I like to immerse myself in the region’s culture by taking a cooking class. When I learn to make a traditional dish, I can take those memories of tastes and aromas home and relive the experience. I also sometimes have a dinner party using the menu of the class as a basis for the menu I make. It allows me to share more than just the images I took while on vacation and provides a better answer to the question, “How was your vacation?”
In most cooking classes, whether hands-on or demonstration-style, you’ll have some food during the course, either an entire meal at the end or with some cooking demonstrations where you have a tasting menu as you go. In either case, I’ve never left a cooking class hungry, so it’s typically best to schedule them to end around mealtime. That way, you can combine an activity and a meal into one event.
Here are five of my favorite cooking schools throughout the United States, listed in no order.
I experienced Colorado Mountain College and the Local Epicurean as part of familiarization trips to Breckenridge, Colorado, and Grand Rapids, Michigan. All opinions are my own.
1. New Orleans School Of Cooking
New Orleans, Louisiana
New Orleans School of Cooking, situated in the French Quarter, provides Creole and Cajun cuisine classes. In addition, they offer cooking demonstrations and hands-on classes. You can check out their class calendar, where they outline the day’s menu and list if the course is hands-on or a demo.
Our class’s menu was traditional New Orleans favorites — barbeque shrimp and grits, chicken and andouille gumbo, pralines, and bananas foster crepes. Here, I learned to make the perfect dark mahogany roux for gumbo.
You leave the class with a New Orleans School of Cooking apron and a recipe packet so that you can replicate the dishes at home. Once the course finishes, take some time to shop their store for unique kitchen gadgets that will make cooking the recipes a bit easier. For example, you might want to purchase some seafood tools, like a shrimp deveiner, fish spatula, or oyster knife.
If you don’t have room in your suitcase for the spices and sauces they have in the store, you can always shop online when you return home to get the same flavors you had in class.
Pro Tip: If you enjoy jazz, many restaurants in the area offer meals that include it. One of my favorites is the brunch at Commander’s Palace.
Here are some of my favorite classic restaurants in New Orleans:
2. Santa Fe School Of Cooking
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Located in downtown Santa Fe, the Santa Fe School of Cooking specializes in food from the American Southwest. They offer a variety of classes, including demonstration classes, hands-on cooking classes, and Santa Fe’s original chef-led restaurant walking tours.
I attended a demonstration-style class, where we could enjoy the regional food after the demonstration. We learned to make handmade corn tortillas, chicken or cheese enchiladas, red and green chile sauce, pinto beans, posole, and pecan bread pudding.
This course answered my questions about cooking with chiles, including how to use the dried pods to create a luscious red sauce used in many Southwest dishes. On my own, I couldn’t quite imagine how they used dried chiles for more than decorations. It turns out you rehydrate them in boiling water.
They also offer an online market that specializes in cooking tools and ingredients required to make dishes from the American Southwest. Finally, if you’re staying in a vacation rental in Santa Fe and are in more of an eating rather than a cooking mood, try the Santa Fe School of Cooking’s Food-To-Go, where you can pick up everything ready-to-eat from tamales to chicken enchiladas.
If you enjoy jazz, Santa Fe School of Cooking also features a high-end jazz supper club, Dave’s Jazz Bistro, as another way to experience the best of Santa Fe’s regional ingredients.
Pro Tip: While you’re in Santa Fe, be sure to try a variety of dishes using Hatch green chiles. When ordering a dish with chile sauce, the server may ask if you want red, green, or Christmas. Christmas refers to including both red and green chile sauce on a single dish.
Discover more about Santa Fe’s dining options in these articles:
- Santa Fe’s Best Food: What To Try And Where To Find It
- 6 Amazing Restaurants To Get A True Taste Of Santa Fe
3. The Local Epicurean
Grand Rapids, Michigan
The Local Epicurean, located in the Eastown neighborhood of Grand Rapids, is an Italian market offering private cooking classes. Unfortunately, they don’t offer courses on a public enrollment, so you must call ahead and schedule one that will work for you. Additionally, you can collaborate with them to choose a menu the whole group will enjoy.
Our group made a Caprese salad, fettuccine with red sauce, and ice cream for dessert, which we turned into personalized sundaes. We made the pasta from scratch and the entire group got involved with rolling and cutting the pasta.
We learned to use a Kitchen-Aid mixer with a pasta roller attachment. Since I already have the mixer, I learned how to use the pasta roller attachment. I enjoyed this class because it combined a demonstration-style class with hands-on activities. Our group had a lot of fun making the pasta and I recommend this as a team-building activity.
Pro Tip: When staying in a vacation rental, buy some pre-made Italian dishes and serve a quality meal at your rental without all of the fuss of cooking it yourself.
Discover more Grand Rapids food-and-drink fun:
- 7 Fantastic Restaurants To Try In Grand Rapids, Michigan
- 7 Fantastic Breweries To Visit Along The Beer City Ale Trail
4. Colorado Mountain College
Located in Breckenridge, Colorado, Colorado Mountain College offers entire programs for students who are on the culinary career path. They also offer classes for people who want to cook great meals at home for their friends and family.
Each class has no more than 12 participants. Courses from their international series include destinations such as Thailand, France, Italy, the eastern Mediterranean, and India. Our class took a culinary trip to Brazil, where the chef tailored the menu to our group. Each team of two participants made two dishes. The dishes ranged from simple roasted vegetables and Brazilian cheese bread to more complicated empanadas and feijoada. Our group assembled at least eight dishes and the meal at the end was impressive. While each team didn’t make all the plates, the chef explained the technical parts of each dish so that the entire group could replicate the meal at home.
Each private class includes an instructor, a hands-on cooking class, and dinner. Throughout the course, the instructor will pause for instruction. For example, in our class, the chef showed us how to tackle breaking down one of those tricky butternut squashes. While I love to eat them, I always felt somewhat intimidated when preparing one, but after class, I realized it was a breeze.
Pro Tip: If you enjoy cooking, you’ll find plenty of vacation rentals in Breckenridge with gourmet kitchens. If you have a group, you can hire a private chef to cook a meal or conduct a cooking class right in your vacation rental.
Other places to enjoy the Breckenridge food scene include:
- 8 Best Restaurants In Breckenridge
- 11 Beautiful Breckenridge Vacation Rentals For Your Mountain Getaway
5. Culinary Institute Of America (CIA)
While the Culinary Institute Of America (CIA) has several locations, I took a class in Napa, California. Other sites include the original venue at Hyde Park in New York and in San Antonio, Texas. While the CIA has trained world-class chefs who have made cooking their life, they also offer classes for foodies who have a passion for great food.
The cooking classes here cover foods from all over the world. What I like about these classes is you can go in-depth on a particular topic in one of their 3-day or 5-day boot camps. While they offer half-day classes, the boot camps get you into the details of a specific cuisine or type of cooking, and you learn all the basics.
The half-day classes include 4 hours of hands-on instruction and then 1 hour of dining. They serve wine with the meal that you created as well. You might want to try the bistros and brasseries class, which is a half-day of instruction. You’ll learn how to make a leek and cheese tart, a beef stew, and that oh-so-wonderful chocolate mousse.
Pro Tip: With more than 450 wineries in Napa Valley, you’ll also have the perfect opportunity to learn more about wine. Check out some of these wineries that offer wine classes.
Explore Napa’s restaurants while you’re in the area: