Cooking Schools Pitch Classes as an Alternative to Dining Out

At CulinAerie, a new recreational cooking school in Washington, D.C., co-owner Susan Holt teaches both young and old kitchen tips and techniques.Video by Whitney Shefte/
By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 11, 2009

At 12:30 p.m., seven cooks circle a large stainless-steel table. In front of each one is a platter of ingredients: a clove of garlic, a slice of onion, basil, spinach, feta cheese and tomatoes. In the next 30 minutes, they will mince, slice, chiffonade and saute their way to a lunch of pasta with fresh tomato sauce and spinach.

The skills are basic, and, even with the clock ticking, the vibe is relaxed. That's the goal of classes at Cookology, a culinary school that opened last month. The bright storefront in the Dulles Town Center mall offers lessons in knife skills, baking and 30-minute meals, all for between $40 and $60 each.

"The old standby of going to a really expensive restaurant doesn't work anymore," says owner Maria Kopsidas, a former public relations and marketing consultant. "At a class, you're in there getting some skills, a glass of wine, talking to the chef and eating your creation."

At a time when consumers are cutting back on just about everything, entrepreneurs are betting that cooking classes are the way food lovers will feed their passion. In November, two former L'Academie de Cuisine teachers opened CulinAerie, a school that offers an array of ethnic cooking and technique classes, just off Thomas Circle. In January, Zola Wine & Kitchen launched Wednesday night and weekend classes in a professional test kitchen and wine boutique in Penn Quarter. This summer, Open Kitchen, a culinary school and community kitchen for food entrepreneurs, will open in Falls Church.

"If you eat three courses at a restaurant with wine, you'd be lucky to escape with tax and tip for $85. Here you get the meal, wine and instruction," says CulinAerie co-owner Susan Holt. "People feel they get value."

The definition of value depends on the demographic. At Cookology, Kopsidas is targeting the "suburban foodie." There are no truffle-and-Barolo-pairing classes here. Instead, the courses cater to stay-at-home moms and cooks with limited repertoires who want new, budget-friendly ideas. Participants work in a state-of-the-art commercial kitchen to turn out dishes, such as salmon with smashed potatoes and grilled asparagus, that stress basic skills. The classes are hands-on and typically last 90 minutes. The school also hosts birthday parties and cooking classes for kids.

Unlike many teachers, Cookology chefs do not hand out recipes until the end of class. Instead, they write ingredients on the chalkboard wall and talk students through each step. The goal is not only to teach skills, says instructor Tabetha Martinez, but to help cooks trust their instincts. "Too many people just follow a recipe," she said. "If your recipe calls for thyme and you like rosemary, fine. If you want less butter, don't use it. You are the cook."

CulinAerie's demographic is more diverse. The school attracts a professional crowd ranging in age from the late 20s to early 60s and encompassing groups that have very different tastes and budgets. And so in the past few months, co-owners Holt and Susan Watterson have been throwing the proverbial spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. Courses in knife skills and fish preparation, popular with their suburban students at L'Academie, have sold well. So have wine tastings and wine pairing courses. But cake decorating, always a sellout in the suburbs, attracted far fewer people than Indian cooking and anything taught by "Top Chef" finalist Carla Hall.

The school has two kitchens: a large minimalist one that accommodates 32 for participation and a smaller, cozier one with granite countertops and oak cabinetry that fits 16. On a recent Saturday, Holt held the students' attention during the lecture part of a three-hour knife skills class by peppering her demos -- segmenting an orange, cutting up a chicken -- with lively questions to keep things interactive.

"No white knuckles," she said at one point when demonstrating how to hold a knife. "I never want to see white knuckles. Did anybody see 'Bull Durham'? It's like what they said about the ball: Hold it like an egg."

The students watched her on large TV monitors at each row: Half of the monitors were focused on her, the other half on her cutting board. After she showed various techniques and demonstrated the recipe, volunteer assistants wheeled out chickens and the 24 students paired off to practice by mincing garlic, dicing onions and carrots, peeling potatoes and apples, then cutting up the chicken and braising it in white wine, cream and tarragon. As in Watterson's crepes class in the smaller kitchen next door, skill levels varied considerably.

"I'm a complete beginner. Can you tell?" said Janet Robinson, 50, of Chevy Chase as she very tentatively went at her chicken. "I think I need to take the class over again, already. This is going to take a lot of practice. But it's really fun."

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