In 1977, two food-loving childhood friends named Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield signed up for a $5 Penn State correspondence course in ice-cream making, just for the hell of it. Seven years later, their $5 investment had been developed into a multi-million dollar company, Ben & Jerry's, using their basic technical skills, sugar-loving palates, and the ingenious idea of taking something bad for you that tastes good (ice cream) and making it worse for you and even better tasting (ice cream with chocolate chunks and peanut-butter swirls and tie-dye packaging!).
Ben and Jerry’s results are certainly not typical, and ice-cream making courses are hard to come by these days, but taking recreational culinary arts classes are still a fun, gluttonous way to spend an evening. Not only do they guarantee you’ll eat well that night, but, unlike the time you took that Tae Bo class, you’ll learn skills that you’ll actually use.
The practicality of these classes, along with the increasing popularity of Food Network’s celebrity chefs and shows such as The Next Food Network Star and Iron Chef America, has led to higher demand for food education and given us more culinary class options than ever in New England.
According to Sean Leonard, director of recreational programs at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts (CSCA), enrollment in the school’s non-credit recreational programs has increased by an average of 30 percent a year for the past three years. As a result, the CSCA adds about six new recreational classes each year, as well as more kitchen space; in January, the school will add a fifth kitchen to accommodate yet more classes.
“I would attribute it to Food Network,” said Julie Burba, director of communications and class instructor at CSCA. “People seem to be more interested in doing the things they see on TV.”
Leonard said sushi-making, weekend brunch, and holiday classes in particular have been hits. But the most popular by far has been the “Cooking Couples” series, which began with one standard menu and has since expanded to include 11 sessions on everything from ethnic cuisines to aphrodisiac dishes. A “wine and dine” option includes a food-and-wine pairing at the end of the meal.
Couples classes generally cost $70 per person, and enrolling twosomes don’t necessarily have to be in a relationship — friends and family are welcome (though, in that case, the aphrodisiac class should probably be avoided).
Other schools and community centers in the Boston area offer similarly intriguing and affordable culinary-arts courses, which range from the basics to more involved topics, including cheesemaking and booze appreciation.
Burba and Leonard suggest starting with basic technique classes, such as the six-part “Back to Basics” series at CSCA. Students learn how to use knives and eggs, and to create soups, stocks, salads, and sauces, all of which are helpful skills in more advanced and specialized classes. “Back to Basics” also teaches cooking techniques such as roasting, stewing, grilling, and braising. CSCA’s four-week “Techniques of Baking” course covers pies, tarts, breads, and cakes, while an additional course teaches students to work with puff pastry. All series courses can be taken separately.