Cooking classes: worth it?
Has anyone had any luck with some of the cooking classes at places like Sur La Table or Sweet Basil in Phoenix? Personally I'm looking for two things. First, I'd like a fun night out, to meet people, and to hone my skills. Second, I'd like to know your recommendation for a class to really learn something.
Your question is huge: "Cooking Classes: worth it?"
You state that your first requirement is a fun night out, meet people and hone skills
Second: to really learn something.
Hmmmmm. Tall order here, you might be better off at a movie with a friend. But if you seriously want to learn something, there are classes available that can teach you.
Two main types of non-professional (also called "avocational" cooking classes are demonstration and hands-on. The second is self-explanatory, you actually do the work. This is the way to really learn, under the watchful eye of an experienced instructor. It is also the most difficult to teach well. Emily Seftel, reporter for The Arizona Republic reported on her session at "Kitchen Classics".
"Demonstration" is precisely what the name implies. Techniques are demonstrated to the class. Generally, you'll sit and watch the instructor demonstrate a process or technique. Demonstrations classes are fondly called "Red-finger-nail-lady" classes because they are primarily entertainment. Often there will be some cross-over between the two types but you'll need to know what you want.
Another important factor is the quality of the instructor. A well-known chef may or may not be a great teacher, cookbook authors are all over the place in their ability to teach, ditto for celebrity chefs. Again, you have to decide what you want -- a pleasant evening with a few giggles and good food or do you want to learn a lifelong lesson.
Both Sweet Basil and Sur La Table have classes and some of their instructors may be names you'll recognize. For some, it is important to be able to say "I took a class from so-and-so". However, it is impossible to make an across-the-board generalization about the worth of these classes for you because everything depends on your needs/wants and the quality of the instructor.
Likely, you'll need to do some investigating on your own after you identify exactly what you want these classes to provide.
There are a number of good programs in the Phoenix area. In addition to those already cited, try Barbara Fenzl's "Les Gourmettes". Watch the FOOD section listings of the Wednesday newspapers and call the various schools to ask for what you want. Also, the large professional schools in this area (SCI, ACI, Art Institute etc) offer avocational classes from time to time. You might get on as many mailing lists as possible so you don't miss IT -- the perfect match.
When you're looking for a teacher, find someone who is knowledgable, enthusiastic and has a great generosity of spirit. For a teacher, these qualities are much more important than book learning or restaurant experience.
Good Luck in your quest.
I've taken a class at Sur La Table, and it falls into the fun night out category more than the really learn something category. The class I took was hands-on, but we were divided into groups and each group made part of the meal. So the only part that you really learned was the part you worked on.
My friends and I had a really good time, and took away some useful recipes, but I personally didn't learn any new skills. One of my friends who doesn't cook at all learned much more.
I'd recommend both Kitchen Classics and AndyFood for casual & fun classes that teach various techniques. Their descriptions online should differentiate between classes that are more demonstration and those that are "hands on".
I took a "How to make a Wedding Cake" class at Kitchen Classics that was wonderful. Two days, hands-on, taught by a noted pastry chef. I learned a ton and had a fabulous time.
They offer a lot of classes each month. Many of them are just demo classes, but many are hands-on as well. They're clear about what kind of experience you'll get in the class descriptions, so you won't be surprised.
I took a class at AndyFood with my wife, and it was a lot of fun. Honestly, it wasn't the ultimate culinary training experience (I did learn a few tidbits, but for the most part it was pretty basic stuff).
We both had a great time, and enjoyed the meal we made. In this class, couples split up, and each make a different dish. So, you really only learn the dish you are making (although we definitely stuck our noses in everyone else's business to make sure we learned as much as possible).
Andy was very patient, and knowledgeable. I enjoyed, and would recommend the experience to others. We enjoyed meeting the other people in our class as well.