Kevin O'Neill spent three hours on his feet in a very bright, very cold room with five of his pals dismembering a large hog. Admittedly, the experience is not for everyone. But for O'Neill, a fresh-food fanatic, it was a highlight of his entire summer.
He and his mates took part in the whole-hog butchery class at Ohio City Provisions, an intimate, immersive dive into meat fabrication, a counterintuitive term that refers to breaking down livestock into consumer-friendly cuts. As a long-term subscriber to Fresh Fork Market, the buying club run by Ohio City Provisions owner Trevor Clatterbuck, O'Neill already had a passion for local foods, farm-to-table cooking and the sense of community that comes with it. He even made a trip down to Wholesome Valley Farm in Amish Country to connect some of the dots.
"We got to meet the farmers, meet the pigs, meet the chickens and the turkeys," he reports. "It's really something; from birth to the table they are in complete control of how the animals are raised. The flavors are amazing and I feel better knowing that there's no junk in our food."
At the class, O'Neill learned about pig anatomy, the difference between primal and sub-primal cuts, and how to safely use a bone saw, boning hook and filet knife, among other things. As peculiar and narrowly focused as the cooking class might seem, the students departed with very practical skills.
"You're obviously not going to be butchering a 300-pound pig on your kitchen countertop, but you will walk away with an appreciation for snout-to-tail cooking and the ability to trim up your own meats and roasts," he explains. "It helps you to understand what you are doing."
From wine-soaked "date night" cooking classes to fully accredited pro-track culinary programs, there is no shortage of options in town for people who want to dive deeper into food. On the shallow end of the pool are one-off classes like those at Architectural Justice, a high-end home decor and furniture store in Strongsville. As regional distributors of Sub-Zero and Wolf kitchen equipment, the shop uses classes as a way to show off and demo the pricey appliances.
"It's more of a fun night out with friends, but we always try to make sure people walk away with some real skills," says owner James Justice, who opened the ritzy store with his wife a year and a half ago.
At the classes, people split into groups of four to prepare the individual dishes of a five-course meal. The food always changes, but formula stays the same. Popular titles include Taste of Italy, Homemade Pasta, and Holiday Classics. The events are capped off by a celebratory meal with wine and followed up with recipes and photos.
Lakewood resident and Tremont Scoops owner Nikki Schiro dipped her toes into the cooking-school pool when she attended a Supper Club class at Gatherings Kitchen in Lakewood, but she soon discovered that she wanted to go deeper.
"I was invited to one of their Sunday Suppers as just a fun thing to do on a Friday night," she says. "I enjoyed the experience so much that I signed up two more times over two years. But I wanted to learn more about cooking so I took the four-week prep course."
Prep School is composed of four, four-hour classes that equip home cooks with the skills they need to tackle any recipe with confidence, from learning how to chop, mince and dice veggies to braising, grilling, sauteing and poaching proteins. Those procedures are augmented with bread baking, pasta making and dessert building.
"We made beef stroganoff, fish in parchment paper, coq au vin," says Schiro. "It's fun to learn about different cultures and different foods and get to try new things."
At the end of each class, students retire to the dining room "where you can step away from it all to relax and enjoy the meal." And at the end of the program, students graduate with the ability to filet a fish, break down a whole chicken, and keep their knives in good nick.
"Once you learn how to use a chef's knife, you have more confidence in the kitchen," Schiro says.
Catherine St. John has been teaching at Western Reserve School of Cooking in Hudson for almost 30 years. As a culinary school graduate, herself, she understands the value in the fundamentals, but she's also cognizant that one size of education does not fit all.
"We offer one-offs on up to a 12-part French cooking basics series that will appeal to somebody who hasn't spent a lot of time in the kitchen but wants to get some basics under their belt," St. John explains.
While less demanding and comprehensive than a fully accredited program, the series equips home cooks with the sort of timeless culinary skills and techniques that will serve them well for years to come. The class is also a worthwhile first step for those who might be considering a professional career in food service.
"You have to learn how to walk before you can run," she says.
Along with Tri-C's Hospitality Management Program, the International Culinary Arts and Sciences Institute in Chesterland is one of the few local resources designed specifically to prepare people for a career in the wonderful world of food. The school offers a six-month certificate program in either culinary or pastry arts and a two-year diploma track in those same fields. Those courses join a nonstop calendar of recreational cooking classes geared to the general public at sister organization Loretta Paganini School of Cooking.
Like many of her colleagues in the profession, Stephanie Paganini has heard the argument that prospective cooks needn't squander their time and money on a pricey culinary education when the school of hard knocks is free for the taking. Six months in a restaurant kitchen will bring you up to speed quicker than two years of classwork, goes the claim.
In theory, Paganini agrees. In practice, however, she sees a flaw in the formula.
"There are a lot of chefs who say you don't need to pay money for school because I'll teach you, but that only happens when they are around, when there's a full staff, and when you're not busy peeling 100 potatoes," she argues. "At culinary school, you are paying the chef to give you their undivided attention to teach you all those techniques and skills.
"We also believe very much that you need to take those techniques and skills that you learned in the classroom and apply them in a real world scenario," she adds. "We think that's the magic sauce on how you get into the industry and move faster up the ranks."