips and recommending restaurants as we blended dough, whipped cream, and sautéd onions. We then shared a four-course meal, accompanied by wines that never leave France.
Now I “collect” meals and recipes when I travel
Paris was my first international cooking class, but after that, I was hooked. Here are a few other places where I’ve happily joined others to create a meal. I’ve also been the only “sous-chef,” getting undivided attention and special tastings of foods too expensive for a group.
Dominica: On a cruise excursion, we bumped up a steep mountain in the rain forest, arriving at an open-air kitchen for a lesson on Caribbean cooking. The delightful and sassy instructor–helped by local women–promptly put everyone to work, ignoring protests from the men who claimed to have zero kitchen skills. In fact, she gave them the hardest tasks. Me? I cut bananas and halved grapefruit.
It was all in good fun, helped by samples of all kinds of rum. After cooking, we all sat down to stew, fried fish, beans & rice, and a fresh salad. Baked citrus for dessert. The meal was delicious, washed down with fresh fruit juice and the local Kubuli beer.
After we ate, we wandered the grounds, admiring the mountains and lush greenery. As we descended back to the port, everyone agreed that it had been a morning to remember.
Naples: I already told you a little about my pizza class in the city where pizza was born. What I didn’t explain was how much fun it was to be the only student in the restaurant’s small kitchen, being taught by a non-English speaking pizzaiuoli, a master of the craft. Thankfully, his assistant spoke just enough English to help out, but mostly, it was gestures and facial expressions. My instructor handed me a tattered recipe for the crust and a sheet of paper to copy it. I punched the dough he’d started the day before, tried to copy the famous “toss” and failed miserably. We both laughed
That brick oven was HOT! It took just a minute to bake my authentic pizza. After, I sat outside and was served. The chef brought out so many tastes of local foods, I couldn’t eat much of my pizza. No worries…even though “doggie bags” aren’t really acceptable in Europe, they made sure I took the leftovers, plus a variety of desserts. All this for less than 50 Euros.
New Orleans: Don’t think you have to cross an ocean to enjoy a cooking class. NOLA is a serious food city. You’d be missing out if you didn’t spend a morning at the New Orleans School of Cooking, learning to make the Cajun/Creole classics. Here, I sat at a big table with six other foodies, following the recipes and taking notes as a local chef demonstrated how to make gumbo, jambalaya, bread pudding, and pralines. I also got a hefty serving of history and culture, all for under $40. Despite the mid-morning start time, you’ll eat the food as the chef prepares it, accompanied by the beverage of your choice. Abita beer, anyone? You’re out by noon, satisfied and ready to tackle the Big Easy. Let the good times roll!
How to find a Cooking Class—they’re everywhere!
I always start with *Viator, the website that contracts with local companies to offer tours, classes, and day trips in all destinations. I’ve used Viator to book walking tours, transportation, and unique experiences that even a concierge might not know about.
Not up for a full cooking class? Look for specialty classes like learning to make macarons, bake bread, or choose cheese. You can find a class at a restaurant or in someone’s home. Maybe you prefer to just take a walking tour of a market, stopping to nibble samples from vendors.
If you’re joining a tour, such as Road Scholar, Trafalgar, Rick Steves, or Overseas Adventure Travel, check the itinerary to see if a cooking class is included. Tour companies know how much we like them–it learning about local cuisine is important to you, you can determine which tour is right for you.
Whatever you decide, don’t pass up the opportunity to try new foods and talk with people who can teach you about the local cuisine. Bon appetit!
Feeling peckish? Make these recipes at home!