Pacific Northwest | October 26, 2003Pacific Northwest MagazineOctober 26, home
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Attention, Class
In cooking school, lessons are learned on both sides of the stove
Just as actors say that working in movies is nothing like working on stage, cooks will tell you that cooking in a restaurant kitchen is profoundly different from cooking in a cooking school. And just as actors tell you that nothing beats the response of a live audience, I'm here to tell you that teaching a cooking class is more rewarding than a night spent dishing up dinners in a restaurant.

It started, as these things do, innocently enough. I was in Friday Harbor, interviewing my friend Pat, the owner of a kitchen store, about a cooking instructor who was coming to town. Out of the blue, she said, "You would be a good instructor yourself. Why don't you teach a class sometime?"

"Me — a cooking-school instructor?" I was already a chef, a dad and a writer. Could my head hold one more hat? Within a matter of weeks, I was in that store-owner's home kitchen, supervising a dozen happy homemakers as they shaped bread dough into focaccia, braided loaves, pizzas and calzones.

I was having the time of my life.

I taught classes in that same kitchen about six times a year for as long as I lived in Friday Harbor. As the seasons rolled by, we made nettle soup, we cranked ice cream infused with the flavor of fresh mint, built gingerbread houses, steamed mountains of shellfish and filleted whole salmon carried up from the town dock.

Sometimes the classes were more like a party. The wine flowed easily, and so did the talk. I would have to call everyone's attention back to the stove and say, "Quiet please! I want you to hear the sizzling. This is how you know that the wine has boiled away and it's time to add the broth. You have to use all your senses to make a good risotto!"

Eventually, I started teaching classes at other places. Instead of 10 or 12 familiar faces, I was looking at 30 or 40 strangers expecting something really professional. I was so tense I could have snapped like a dry twig. But somehow, once the class was under way, I felt as if I was back with the students I had grown to love in Friday Harbor.

Every cooking school was different. In the tiny back room of Pasta & Co., I taught through demonstrations; at Blue Ribbon Cooking School, housed in a private home in Madison Park, the program is all about hands-on participation.

From a student's perspective, the schools feel different, too. The slick professionalism of Sur La Table with its world-class guest instructors certainly has its advantages. But so does the intimacy of Cook's World, a tiny shop near the University Village. Since some schools offer classes in a series, students and teachers have time to develop a deeper kind of camaraderie. And the warm, party atmosphere at schools such as Bon Vivant and Blue Ribbon stems from the decidedly residential kitchens where they have classes.

Interestingly, even when the settings change, some of the students stay the same. Certain people find an instructor they like and sign up for every class, wherever it is. I'm always glad they are there. Whenever the action starts to flag, you can count on one of them to ask the question that gets everyone back on track.

Having all those eyes and ears pointed your way makes a cooking instructor feel profoundly alive. The past and the future fall away, and you are completely absorbed in the moment.

The sense of being more alive is especially heightened when something goes wrong. When a butter sauce separates into a greasy mess, you just smile, and say, "I'm glad this happened so I can show you what to do if your sauce breaks." And when the turkey that the cooking school promised to provide turns out to be a capon with stitches across its chest because "the skin was torn," you say, "This is a great opportunity to show you how this recipe can be adapted to other poultry."

For the students, the lessons are all about the food; for the instructor, the lessons are all about life. Even when no one else is watching, I often find myself experiencing that same hyper-awareness I get during demonstrations. When things get rough, I say, "Well, here's an opportunity to learn something."

Recommended in the Region

Blue Ribbon Cooking School, Seattle

Hands-on classes are structured around a menu. Participants are grouped into teams; each team cooks one course and everyone feasts at the end. 206-328-2442,

Bon Vivant, Seattle

Classes are in private homes throughout the region. Each class is unique, depending on the instructor, the setting and the subject. 206-525-7537,

The Compleat Cook, Bellevue

Standard demonstration-style classes, punctuated with samples of every dish, are held in a store stocked with an incredible array of must-have gear. (Even the instructor is tempted to blow his budget on equipment.) 425-746-9201,

Cook's World, Seattle

Many classes are conducted by the professional chef/owner of the store, who teaches everything from basics to elaborate sauce-making techniques. A student could get a complete education in classic cuisine. 206-528-8192,

Gretchen's Cooking School, Mount Vernon

Set in the center of the lost-in-time downtown Mount Vernon, this store has a magical charm. Students sit at the counter where demonstrations are conducted and at surrounding tables, creating a dinner-party atmosphere. 360-336-8747

Pasta & Co., Seattle

Intimacy arises naturally from the layout of this galley-sized kitchen, where classes are limited to the small number who can fit in the space. By the end of a class, instructors and students almost feel like old friends. 206-322-1644,

Sur La Table, Kirkland

The most spacious, well-equipped and well-staffed school in the area makes up in professionalism what it lacks in intimacy. Video monitors allow students to see every detail that might not be reflected in the large, overhead mirrors. 425-827-1311,

Greg Atkinson is Bainbridge Island writer and culinary consultant. Michelle Kumata is a Seattle Times news artist.

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