Cooking Schools Provide More Than Just the Food

February 26, 2009

Traditionally speaking, a person enrolls in a culinary class because they want to learn how to cook. It’s an obvious statement, one few would choose to reason against. Why else would a person learn how to garnish a tomato into a rose, season a cast iron pan, or cook a piece of chicken to perfection? Food has become a mainstream passion for many, and with more and more qualified individuals to choose from in the admissions pool, enrollment into culinary programs is at an all time high.

The publicity generated by the Food Network and chefs with their own books, frozen-food lines, and cookware helps explain why many people view cooking not just as a way to make a living but also to make their name. And while for centuries chefs learned their craft apprenticing in the kitchens of great restaurants, some members of the new generation believe that a degree from a top school will boost their credibility in the profession – and give them instant access to a wide network of alumni.

But despite the manner in which our culture celebrates and aggrandizes cooking, becoming a master chef is anything but glamorous. It involves years of training, requires long, tedious, often thankless hours of labour, and is essentially a lifelong commitment. It means getting dirty, sustaining injuries, studying history, and starting from the bottom of the ladder. It’s a long road, even for someone infinitely passionate about perfecting the art of food preparation.

While this or a similar story will apply for many, it certainly isn’t representative of all those who wish to entertain professional cooking advice. As some local schools have discovered, conducting a cooking class is often times only a tertiary part of the experience.

Kusum Simgh, of Good Karma Cooking School in Surrey, says many of her students have never cooked before, which is especially challenging when learning the ins and outs of Indian cuisine.
“Many people have no clue,” she says. “I have to measure things out for them and everything. We supply certificates at the end of our 12 lesson courses, but the important thing for a lot of them is just to learn about the spices. It gets crazy sometimes, but everyone is having fun.”
Simgh says her classes are serious and quite involved, but for many of her students the company and social experience is as important as the cooking itself.”

“They take the booklet I give them with the recipes and make them at home,” she adds. “A lot of the women enjoy spending time together. It gives them something to do that is fun.”

Cooking as an event has become increasingly popular in recent years. Culinary classes centered on “girl’s night out” or “cooking with singles” promotions suggests the diversification of this trend. Cooking has become something to do with friends on a weekend night, or a place to meet or take a date. High-profile corporations are even sending their employees to cooking school in the hopes that this activity will provide inspiration and improvement in business.

At Quince, a Kitsilano-area gourmet food store and cooking studio, owner Andrea Jefferson has led classes for corporate functions on behalf of Telus, Nike, Best Buy, and numerous other companies across North America. She adds value to her client’s cooking seminars by emphasizing not only the dishes they create, but also the character-building facets of the experience.

“We try to make sure everyone is connecting, communicating and contributing,” says Jefferson, a sommelier, chef and former instructor at Dubrulle Culinary Institute. “A lot of our corporate clients take a fresh perspective from cooking. They are all experts at something else, but in the kitchen their roles are redefined. People who aren’t normally leaders can step up and those who do lead can graciously relinquish control. It creates an atmosphere of camaraderie and is a nice break from the competitive world.”

Indeed, cooking is an exercise that is quite metaphorical to real life. Effective communication can mean the difference between overlooking an important business detail for a meeting, or overcooking the pineapple-upside-down cake in the oven. The kitchen is unfamiliar territory for many of us, especially when working in a group. A professional cooking experience is unique in that it provides a new arena for creativity and helps improve problem solving and critical thinking both at home and in the workplace.

“Cooking is a very social and empowering experience,” Jefferson adds. “The finished product is important, but so is having fun and enjoying what you made with your group afterwards.”

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