I was fortunate enough to have some time to take cooking classes in LA over the last two months. As I began my search to figure out where I wanted to take classes, I was impressed by the wealth of options we have in LA: single classes, series, day time, night time, weekend, themed, general – you name it, there is a class for it. I decided to take classes at three different places, each of which offered a very different positive experience.
I started with Chef Eric's Healthy Cooking series of four classes on Monday nights. There were six students in the class — three in their twenties/thirties, two high school students, and a woman in her 70s but the common thread was that everyone was deeply interested in cooking. Chef Eric starts with a demonstration and mini-lecture, where he talks through each of the dishes on tap for the evening and answers questions. This was the most impressive part of the class —- Chef Eric is incredibly knowledgable and could always provide a detailed and thorough answer to any question I posed.
After the lecture, he divided the class into pairs and assigned us to the dishes we were in charge of for the evening. He was trained at the Culinary Institute of America (which is widely referred to as the “Harvard of culinary schools” — a great book about what the experience there is like is “The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America” by Michael Ruhlman) and proudly tells you that he replicates the class structure used there.
The kitchen is extremely well outfitted and there is plenty of room to cook, particularly with such a small class size. Each team has a station to cut and prep food and a full professional range with a gas stovetop and oven. In addition to Chef Eric, an assistant also circulates to provide guidance and assistance.
Once the cooking is complete, Chef Eric always has attractive suggestions for plating and then the class sits down to eat. Everyone is welcome to eat what they want and the copious leftovers remain.
On the whole, the food we prepared was very good —- there were some real hits that I've replicated at home (including a barley and roast vegetable stuffed portobello mushroom) but there were also some misses. I really enjoyed learning how to cook comfortably with whole grains and gaining a wider repertoire of relatively healthy recipes.
Overall pros: Extremely knowledgable chef, well equipped kitchen, small classes, replicable and healthy recipes. I would definitely take another class here, particularly one of the longer series that covers more in-depth cooking skills. The series was very informative and I learned a lot and enjoyed doing so.
Overall cons: Being assigned to a dish and a partner rather than choosing is not always ideal – I was lucky and my partner turned out to be the sister of a college friend and we loved getting to know each other and cook together. The class is not especially social, particularly given the range of ages, so doing it with a friend is helpful. Lastly, I always found it a bit odd to leave the leftovers after cooking them, but I can only assume Chef Eric put them to good use.
EATZ is interesting to compare with Chef Eric because it is almost the polar opposite model. I took the six week Basics series at EATZ on Wednesday nights. There were about sixteen students in the class, which took place standing around a large table. Each pair of two shared a cutting board and a small gas burner and everyone cooked almost every dish on the menu. The teacher, Shari, would explain the dish as we started cooking it and we each made around six dishes over the course of the four hour class. Because it was a basics class, we started with knife skills and sauces and then moved onto a week of pasta/pizza, chicken, fish, meat, then desserts. Basics also meant that there was a huge range of abilities in the primarily 20-somethings class — there were those who had never picked up a knife before and seemed like they might burn the place down at any minute and those who had a genuine interest in cooking and building their skills. All of this was facilitated by copious amounts of wine drinking — there was always wine open and friendly socializing (you chose your own partners and people moved around each week to different spots at the table) and the class got rowdier and less focused as we neared 11pm each week.
We also used an astounding amount of butter and cream in almost every dish, making it pretty unlikely that I will replicate most of the dishes. Some of them were great, but more often they were good – a few misses but mostly just average.
Overall pros: A fun, social class – equal parts dinner party and learning experience. I definitely learned more of the basics and had a good time doing so. The instructors were fun and nice and effectively facilitated a very social experience. In addition, it's helpful to have a chance to prepare every dish yourself so you really know what goes into it. I would recommend the individual dinner party style classes here, especially for a group of friends.
Overall cons: To me, this is not the place to go if you have a serious interest in building your culinary skills and repertoire. While the instructors were happy to help, their knowledge did not seem super deep (to be clear, it certainly may have been, but that did not come out in this type of class) and the setup of many small burners without hoods sometimes made for a very smoky, onion-stinging experience for the eyes.
I took a single class at Gourmandise, located in the Market on the top floor of the new mall in Santa Monica. The class was a Sunday jam making class and I absolutely loved it. I dragged my husband with me to this one and over the course of four hours we made strawberry rhubarb jam, peach bourbon jam (the bourbon was our add to cut the sweetness), pickles, and muffins on which to enjoy the fruits of our labor. There were ten people in the class and we were paired up into groups of two (everyone seemed to have come with a partner, contrary to all the other classes I'd been to). Everyone in the class (or at least one person in each pair) was knowledgable and passionate about cooking and baking and many seemed very experienced.
The instructor started with a brief intro about why jam making won't kill you (this wasn't super helpful, sine Isaac and I had not realized that it could….) and how to ensure the safety and longevity of your jam – read: lots and lots of sugar and some lemon juice. The instructor, Chef Clemence, was extremely passionate about her subject matter, and rattled off the names of each stall in the Farmers Market where she had purchased the ingredients —- if we had pressed her, I'm pretty sure she could have told us the farms where it came from. Once we started jamming and were ready to sterilize our jars, she stopped the class to make a brief but important confession: “I just wanted to tell you that the metal lids of your jars have a touch of BPA in them that acts as a sealing agent. I've called the manufacturer and they are working on a BPA-free sealing agent but they haven't made one yet. I felt all of you should know before putting this chemical in your beautiful all natural jams.” We decided to stick around and process our jams despite the minuscule chemical risk. It also probably won't surprise you to learn that we used no artificial pectic, or jelling agent, in our jams. Rather, we cooked the peach jam with the pit, which releases natural pectin, and then is removed. The downside of not using pectin is that you need a lot more sugar and it takes a lot longer for the jams to jell so the fruit is deeply cooked. I've since experimented with further jam making at home (my best was peach jalapeño; orange marmalade was not a hit) and using an all natural pectin seems to be both safe and helpful, especially if you want to reduce cooking time over a hot stove in the summer.
The facility was also beautiful, with a combination of a professional stovetop and oven as well as individual electric burners. The floor-to-ceiling picture windows open up onto the Market, which is filled with lots of foodie hotspots for every imaginable specialty or artisanal item.
Overall pros: The topic of this class, as well as many others offered at Gourmandise, was unique and not something I would feel comfortable teaching myself at home. The teacher was passionate and super knowledgable and the facility was brand new and beautifully outfitted. We left with enough jam and pickles to take us through all of our holiday gift giving. Also, did I mention that everything was all natural? I would definitely take a specialty class here again, and would also be interested in the Baking series, as sweets seem to be an area of expertise here.
Overall cons: The class was not especially social in its structure, which was compounded by everyone arriving in pairs. While some people were able to use top of the line equipment, others used electric stovetops which are tough to control.
I would wholeheartedly recommend that anyone with an interest in cooking and with an afternoon or evening to spare take a class at one of these schools. It's helpful to know what you want to get out of the experience, as each one offers something different, but I certainly feel lucky to live in a city with such great options.
Chef Eric's Culinary Classroom
2366 Pelham Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90064
612 N. La Brea Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90036
Phone: 310-824-3586 Gourmandise School of Sweets and Savories http://www.thegourmandiseschool.com/
The Market at Santa Monica Place
395 Santa Monica Place, STE 329
Santa Monica, CA 90401