Cooking schools offer students culinary expertise and delicious careers.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Whether you want to prepare gourmet food for fun or as the basis for a career, there are opportunities to learn to cook delectable delicacies at local cooking schools.

The sparkling Classroom Restaurant is part of the Los Angeles Culinary Institute in Encino. In addition to being a school for future chefs, it is a place to savor a wide variety of well-prepared dishes. Founded in 1991 by chef Raimund Hofmeister, who spent 13 years as executive chef at the Century Plaza Hotel, the institute is the first facility in Los Angeles for training professional food and pastry chefs.

The Classroom, where the 60 full-time students from around the world learn their trade, is open to the public for lunch Monday through Friday from noon to 1:30 p.m. For the fixed price of $7.95, you can observe students in action as they prepare gourmet meals. The menu changes weekly according to that week's curriculum, and diners can enjoy a choice of appetizers, main dish, dessert, coffee or tea prepared by advanced students. The institute also books private parties, business meetings and other catering events every day, including weekends.

"Every graduating class has to do a masterpiece dinner," says Hofmeister, "and this year I thought it would be fun to duplicate the Titanic meal for the ship's first-class passengers. I have a copy of the original menu and shopping list, which students will use for the Oct. 24 event."

Hofmeister also plans to begin serving dinners in the Classroom Restaurant in October but has not decided how often.

In Hofmeister's native Germany, his father was a noted chef and his grandparents owned a winery, but he wanted a career in biology.

"My father forced me into cooking," he said. "From age 14 to 17, I was sent to apprentice in Baden-Baden in southern Germany. Then I went to Switzerland and later to South Africa, where I began my 20-year association with Westin International Hotels."

By the time he was 29, Hofmeister was executive chef of the Westin Hotels and took over the Century Plaza where he cooked for foreign dignitaries and frequent guest President Ronald Reagan.

"One thing we all have in common, we all have to eat," Hofmeister says. "Being a chef gave me a lot of privileges. I saw President Reagan in his pajamas and he would come out and say, 'Hi, Chef. You cook the simple food the way I like it.' I have had amazing experiences."

He is now passing his experiences on to his students, equal numbers of males and females. Their average age is late 20s, and many are in search of a career change. The five-day-a-week, one-year diploma program costs $18,000. Eighty-five percent of graduates, Hofmeister said, get jobs in hotels and restaurants in nine countries and throughout the U.S. All who want jobs, he said, get them, but some graduates decide not to become professional chefs. Hofmeister notes that there are always more job offers than students to fill them. There are now 900 alumni.

The institute also offers a three-month basic cooking and baking course, which can lead to entry into the larger program. The fee is about $3,800 and the institute also places these students in jobs.

This summer the institute offered a three-week course for teenagers who prepared a meal for their parents as the final event. A similar class may be held before the holidays.

Many young people, Hofmeister said, don't have role models as cooks because so many working mothers don't cook.

"It's a shame that recipes are no longer handed down from generation to generation," he said. "I always liked my grandmother's cooking best, and even though my father was a chef, I preferred my mother's cooking.

"Food is a simple pleasure and that's what makes it so much fun," he added. "If everybody is hungry and you put food on the table, the people most likely will peacefully enjoy the meal. Very often chefs are great ambassadors to people of different backgrounds because what you talk about is the very basis of life and that is food, camaraderie, friendships and relationships."

When a prospective student comes to Hofmeister to be a chef, the first question is "Why?"

"One of the things necessary is liking people and the ability to share," he said. "There are so many different cultures, and that's what makes it interesting. You must understand how people eat and learn the profession of a chef. It's not a job. You can't do it 9 to 5. It becomes a way of life, and it has to come from the heart."

Hofmeister said many people who become chefs have given up other career options to follow their dream and passion.

"They don't mind the long hours," he said.

Phyllis Vacarelli of Westlake Village is an example. She loved cooking and gave up a career as a licensed psychiatric social worker to follow her dream of opening a cooking school.

"I was self-trained by going to lots of classes and reading many books because my mother wasn't really a good cook," she said. "I started cooking for friends at school and then found it to be a great creative outlet for a social worker. I was teaching classes at home before I bought the school."

When Vacarelli bought the Westlake Village gourmet store and school, Let's Get Cookin', in 1984, cooking schools were on the decline. "I'm hard-working and an optimist," she said.

Six months later she resigned from her social work job and in 1988 began a professional training course, which she named Westlake Culinary Institute. The course is in two segments and is part time so people can continue their regular jobs. There is a 12-week class, meeting twice weekly, and a seven-month version, meeting one evening a week.

Each class, limited to 12, is taught by Cecilia DeCastro, who trained with Wolfgang Puck and other noted chefs. Cost is $2,400. Among the students who are serious about a career change are doctors, lawyers, accountants and engineers. Graduates have been placed in noted restaurants. Vacarelli says women have done well in the field, especially as pastry chefs in some of the best restaurants.

There are a variety of classes for those without professional aspirations, Vacarelli said. And classes for children are offered.

"When you take a cooking class, you're using all your senses and you see all the steps necessary," she said. "You can smell and touch the bread or the meat; and you can taste and hear, like the sizzle in the pan. You can't do this with only your cookbook."

And, of course, the taste buds are involved.

"The best thing is, you get to eat the food and you can judge for yourself if you like the recipe," she said.

Classes with noted chefs--such as Julia Child, who has been there twice--and book authors cost about $50 for a three-hour session, and students are rewarded with eating four to six items.

Vacarelli feels there is great value, beyond just good food, to taking a cooking class.

"I'd like to see more people and families dining around the table again, the way it used to be. That fosters great relationships."

BE THERE

Los Angeles Culinary Institute Inc., 17401 Ventura Blvd., Suite B-21, Encino, (818) 461-0990. Web site: www.laci.com. Lunches are served Monday-Friday, noon-1:30 p.m., $7.95.

Let's Get Cookin' and Westlake Culinary Institute, 4643 Lakeview Canyon Road, Westlake Village, (818) 991-3940.

Cook Books has 15,000 rare and hard-to-find books. It is the only such store in the country; all other sources for such books are strictly mail-order. 321 San Fernando Road, Burbank, (818) 848-4630.

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