Cooking schools: Eating while learning

On a recent Wednesday, I learned how to cook like they do at an Italian restaurant — rice balls, veal scaloppini with Chianti sauce and chocolate mousse.

The next Monday, I learned how to make bagels and their cousins, bialys. Two days later, I was learning to make a meal that consisted of beef and barley soup, grilled steak, roasted cauliflower and a cranberry cake with apple.

Who needs the Culinary Institute of America?

Cooking classes are a lot cheaper. A lot cheaper. They’re much faster, just two to three hours.

And at the end of the class you get to eat what was cooked.

Though there is a fair share of culinary schools for serious students who want to become chefs, most local regions are home to more casual schools of cooking.

You choose a class that interests you — Southern recipes featuring pork, for instance — sign up and attend the one-evening class.

If you like it, try a different class. If you don’t like it, try a different class and see if you like that one.

My week of cooking classes took me to three of the best-known cooking schools in St. Louis. Each one was stylistically different, although the goal (learn how to cook great food) was always the same.

Scott Drake, our instructor at Schnucks Cooks, is a natural showman. He emphasized that he wanted us to learn, to have fun and to be safe at all times.

Learning is a given in any sort of class, but the other two goals are shown perhaps less consideration by home cooks than they should be.

At Schnucks, the ingredients are all premeasured. We student cooks only had to add them to the pots and pans in the right order. Some stirring and sauteing was involved, and one student got to make perfect diamond-shaped grill marks on the steaks.

Why diamond-shaped marks? Drake said that it is because, when cooking a lot of meat on a rectangular grill, placing it on the diagonal is the most efficient use of grill space. Placing meat — and in our case, also portobello mushrooms — on a diagonal and moving it once results in perfect diamond cross-hatches.

Kim and John Powell were pleased with the class at Schnucks, which they attended as a kind of date night. They have attended a few others and are looking forward to more.

“It’s to expand on our cooking, using different flavors, different spices, different techniques. Plus, it’s something to do together,” John Powell said.

The cooking class I went to at the Dierbergs in Ellisville, Mo., was more of a lecture. Gerard Germain, chef de cuisine at Tony’s restaurant in St. Louis, cooked a complicated meal, explaining what he was doing as he went along.

When it was over, he served us the food he cooked. Only about half of us in the class took notes — and on this singular occasion the school did not provide recipes — which made me think that some of us were there just to eat a meal cooked by Gerard Germain.

You could do worse. And at $50 per person, the same general price of the other classes I took, it actually cost less than a similar meal at Tony’s.

Germain cooked the way a chef would, which is to say he made all the dishes at the same time. This could be confusing at times for those of us who were trying to follow along, but eventually we could make sense of it all. Whenever he was cooking with rice, he was making the rice balls. When he was cooking veal or a sauce, he was making the veal with a Chianti sauce.

And Germain was full of helpful professional advice, such as this: You don’t need Chianti to make the Chianti sauce. Any red wine would do, he said, even the stuff that costs three bucks a bottle.

For Phil Gann and Liz Haverman, the class at Dierbergs was their first — he gave her the class as a birthday gift. They will be going to more, they said.

“I love to cook, I love to watch Food Network. I try to get new ideas, because you feel like you keep cooking the same things,” Haverman said.

“She’s really good at cooking, and I’m really good at sampling,” Gann said.

Perhaps the most hands-on of the classes I took was at Kitchen Conservatory, making bagels and bialys. Margi Kahn, the school’s doyenne of dough, led the class through the ins and outs of making the traditionally Jewish delicacies.

No fan of bagels she calls “as big as our heads,” Kahn gave plenty of tips for making bagels that taste like bagels, instead of bread. For a fully developed flavor, she starts by making a sponge, which is a thin batter that begins to ferment before more flour is added.

And the flour she uses (for the bagels only) is different from the norm. Instead of using all bread flour, she adds a portion of whole wheat flour for a nuttier and deeper taste. And to create that slight bagel tang, she adds just a bit of vinegar.

The bialys did not have these enhancements to the flavor, but otherwise the onion-flavored rolls, which have a depression instead of a hole, are made in much the same way. The biggest difference between them and bagels is in the way they are cooked.

Bialys are baked; bagels are briefly boiled before baking — and when done professionally, the water has lye in it. To avoid any danger from the lye, we used baking soda, which created the same familiar chewy crust.

And for further enjoyment of our bagels and bialys, as if any were needed, we also mixed together a quick assortment of spreads to go with them.

For Helena Docherty, the class was the 40th she had attended, all at Kitchen Conservatory, in a year and a half. She has been trying a wide variety of cuisines (she enjoys French the most, because it is the foundation for all European cooking), and has been baking as well as cooking.

She likes the school, she said, because “they are very professional, and the recipes are reproducible. I could actually make the recipes at home.”

Her husband is a doctor in the Army Reserves, currently stationed in Germany. The last time he came home after a deployment, she tried out her recipes on him.

“He really appreciated my newly gained knowledge,” she said.