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How to Learn to Cook...on Vacation

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Taking a cooking class just so you can watch someone else cook feels a little bit like going to the gym just so you can watch someone else work out. But some culinary vacationers really are just happy watching.

“Believe it or not, a lot of people who want to take a cooking class don't actually want to cook anything,” says cooking class instructor and radio show host Susan Irby, aka The Bikini Chef, who also leads cooking trips to Tuscany.

Aside from deciding how hands-on of a class you want, Irby says you ought to consider if you “want to tour various venues such as cheese makers, wineries, butcher shops, and farmer's markets or do [you] want to mostly relax at a villa and do some cooking? Most trips offer a little of both,” but if kicking back is a priority, you’ll probably “want to take a good look at the accommodations and meals during the non-cooking class times,” she says.

Also be honest with yourself about how important it is to be in the presence of greatness in the kitchen, says cooking trip aficionado Eileen Farr. “Do you want to spend time with a name chef that you can talk about later with your friends? Then almost any seminar or demonstration will do,” Farr says. Adds Gina Rogak, who took a cooking trip to Emilia Romagna region of Italy, “the best thing about the hands-on instruction was the ability of the instructor to teach and get the group to participate. I've taken a class in the states with a ‘personality’ who might have been great in his own kitchen, but could not teach a hands-on class.”

If you’re more of a hardcore foodie, says Farr, what you’re looking for in a course is “a balance between three poles -- the chef's reputation, the curriculum and the depth of hands-on experience you will receive. The types of food and ingredients are significant too, especially if you maintain particular dietary restrictions.”

Another important consideration, of course, is where you’d like to travel. “When we get inquiries, our guests generally have a pretty good idea where they want to go,” says Judith von Prockl, managing director of cooking vacation provider Gourmet On Tour. “Usually [guests] have their heart set on the country, say Italy or France for example, but are quite open to different regions [like] Provence, Cote d'Azur, Bordeaux, or Burgundy.” She adds that if available course dates are a priority, guests “tend to be more flexible in regards to the destination and are open to suggestions, sometimes to even more adventurous places they hadn't thought of [like] Morocco or lesser know regions in Europe.”

Herein, a few more tips for booking a cooking trip.

Ask the hard (boiled) questions.

Irby suggests asking how long the class sessions are, who teaches them, and how many students are permitted in each class. “A class of 10 or less is ideal when dealing with hands-on classes,” she says, but if you’re more interested in watching a demo class, find out if the facility has overhead mirrors so you can see what’s happening, especially if you’re among 20 or more students.

Find out what if any off-site excursions are included, whether transportation is provided for them, and whether these side trips cost extra beyond your base trip fee. Also ask if the excursions are “centered on food or just touristy stuff,” says Mary Knuff, who was part of an Ecco La Cucina cooking trip in Siena, Italy. “I had already been to Italy as a tourist,” Knuff says, but her cooking tour included “visits to organic farms and markets, meeting a cheese maker, olive oil tasting, [and] wine tasting.”

If your trip dates are flexible, says von Prockl, get suggestions from your trip provider about when to go.

“For Europe, we generally suggest spring and autumn as it is the best time of the year for a cooking class -- not too hot and not as crowded with tourists. Also, the produce is wonderful.”

Find out where you’ll be cooking, hunting, and gathering.

For Susan McCabe and her family, learning and spending time together was a priority, so they were content to stay put for the most part when they enlisted in the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) boot camp. “Most of the instruction occurred in a kitchen at CIA in Hyde Park, New York,” McCabe says. “We also sat in a classroom for a daily lecture from the nutritionist. We ate breakfast and dinners in student run restaurants. It was very interesting being on the campus observing the students in their classes.”

Even if you are spending a lot of your class time in a kitchen, not all kitchens are alike. Knuff’s instruction was in a kitchen inside an old mill that was several hundred years old. For culinary historian Cynthia Clampitt, who attended cooking school Seasons of My Heart just outside Oaxaca, Mexico “there were indoor modern appliances and outdoor traditional appliances, so we could learn how things were made locally and how we could reproduce them at home. One day, however, we spent out in a Zapotec Indian village, learning about pre-Hispanic foods, so we were cooking entirely on traditional equipment.”

Over at the Refugio da Vila Cooking School in Portugal, Joaquim Ribeiro fondly recalls excursions to a smoked red sausage factory as well as a cheese factory where “I did my own goat cheese. It was amazing [to partake in] the ancient process [of] still using a smashed wild cactus flower to convert the milk into a solid paste.”

Allow yourself to be surprised.

After a week of cooking in Tuscany, Knuff says her class cooked with tomatoes “only once – in Italy! I’m not complaining because I didn’t miss anything. [Tomatoes] aren’t in season in the fall and Tuscans cook with a respect for the food that comes directly from the farm.”

The experience also made Knuff think about cooking and the destination a little differently. “I left with an appreciation not only for the area and their ancient culture but a healthy respect for cooking with seasonal food and how it can truly affect ones well being.”

Adds Ribeiro, “it's a great experience to cook with a chef, feeling part of a team. If you read you forget, if you see, you remember, but if you do with your hands, you'll learn. It is very important to feel the texture, the smell, the techniques -- to learn the exact moment when to stop mixing your sugar.”