What's Cooking Around Town: A Look at St. Louis' Cooking Classes

My first real step into the world of cooking took place in the winter of 1969, when newly engaged, I enrolled in a gourmet cooking class at Nottingham School in South St. Louis, through the St. Louis Public Schools Continuing Education Program. About two months into the class, with wedding preparations that seemed like a freight train heading directly for me, I became a gourmet dropout.

But something had clicked. I loved that class. I loved being in the kitchen. I was unbelievably proud that I had learned that soups and gravies start with stock and how to make Cherries Jubilee. My intuitive mother gave me a subscription to Gourmet Magazine. I was hooked.

Over the years, my cooking abilities grew in direct concert with reading food magazines, newspaper food sections and cookbooks. I learned by doing. Talk about trial and error! For some reason, Thanksgiving meals were particularly fraught with disaster for me. I remember adding a clove-studded onion to giblet stock, simmering it for hours with fresh vegetables and herbs to add that extra flavor to the gravy, then straining it in a colander without a pan underneath and watching in horror as that extra flavor went right down the garbage disposal. And then there was the cranberry soufflé debacle - now that bears mentioning. The result looked like a large bowl of Pepto-Bismol that only my dear accepting mother would dare to taste.

But I digress. In addition to all the reading, recipe-trying and mistake-making, when I could afford it, I would take a cooking class. Every class I took helped develop my ongoing infatuation with all things culinary; even the “knife skills” class that turned out to be just a guy hawking very expensive knives. For me, cooking classes remain the very best way to learn. Nowadays, if I can find one, I love taking a class while out of town on vacation.

Cooking classes, whether demonstration or hands-on, are a wonderful attack on your senses. You see, hear, feel, smell and taste the food being prepared and you can’t get that from a television show, a magazine or a cookbook.

Best of all, if you’re the least bit interested in cooking, these classes are FUN. I’ve yet to attend one that didn’t produce lots of interaction and laughter. And then there are the sighs, moans and groans as something wonderful hits your palate. In addition to eating the rewards, you come away with the recipe that’s just been prepared. Often, these are restaurant-quality dishes. Whether it’s a demonstration or participation class, you’re witnessing professional, tried and true techniques. You learn about having the right utensil and cookware for the job - and that doesn’t necessarily mean all the designer gadgets on the market today. Since all the instructors have one thing in common, a passion for food, they are usually happy to share a secret or two. Whether you attend alone or with a friend, it’s just a great way to spend a few hours.

Before enrolling, ask yourself what kind of class would be best for you. What do you like to eat? Is diet an issue? What would you like to learn to prepare? Are you on a budget? Are you pressed for time? Whether you define yourself as meat and potatoes, strictly vegan, five ingredients or less, $10 or under, 30 minutes maximum prep time or a sky-is-the-limit gourmand, there’s a class for you. The choices are almost limitless. Just read the class descriptions before you sign up. They read like menus, so don’t take a class in something you know you won’t enjoy. But do try new and adventurous things. There’s a whole world of flavors out there.

When you do go, take advantage of the instructors' expertise. They’re trained professionals in the culinary arts and are willing to explain as they go. They know more about food and its preparation than you ever will. You have the opportunity to share a kitchen with them as they prepare, up close and personal, a dish for the home cook. Do ask questions! Instructors welcome a lively audience.

For the neophyte or the experienced, the skittish or adventuresome, the vegetarian or carnivore, and no matter what your ability level or budget, there’s a class that’s just right for you.

Dierbergs classes are inexpensive and basic, perfect if you’re just starting out. For example, I took a class on comfort foods a few weeks ago that included meatloaf, macaroni and cheese, roasted yams and bread pudding. The instructor, Mary Billings, a food writer for the Post-Dispatch, was chatty and knowledgeable and the food preparation was uncomplicated. And when your class is over, you have the advantage of being in a grocery store if you want to recreate anything you’ve just seen prepared.

Classes at COCA are limited by seating capacity, but that can be a good thing. Smaller classes can definitely be better. They’re reasonably priced and I found watching Kirk Warner, chef at King Louie’s restaurant, prepare short ribs and pot stickers to be extremely worthwhile. He lived in China for a time and his expertise with vegetables shows a deft hand and remarkable sense for flavoring. I would have never thought of putting star anise in a short ribs dish, but he did so with excellent results.

Kitchen Conservatory remains the premier cooking school in the area. I took a class recently with Giovanni Galati of Dominic’s Restaurant on the Hill and Dominic’s Trattoria in Clayton. It was wonderful. I found the audience there to be pretty savvy, both food- and travel-wise. There was a lot of interaction with the chef, who prepared a number of dishes, including a shrimp and artichoke treat that is on his restaurant’s menu. And you’re given a store discount card that’s good for class day only – just in case you’ve seen the instructor use a tool or utensil you must have. Pretty smart marketing, I’d say. Actually, you can hardly leave the store without buying something after seeing a professional use a gazillion tools.

If you are a confirmed foodie, then Fio Antognini’s private classes would be perfect. I’m saving my money to take one. Imagine being one of just four students in this chef’s home - cooking, eating and drinking wine for hours.

Cooking is a labor of love. And the more you know, the more you will love cooking.