5/01/2012 09:00:00 AM

Worth It: Can Pricey Culinary Classes Actually Teach You to Cook?

Christophe Bellanca teaches his students
This weekend, the New York Culinary Experience brought some of the city's best chefs to the International Culinary Center to teach classes about cooking to foodie novices who were lucky enough to score a ticket. We sent one of our writers in to see if you can actually learn anything during these crash sessions. Does being instructed by the masters for a few hours actually make you a better cook at home? Let's see how Anna Hylack's brief stint under two top NYC chefs turned out:

I’m not much of a cook. I’ve always wanted to be the type of person who buys fresh produce from the Greenmarket and wakes up early every Sunday to make quinoa dishes for the week, but let’s face it: I live in a tiny studio in New York. I have about five inches of counter space in my “kitchen,” which is about six feet away from my bed. I order from Seamless way more often than I care to admit.

Even so, I was really excited to hear about the New York Culinary Experience, a two-day intensive program at the International Culinary Center in SoHo that offers people the chance to take master classes from some of the best chefs in the world. Surely this would inspire me to skip sleeping in and start chopping on those Sunday mornings. It’s not exactly a cheap venture – tickets for the whole weekend cost $1,395 – but where else can you learn how to make chocolates with Jacques Torres or fried chicken with Jean-Georges Vongerichten?

I signed up for two Sunday classes, but part of me was a little skeptical – I mean, how much can you really learn from just two cooking classes (or, for that matter, a whole weekend of cooking classes)? Is it really possible to pick up the skills of a master chef without spending 20 years working in a kitchen?

The short answer: no. As Corton chef/owner Paul Liebrandt put it when I talked to him in between classes, “It’s like asking someone who likes running to suddenly become a professional sprinter. They can’t do it – they have to train. The only way to really learn how to cook is to cook professionally in the kitchen.”

Still, I was surprised at much how I did learn, and how easy and straightforward the classes were. These guys were pros and they made me feel totally comfortable, even though I’ve barely ever handled raw meat or chopped an onion, much less fried langoustines or used gold leaf to garnish a mango mousse, like I did during my first class with L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon executive chef Christophe Bellanca. “Easy, no?” he kept saying as he showed us how to make the most perfect, jewel-green pesto I’ve ever seen, using some crazy Japanese straining method that, at the moment, did seem pretty easy. Will I ever do it at home? Probably not, but I might make the coriander soup recipe he showed us, which involved just three ingredients (cream cheese, cilantro and chicken stock) and looked like something that might draw lots of “oohs” and “ahhs” if I ever got ambitious enough to host a dinner party.

Paella success! 
The second class, with Tertulia chef Seamus Mullen, was the real eye-opener, though. He showed us how to make two different kinds of paella – a seafood paella and a spring chicken and vegetable paella. Paella is a notoriously difficult dish to make and requires a lot of different steps and a lot of babysitting the pan. We worked in groups of four, divvying up responsibilities, and Seamus treated us like we were his employees – yelling at us to pay attention, jumping around the room to criticize or compliment our work and give us little directions (“Shake the pan a little more,” “You need more stock!,” “Turn the shrimp!”). He also encouraged us to get down and dirty and, if necessary, a little bloody: “Until you’ve popped a knife in your hand opening shellfish, you haven’t lived.”

It was a crazy, exhausting two hours that made me feel like I’d just worked a shift at a restaurant, which is exactly what most people in the classroom had paid good money for: a real kitchen experience. Seamus taught us how to think beyond the recipe and use our sight, smell and taste to guide our decisions, which was a pretty cool lesson to learn – and the result was surprisingly delicious, considering that everyone in my group was a paella first-timer.

Did I come out of the day a master chef? Obviously not. But I did learn the difference between Spanish and Iranian saffron, where to buy feuille de brick, how to make a dessert interesting (“Add a little acidity,” according to L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon pastry chef Salvatore Martone) and two different chef’s chicken stock recipes (Seamus uses chicken wings and Christophe uses a whole Amish chicken, FYI). Thankfully, I did not slice into my hand while opening shellfish, but like I said, I’m not a pro - yet.


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