Last month I spent a pleasant Sunday at the Edinburgh New Town Cookery School. It occurred to me that although I have been on a fair few such courses over the past twenty odd years, and on several continents, I don't recall reading many column inches on them. So here are some thoughts.
The ultimate in cookery classes, of course, is the one which will see you emerge ready to take your place in the maelstrom of a professional kitchen. Well, let's assume that doesn't apply to you. (Though I was once taught to make tortellini in a Michelin starred kitchen.) So why are you going, and what do you hope to get? In many cases the first experience for foodie folk may well come in the form of a voucher for such a class, in which case you have no choice of venue. But take a step back and assume you have carte blanche. Which places to go to and which to avoid?
Realistically, what level are you at and what gaps do you have in your skills set? Remember the old saw - give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him to fish and you feed him for life. I guess the culinary equivalent would be along the lines of, teach a person a recipe and you teach her one dish: teach the basic techniques behind it and you teach hundreds of dishes. Read the websites carefully. Speak to people who have been on similar courses, or ask to speak to the course leaders themselves. You can be parting with quite a bit of money, so don't be frightened of doing your research. Find out, in particular, just how hands on things will be. There is no substitute for doing something yourself. If it's a demonstration only day, I would avoid like the - what's the word I'm looking for? - oh, yes, COVID 19. You might just as well save yourself the money, sit in the comfort of your armchair watching, Keith Floyd, Rick Stein or The Hairy Bikers. Entertainment is guaranteed, plus a bit of documentary, travelogue and history thrown in.
How many people will be on the course, and what is the stove:student ratio? The smaller the number of participants, the more attention you will get, and the greater your chance to ask questions; however, the cost will be greater. And who precisely will be taking the course? There are a few big name chefs who have their own cookery schools. If it's important to you to meet the great man/woman him/herself, check carefully to avoid disappointment. One of the best courses I ever attended was at Martin Wishart's Cookery School. It was made crystal clear that it would not be taught by Martin. I believe he does take a few himself, at a higher fee. You knew in advance what recipes you would be making - it was the pigeon which sold it to me - but what made the day special was the constant stream of handy hints and tips from a couple of top pros. Anti sodium brigade note: salt is a flavour enhancer. Everyone note: pepper is a spice; not all dishes require spice; so don't assume the words and pepper must automatically follow salt.
One of the best reasons for attending a course is to learn about a completely new cuisine. The caveat again is to find out as much as you can about the course content. I loved Thai food but knew little about it. Learning how to make my own curry pastes lifted my future efforts miles above those made using stuff from a jar. I've also done a lot of courses abroad, primarily in the Far East. Be realistic. A few hours is not going to turn you into an expert. But if it's combined, as many are, with a trip to a local market, you'll come away with a greater knowledge of the ingredients. Oh, and probably with a certificate of dubious value. My collection includes a merit for a spring roll made as the sun was going down in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam, a splendid day in Bali presided over by a hysterically funny chef whose head was even fuller of trivia than mine, and a morning bashing Thai paste with a mortar and pestle while watching hotel staff trying to round up a lost baby elephant.
Finally, a word of warning on the alcohol front. It is customary to eat at least a part of what one has cooked. The blurb will usually say that you may enjoy a glass of wine with your food. What, pray, is the problem, I hear you ask, especially those who know me? I raise the point simply having regard for your driving licence, and, in certain cases for your liver. I did spend a raucous week in Tuscany where the prosecco was likely to be opened at 11am, and the last wine consumed when the chef fell over about 12 hours later. The glass of wine may be just that, or it may be a bottomless bottle left on a serve yourself basis. Consider how you are going to transport yourself home.
You should expect to come away with a goodly number of recipes. On my last visit, focusing on Spain. it didn't help that the teacher seemed to disagree with half of the written material. I did ask if I could reproduce any of the recipes, but they didn't come back to me. No matter: we'll dig out a treat for Friday.
I've had a lot of fun in cookery classes over the years. My first ever was led by a relatively unknown Sikh chef by the name of Tony Singh. Sometimes you just have to take the plunge; but if you have a specific goal, it pays to do a little research.