Lessons from the Kitchen

Lessons from the Kitchen
Popular cooking classes provide education and entertainmentBy Stacey May Brady

With the popularity of the culinary arts as showcased on The Food Network, The Cooking Channel and on television shows such as “Top Chef,” fine and inventive cooking has gone mainstream. As a result, home cooks are more ambitious than ever and cooking schools have become increasingly popular as beginner cooks and experienced foodies strive to learn everything from basic knife skills to how to prepare a five-course gourmet holiday meal.

In keeping with this popular trend, the Emerald Coast has its fair share of cooking schools and exhibition kitchens. There are classes and courses for everyday cooks, wanna-be chefs and those wanting to incorporate variety or adventure into their cooking repertoire. Besides learning how to cook, many seek out cooking classes for their sheer entertainment value.

 Popular cooking classes provide education and entertainment

With a diversity of programming, cooking schools attract friends looking for an educational morning class or lunch class, couples meeting to learn to pair food and wine, and cooking class is a great place for a date night as well. The kitchen staff perform while the food, conversation, and often wine, flow. Classes can be hands on or exhibition, with less interaction. Team building for businesses, teenage birthday parties and even bridal parties are enjoying the cooking school setting for their events.

The Kitchenique Cooking School
The Kitchenique Cooking School, located in the Market City in Destiny complex in Destin, is much like the school’s director, Vicki McCain — practical, comfortable and a heck of a lot of fun. McCain, who has a master’s degree in social psychology, opened Kitchenique in 1985 after years of catering at top New Orleans restaurants, including famed Galatoire’s and Brennan’s.

“I grew up cooking in New Orleans and I love food. No matter what I was doing, I was always involved with food,” says McCain.
She has synthesized her love of food with her knowledge of what makes people tick to create an inviting and comfortable cooking and dining environment that has become a popular destination, having been rated the number one attraction in Destin by TripAdvisor, the travel website.
McCain has designed her classes at the cooking school with her customers in mind, offering locally-inspired menus, showcasing local chefs and her chef friends from out of town. Her classes hold up to 22 people comfortably and are interactive, with attendees encouraged to participate in each step of meal preparation.

A convivial collection of activity, conversation and laughter, a cooking class at Kitchenique can take on a familial feel, with participants coming around the large granite counter to take over stirring duties while learning the importance of ingredients, cooking technique and tools. Often ingredients are passed around for tasting and smelling, with McCain offering tips for substituting spices and methods of preparation.

Many of the spices and specialized ingredients are available at Kitchenique, and McCain expertly showcases her high-quality pots, pans, kitchen equipment and tools, all sold in her store. She offers discounts on these items to attendees after the class.

As the meal is prepared, it is served family style and passed around as the class continues to move along. Guests are encouraged to ask questions. Recipes and pencils for notes are placed at each seat. A wine selection is also offered to complement the menu and is priced separately.

Kitchenique cooking classes enjoy an avid following from locals, second homeowners and visitors, including Snowbirds. A sampling of classes offered by the cooking school include: Ladies Day Out, Simple Summer Entertaining and Southern Coastal Cuisine. Classes often showcase the chefs of area restaurants and personal chefs who teach recipes from their most-requested dishes.

Cooking classes are offered throughout the year and usually sell out. Prices range from $20 to $55 for celebrity chef classes and there are occasional free classes. Private classes and group classes are available. And gift certificates can be purchased for your favorite foodie. McCain is also a big believer in giving back to the community, and she holds annual fundraising classes for charitable organizations dear to her heart such as Shelter House, an organization that assists victims of domestic violence.

“I always have believed in giving back to our community. That’s what we should do,” she explains.

McCain makes her guests comfortable, and her enthusiasm for her love of food and cooking makes for an entertaining and memorable event. A born teacher, she stops often during classes to spiritedly explain technique and flavor profiles. She makes sure her students leave with new knowledge and a couple of tricks of the trade.

The Kitchenique Cooking School’s motto is “the most fun you’ll ever have in the kitchen,” and McCain makes sure her classes live up to that adage.

A listing of all classes is located on their website at kitchenique.com.

The Viking Cooking School
In contrast, The Viking Cooking School is a marvel of technology. Encased in white tile and glass within The Viking Store in Miramar Beach, this sleek space boasts the top of the line Viking name on its appliances and tools of the trade.

The school is set up and organized to accommodate up to 12 students for hands-on classes, placing four students at each of three cooking stations. The kitchen is outfitted with cameras projecting the progress of the cooking lesson onto large flat screen TV monitors. Cooking students are smartly outfitted in Viking aprons for when the lessons become too animated.

Within the school and overlooking the cooking stations, tables and chairs are arranged to accommodate up to 18 people for demos, food and wine pairings and group functions. By expanding into the Viking Store retail space, larger groups may be accommodated for receptions.
Andi Ogden has been with The Viking Store for nine years and is manager of the store, which moved from Silver Sands Factory Stores into its large expanded space last year.

“We are a one-stop shop. Everything is here. You can cook a meal, learn how to use the pots and pans and other equipment and buy them if you like,” says Ogden.

She says those taking classes have similar interests and often make friends during the classes. “Some people focus on cooking and some focus on fun. We have a lot of fun.”

The Viking School has a comprehensive year-round calendar of classes with something for everyone. Classes range in price from $59 to $109. Ongoing “Lunch and Learn” demo classes are very reasonably priced at $15. The calendar of classes includes many workshops teaching holiday or seasonal cooking and special event menus. Depending on the class, wine may be served and is included in the price of the class, justifying a higher fee. Recipe packets are provided and include a convenient shopping list.

The cooking class schedule for The Viking Store (vikingcookingschool.com) is available online and in a culinary program catalogue available in the store, located at 10859 Emerald Coast Parkway W, Suite 203.

Making the Cut
The easiest thing you can do to make cooking easier and prepare beautiful dishes in the kitchen is to have good tools — and a premium knife is at the top of that list, according to area cooking school staff. It’s the secret weapon of every good cook.

It’s not enough to have good knives. You must maintain them and keep them sharp so that they work efficiently. A high quality knife can easily cost more than $100 but, with proper care, will last many years and still perform optimally.

The way ingredients are diced, minced or cut greatly impacts the texture and even the taste of food. For example, the smaller the cut, the less texture in the dish. It’s worth the investment to purchase high quality knives and take the time to learn to use them properly.

Basic knife skills classes are taught regularly at the Kitchenique Cooking School and The Viking Cooking School. Both stores carry lines of premium knives with knowledgeable staff to assist with your selection.

Never Too Many Chefs in the Kitchen
Many area restaurants convert their kitchens into teaching classrooms. Here are a few eateries with a tasty ciriculum.

FireFly restaurant in Panama City offers monthly classes with Executive Chef Paul Stellato. (850) 249-3359 

Jackson’s in Pensacola has celebrity chef Irv Miller presenting cooking demos with cocktails. (850) 469-9898

Clemenza’s at Uptown in Fort Walton Beach plans to start demonstration cooking classes in 2012. (850) 243-0707