Americans have become much more adventurous about food and cooking. They eat out more than ever before and, as a result, they've become more familiar with dishes from other countries and with different ways of cooking.
"I'd love to be able to prepare that at home," people might say after a wonderful restaurant meal. For them, such cooking may seem beyond their culinary capabilities. But it needn't be. Learning to cook impressive meals doesn't have to mean taking a week's (or month's) worth of classes. Around the country, many chefs offer short cooking programs that can, if you like, be combined with a vacation.
On June 25, I wrote about two recreational cooking schools that are included my upcoming book, "Gourmet Getaways." To guide you to the goal of culinary finesse, here are two more.
Visitors to Washington Island at the northern tip of Wisconsin's Door County have an unexpected surprise awaiting them. They will discover a bucolic and historic fishing and agricultural community committed exclusively to the sustainable food movement.
At the center of this movement is the Washington Hotel Restaurant and Culinary School, run with typical Midwestern graciousness by chef-proprietor, Leah Caplan.
An honors graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Chef Caplan is a local authority on the sustainable food movement.
Her interest in the subtleties of food preparation began during her formative years, while traveling abroad with her father. It was then that she acquainted herself with some important concepts about food preparation that have remained with her ever since.
The concept that influenced her the most was taught in Japan, where she learned to balance food harmoniously in quantity and quality with aesthetic simplicity. A crowning example of this influence is evident today in her thin-crust smoked whitefish pizza with a sour cream base. In this pizza, all parts are blended seamlessly to create a judicious balance of key ingredients, appetizingly presented.
As a chef, she makes it a point to stay in close contact with organic and sustainable food producers. Students in her classes will learn about the foods of local producers directly from the producers. Chef Caplan will then take their products and turn them into a delicious, unforgettable meal.
The year-round teaching program encourages students to buy, grow, and eat local and sustainable foods and to master sensible techniques for preparing and preserving food. Students are taught to create elegant (but restrained) meals that look the way meals ought to look – attractive without being artificially decorated.
At the end of each class, students receive original recipes to use at home.
Types of classes that have been offered include the science, secrets, and nuances of baking in a brick oven; how the cacao bean is grown and processed; techniques for creating superb chocolate dishes; and the art of making handmade pasta from wheat grown on the island.
Cost: from $35 to $150.
Class frequency: weekly in the summer; private classes available in the winter.
Class length: Two to three hours.
For more information, contact The Washington Hotel Restaurant and Culinary School, 354 Range Line Road, Washington Island, WI 54246; (920) 847-2169, www.thewashingtonhotel.com.
St. Regis, Monarch Beach, Calif.
The St. Regis Monarch Beach is an Italian Revival palazzo of polished stone with multilevel gushing fountains, located on the coast of southern California. It offers a memorable setting and European-style service and food.
Responsible for overseeing all food preparation is Frédéric Castan, the resort's executive chef. His impeccable training in well-respected kitchens enables him to bring to the St. Regis the refinement of culinary flavors that discriminating guests expect.
Chef Castan was born in Avignon, France, and received his early training in Marseille at the École Supérieure Hôtelière de Marseille. His most influential mentor was France's renowned Pierre Hiély of Hiély Lucullus in Avignon. Working closely with this very strict and passionate chef, Castan learned commitment to detail.
This, along with his natural affinity for artistic shapes and colors, is the main reason he's won many awards, including France's most prestigious culinary award, the Maître Cuisinier de France.
St. Regis guests interested in learning to cook with flair have from eight to 12 culinary experiences to choose from yearly. Ten are for adults. Each focuses on a different theme (they change yearly), and all are overseen by Castan. The classes provide guests with the opportunity to interact freely with the chef while enjoying an elegant meal at the end.
Some of the classes offered include: a Springtime Spa Cooking class in which the freshest available ingredients are combined to create a light but elegant meal; a grilling class in which such favorites as Malaysian chicken satay or steak bavette are prepared over an open fire; and a Cooking with the Chefs Series, in which chefs from the St. Regis Monarch Beach share their skills and special dishes with the students.
Sometimes these classes are hands-on, depending on the chef and the menu, but usually they are demonstration classes.
A children's program, offered during the summer for ages 5 to 12, is especially popular, because it is designed to provide kids with an irresistible opportunity to apply their ingenuity to creating their own meal. The simple-to-prepare menu is conceived to appeal to youngsters' tastes and skill levels.
Cost: Adult dinner classes range from $50 to $125 per person; children's classes, $50 per child. Lodging is extra.
Class length: adult demonstration dinner classes, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.; children's classes, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.