Karl Rauch and Liza Piroska love to cook but don't like following recipes, so the two friends decided to try out a cooking class where they could follow along with a pro. Now, classes are part of their annual holiday tradition.
The duo said taking culinary classes gives them time to hang out together and have fun while prepping for the holidays.
"We like to entertain and have dinner parties ... it totally impresses people," said Rauch, who lives in San Mateo.
In a recent class at Draeger's Cooking School in San Mateo, Rauch and Piroska sat in the back of the class sipping wine and enjoying salad and bread while learning how to make an array of chocolate desserts.
During the 90-minute demonstration, chocolatier Alice Medrich showed them step by step how to make tiramisu, chocolate crepes, chocolate ice cream and chocolate sauce.
"It's inspiring," said Piroska, who lives in Palo Alto. "If you see it demonstrated, you learn so many techniques."
Rauch and Piroska aren't alone in turning to pros.
Kitchen retailer Sur La Table, which operates 80 in-store cooking schools nationwide -- including one at Town & Country Shopping Center in Palo Alto -- has seen enrollment in its cooking classes jump to 600,000 students annually, CEO Billy May told the National Retail Federation in October.
The holiday season is particularly popular. The chefs interviewed for this story said their classes tend to sell out quickly during this time of year with people interested in learning how to cook everything from their first turkey dinner to holiday breads, family meals, make-ahead holiday brunch and gluten-free baked goods. Sur La Table even offers a kids holiday cooking series.
In addition to learning how to cook from in-house instructors and local celebrity chefs at professional cooking schools, students can opt to attend an intimate class at a chef's home or host a private cooking party at their own home. Prices typically range from $60 to $125 per person and include all supplies.
Medrich, founder of the Cocolat chain of chocolate stores and a James Beard award-winning cookbook author, said some come to improve their culinary skills, others come to enjoy time together with family and friends. It's an experience you can't get from online cooking videos, she said.
Demonstration classes at Draeger's, like the one she teaches as a guest chef, are designed for socializing, she said. Students can sit back, sample the menu, enjoy wine and learn some new cooking tricks in a relaxing and fun setting.
"Teaching in person, it's a wonderful exchange," Medrich said.
Maria Capdevielle, a consulting pastry chef at V. Sattui restaurant in Santa Helena, is teaching a hands-on South American holiday baking class as a guest chef at Draeger's this season. She said learning to cook perfectly is not necessarily what people are looking for when they take a class.
"The objective is that people enjoy their time, and they learn something that they can recreate at home," said Capdevielle, who planned to teach students how to make Argentinian caramel sandwich cookies, Brazilian fudge candies, Brazilian cheese bread and Venezuelan stuffed bread with olives, jam and raisins.
In her interactive three-hour class, students break into groups that each prepare a portion of the menu. At the end, everyone gets to sample each group's dishes together.
"Nowadays people are a little bit disconnected. I feel that cooking is a wonderful way to connect," she said. "Cooking together, everyone has a responsibility: You cut the onions, you do different tasks, everyone feels important and then everyone enjoys."
Mountain View chef Anne-Marie Bonneau, who teaches at various cooking schools and holds classes at residents' homes, believes cooking is a fun way to get together with one's friends.
"My classes are like little parties ... I teach them, and they eat food, and they chat," she said.
Known as "The Zero-waste Chef," Bonneau shows students ways to reduce their environmental footprint in the kitchen while teaching them healthy-cooking skills like how to ferment foods such kimchi, sauerkraut and kombucha. Her holiday courses focus on how to reduce food waste by learning how to determine how much food is needed for parties and family meals and what to do with leftovers. During her classes, Bonneau provides the ingredients, as well as food for students to sample and take home. At the end of the lesson, students get to take home whatever they make.
"I don't think cooking is so difficult that you have to be too serious about it ... anyone can do it. It's fun!" Bonneau said.
HOLIDAY COOKING CLASSES
Sur La Table: Town & Country Village, Suite 57, 855 El Camino Real, Palo Alto
Hands-on group sessions for up to 16 students. Participants are broken into groups of four to prepare dishes that are shared at the end of the 2-2.5-hour classes | $75 (for most holiday classes) | surlatable.com
Draeger's Cooking School: 1010 University Drive, Menlo Park/222 E. Fourth Ave., San Mateo
Demonstration classes and hands-on classes taught by guest chefs, staff instructions ranging from industry insiders, cookbook authors and globe-traveling experts | classes range from 1.5-3 hours and include snacks, beverages and menu tastings | $60-$125, includes all materials |
Quattro, Four Seasons Hotel: 2050 University Ave., East Palo Alto
Four Seasons Hotel offers private mixology classes for groups of 8-20 at its restaurant, Quattro. During the two-hour class, a bartender will teach participants how to pour, muddle and mix seasonal craft cocktails at highboy tables set up with shakers, mixers and all the needed ingredients. Hors d'oeuvres are included. | $100 per person | quattrorestaurant.com
Personalized private hands-on cooking classes in your home (or other selected location) arranged through the company's website, which pairs local residents to professional chefs | $100, includes all materials | cozymeal.com
The Zero-Waste Chef
Mountain View chef Anne-Marie Bonneau offers classes and private workshops/parties at the location of your choice. She shows students ways to reduce their environmental footprint in the kitchen while teaching them healthy-cooking skills like how to ferment food. Vegan snacks are included. | $20-$90, includes materials | zerowastechef.com
La Toque de Cindy California Culinary Experiences
Palo Alto chef Cindy Roberts hosts private cooking-party events for kids of all ages. Her experiences are geared to instill a love for cooking and eating. She holds contests and trivia quizzes, cooking games and raffle tickets to spice up her cooking sessions. During the holidays, she teaches with guest instructors. Classes limited to 12. | $60 | cindytoquecooking.com