Combine the seductive fantasy of being a celebrity chef with the cruel reality of having to put something on the table every night, and you get a reasonable explanation of why cooking classes have become so hugely popular among home cooks of both sexes and all ages. Even more to the point, it helps explain why both of the region's newly launched "lifestyle centers" have found it worthwhile to include big culinary ingredients in their mix.
In Lyndhurst's Legacy Village, for instance, it's the Viking Culinary Arts Center, a sleek, contemporary space that contains an impressively stocked retail cookware store, a theater-style demonstration kitchen, and a hands-on teaching kitchen. Operated by the Viking Range Corporation, a Mississippi-based manufacturer of professional-style kitchen appliances for the home, this is one of eight such centers located around the country; the first, in Memphis, Tennessee, was launched in 1999. Additionally, since 2000, the company has operated four similar Viking HomeChef facilities in California.
Meantime, in Woodmere's newly renovated Eton on Chagrin, the gourmet draw is Sur La Table, another stylish combination of cookware store and showcase kitchen -- one of more than three dozen Sur La Table locations nationwide. Established in Seattle in 1972, the innovative company claims to be the first West Coast retailer to introduce the Cuisinart food processor and points to a long history of hosting cookbook authors and celebrity chefs, ranging from Paul Bocuse to Jamie Oliver.
Locally, the retail stores at both Sur La Table and Viking are industrially chic beauties, outfitted with high ceilings, vibrant colors, and theatrical lighting. At Sur La Table, reggae and sitar music filled the air as we wandered through racks of KitchenAid mixers, Krups espresso machines, and porcelain-clad Le Creuset cookware. Blues Traveler set the mood at Viking, as we drooled over a collection of gourmet condiments, including Charlie Trotter's apricot-curry sauce, Bobby Flay's plum-ginger glaze, and Rick Bayless's Frontera salsas and barbecue sauces. While both stores are nearly filled to overflowing with small appliances and gadgetry, Sur La Table probably has the edge when it comes to linens and cookbooks, as well as specialty equipment like tajines and tortilla presses. On the other hand, Viking is where we would head for a peerless selection of Emile Henry casseroles, gratins, and terrines, as well as for an enticing collection of wooden and bamboo cutting boards, bowls, and serving pieces.
Both Viking and Sur La Table offer an extensive catalog of almost-daily culinary programs too, including demonstration classes, hands-on workshops, and lessons for children and teens. Both spots are also available for private cooking parties. Socially minded students who enjoy rubbing shoulders with local luminaries may find Sur La Table especially to their liking, where guest instructors have included Parker Bosley (Parker's American Bistro), Brandt Evans (Blue Canyon Kitchen), and Brian Doyle (World's Fare Culinary Services). However, serious scholars of the culinary arts may well gravitate toward Viking, where they can immerse themselves in in-depth coursework, such as the 24-hour-long Essential Cooking Series, which covers everything from making stocks and mother sauces to braising, baking, and pastry-making.
Of course, perusing the catalog is one thing; actually taking a class is another. So when we saw that each facility was offering a hands-on pasta workshop during the month of February, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to size them up. We signed up for both.
At Viking, our $79 entrance fee bought us a fast-paced three-hour session, taught by personal chef and part-time instructor Joy Dunwoodie. While Viking's hands-on classes can generally accommodate up to 16 students, there were only five of us (four women, one man) in attendance this weeknight evening, rattling around in a 685-square-foot professional kitchen that -- with its gigantic, granite-topped center island, five Viking ranges, two additional built-in wall ovens, and three sinks -- certainly would be the envy of almost any chef in the city.
The straight-talking Dunwoodie wasted no time on preambles and almost immediately set about handing out recipe packets, assigning us each to one of two teams, and charging each team with a series of tasks. In the next 180 minutes, working entirely from scratch, the two teams would produce four types of pasta dough (plain, tomato, herb-garlic, and spinach); turn them into cannelloni, fettuccini, and ravioli; cook up a variety of cream and tomato sauces; stuff the ravioli with herbed goat cheese; fill the cannelloni with Italian sausage; and toss the fettuccini with crawfish and andouille sausage -- all before finally sitting down and feasting on the fruits of their labors.
At first, Dunwoodie's laissez-faire approach was a little disconcerting. But once it became clear that we were free to claim a workspace, choose our tools, and operate the appliances, our little group of experienced home cooks began feeling like celebrity chefs, and the kitchen became our vast and decked-out playground. Need a knife? Choose anything you like from the specially outfitted cutlery drawer. Need a bowl? Go to the cavernous cupboard, and select one from among dozens. Whisks? They've got them in every shape and size! Pans? All-Clads, stacked up to the ceiling! By the end of the evening, not only were we as well stuffed as our cannelloni, but we felt nearly self-sufficient enough to open our own trattoria!
Two weeks later, at Sur La Table, we paid $65 for a two-hour workshop and prepared to do it all again. Saturday morning found 14 students (all women) and four assistants filing into the store's colorful, well-lit, 800-square-foot kitchen-classroom (the same multitasking space serves for both demonstration classes and hands-on events). The group was divided into four teams; each team was set up at a modular workstation, inconveniently distant from the kitchen's single range, two ovens, and two sinks.
Instructor Cassandra Matheny, a Johnson & Wales grad, part-time instructor, and nanny, had completed much of the prep work in advance: Pasta doughs were made, equipment was set out, ingredients were apportioned -- even the roux for the béchamel was prepared. Students were directed toward a little buffet of cheese, crackers, coffee, and ice water. Then recipe packets were handed out, and Matheny reviewed them with us before turning us loose.
This day's culinary agenda included chocolate ravioli with white-chocolate and cream-cheese filling; quick vegetable lasagna, made with packaged, no-boil noodles; fettuccini with zucchini and eggplant; and a fabulous rotolo di pasta: thin pasta sheets wrapped, jelly roll-style, around a filling of spinach, prosciutto, and ricotta; secured in cheesecloth and poached; then sliced and layered in a lasagna pan; covered with béchamel; and baked until bubbly.
Because of Sur La Table's more limited cooking equipment and the larger number of students, there was a lot of standing around and waiting for a burner to become available; that, in turn, made it harder to pretend that we were Alice Waters or Patricia Yeo. (Also, there were considerably fewer hand tools -- knives, whisks, and so on -- available for us to play with.) Still, the somewhat slower pace and additional guidance probably would be appreciated by newer cooks; moreover, by program's end, all the dishes had turned out well, and everyone enjoyed both the tasting portions and the opportunity to "talk food" with their fellow cooks.
At both Sur La Table and Viking, students also come away with a 10-percent discount coupon for retail-shop purchases.
So what's our conclusion? We had fun at both locations trying out new recipes, techniques, and equipment, as well as cruising the well-stocked retail stores. If it occurred to us that all the required chopping, stirring, boiling, and baking was awfully similar to preparing for a dinner party -- and paying for the privilege -- at least there was always someone on hand to clean up afterward. Beyond that, though, directly comparing the two classes is a little tricky, since important variables, like class size and instructor, are subject to change. Still, we give the Viking class the edge for its larger, professionally equipped kitchen (as opposed to the smaller, classroom-like facility at Sur La Table), its awesome "kid-in-a-candy-shop" selection of cookware, and the longer class period, which allowed us to make every part of the meal from scratch.
Experienced cooks will also appreciate the chance to work independently that Viking classes provide. Still, we can't claim that we learned anything from either class that we couldn't have (or hadn't already) picked up from reading a cookbook; we suspect that most other well-seasoned cooks would say the same. On the other hand, we're guessing that a novice cook coming into either one of these classes would feel lost: overwhelmed by the pace and dismayed by the lack of individual guidance.
So for whom, exactly, are these classes designed? Perhaps, in the final analysis, most food fans would do best to consider them a busman's holiday -- like an evening with a good book for a librarian. After all, play is as good for the gourmet as for anyone else. And if buzzing around a laid-out kitchen, firing up a top-of-the-line Cuisinart, and tossing around the All-Clads allows us to pretend, even for a moment, to be Nigella Lawson -- well, where's the harm in that?