Skip to content
You've signed up for that cooking class you've always wanted to try, the credit card has been docked the enrollment fee, and you've picked out exactly the right thing to wear because who knows whom you'll meet.
But have you performed the mental preparation to make sure you get the max from this class--and the instructor? A little thought beforehand will heighten what you want to get out of the class, be it information or entertainment. More selfishly, earning brownie points in class will surely translate into a sure grasp of the course materials and better meals at home. Teachers like nothing better than willing, eager, on-the-ball students. Show up hungry to learn and expect to be fed.
"Scour the brochure and see what the objectives are," said Philip Garofalo, a Chicago software designer who participates in the Look and Cook program, a continuing education series offered by Dominican University in River Forest. "If there's a syllabus, read that. Talk to someone who has taken the class before. Call the school and talk to whoever is producing the class."
With words like these, it's easy to bet most cooking teachers would take a shine to Garofalo in their classroom.
This advice, from a self-described "meticulous consumer," is exactly what the pros say you need to do, both before and during the lesson.
"Anticipate what happens in the class," said cooking instructor Linda Carucci. "See if [you] can get the recipes in advance so [you] can look through them for any questions on techniques or ingredients."
Listen to Carucci. Not only was she named top cooking school teacher of 2002 by the International Association of Culinary Professionals, she's also author of a new book, "Cooking School Secrets for Real World Cooks" (Chronicle, $22.95), whose lengthy subtitle promises "tips, techniques, shortcuts, sources, hints and answers to frequently asked questions, plus 100 sure-fire recipes to make you a better cook."
Carucci, an Oakland resident who is an enthusiastic cooking student herself, said that you need to decide what type of class format and learning style suits you best.
Some students want to watch in a demonstration format while others get the hang of cooking only if they're doing it hands-on, she said.
Both formats have their strengths.
Denise Norton, executive chef and co-owner of Flavour Cooking School in Forest Park, said that a demonstration class lets students see everything from start to finish with teaching tips and instructions sprinkled throughout. They're also often less expensive than hands-on classes.
"That type of class affords the student an opportunity to ask a lot of pointed questions," Norton said. "It is also the opportunity to talk about how you might vary a recipe."
Shelley Young, owner and chef/instructor at The Chopping Block, said that students should look through the recipes while the demonstration is taking place. Students sometime assume the instructor's comments and instructions will mirror the recipe, but that's not always the case, she said. Knowing what the recipe says or doesn't say is helpful when deciding to take notes.
Energy is what hands-on classes are all about, Norton said. Being able to take direction and a "willingness to get your hands in there and get a little dirty" is also important.
"First of all, get some rest," she said. "I know that sounds silly but come prepared to work. If you've come from a long, hard day of work and are already tired you're not in the right frame of mind."
Read the recipes at the start of class so you can ask any questions you might have, Young emphasized: "Once everyone gets in and starts cooking, it can get crazy."
Questions are important because they "bring people together" and make the class livelier, added Trina Sheridan, co-owner of The Wooden Spoon.
Carucci suggested that, if you can, read up on the instructor before the class to learn about the teacher's background, experience and interests.
"If I took a class with Judy Rodgers [of San Francisco's Zuni Cafe], I'd read what she says about early seasoning with salt," she said. Prepared with the right questions on salting, Carucci said she would have Rodgers' ear in no time.
"Another thing that enhances the process is if a student can be an assistant," Carucci added. "Get there a couple of hours early and help with the prep and the set-up. They'll get a better sense of the recipes, especially in a demonstration class when the mise en place is done in advance." Mise en place is the French term for preparing all the ingredients required for a dish in advance of cooking.
Do check with the instructor first, though, on whether your help is needed or wanted. Getting there early and sitting in the front row creates a good impression, Carucci said, but remember that the instructor may be too busy to chat beforehand.
Madelaine Bullwinkel, owner of Chez Madelaine Cooking School in Hinsdale, likes "people who come on time, people who are prepared and people who ask me up front, `How are you going to do this?' "
Students who attend without friends for company also impress Bullwinkel, not the least because they'll likely pay attention and not start talking.
"Sometimes people come with friends and, quite frankly, those are the ones who get easily distracted," she said. "That's pretty harsh, but that's reality. When that happens I make one of them get up and work or I give them the hairy eyeball."
What should a student look for in an instructor?
Carucci referred to a memorial tribute to the late Julia Child by author Betty Fussell.
"She said it was important for Julia to show how, not show off," Carucci said. "I take a lot of cooking classes and when you see someone's ego is on the line and they're flipping things around and telling war stories that make them look great you have to wonder."
"I want someone who edifies me," added Carucci, who also is the Julia Child curator for food arts at Copia, the American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts in Napa, Calif. "Cooking classes give you a benchmark on how things should taste and look."