Feature Article
Everything from shellfish to chocolate at classes held throughout the state

by Libby Boren McMillan

This is a wonderful time to be a cook, or even a wannabe cook. Networks devoted entirely to food are pumping out cooking shows like the world might end before breakfast. Cooking magazines fill the shelves at the checkout stand, and kitchenware is sexier than ever.

It only makes sense, then, that cooking classes are also on the rise, in both quantity and quality. Whether you need a great gift idea or are feeling the urge to beef up your own repertoire, Florida is brimming with classes and schools for food enthusiasts. Choose one a few hours from home, and you’re off on a culinary adventure. Or check out some of the terrific options available right here in Southwest Florida.

Lenore Nolan-Ryan Cooking School
She has a name that baseball fans can easily recall, but it’s the owner’s personality that makes the Lenore Nolan-Ryan Cooking School so memorable. This vivacious chef—a Miami native—and her colorful commercial kitchen are found in the charming village of Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, where one can enjoy walking off a hearty repast in the salt air. Nolan-Ryan intersperses her busy catering calendar with cooking classes beginning in October and running through spring. “We try to hold each class to around eight to twelve people,” says her busy assistant Tina McClure, who sends out monthly e-mail “blasts” to subscribers wanting a heads-up on opportunities.

The adventuresome Nolan-Ryan spends her summers working aboard a motor yacht that cruises Alaska’s Inside Passage, never knowing who will charter the vessel upon which she struts her culinary stuff. As a result, Nolan-Ryan once found herself in a position that would thrill some chefs and terrify others, when the family boarding the ship was none other than that of Mario Batali, the Croc- and shorts-wearing, ponytailed chef/restaurateur whose cooking shows, eateries, and books have earned him countless devotees. A blog on Nolan-Ryan’s Web site (www.lenorenolanryan.com) describes her exciting week with la famiglia Batali.

A quick glance at Nolan-Ryan’s personal history—hanging out in her father’s Havana casino and years as a restaurateur in San Francisco—underscores the multicultural foundation for her classes. Her bright, cheery kitchen sports a collection of unique serving dishes, and students can spend their days exploring the pedestrian-friendly environs of Lauderdale-by-the-Sea before lunging into a fun, hands-on evening class (they run about two and a half hours). “Savory Shellfish,” “Demystifying the Olive,” and “5 Ingredients/30 Minutes” are but a sampling of the popular classes offered at the school.

Lenore Nolan-Ryan Cooking School & Catering Company, 954-491-2340, www.lenorenolanryan.com

Chef Jean-Pierre’s Cooking School
If you’ve dreamed of visiting Provence and learning to cook from a French master, the Lauderdale area has another option custom-tailored to your desires. Chef Jean-Pierre’s Cooking School, located near the Las Olas district, is helmed by the charming Jean-Pierre Brehier, who makes regular appearances on NBC’s Today show as well as Larry King Live, Crook & Chase, and the Lifetime and PBS networks.

Brehier, an internationally renowned chef, author, and restaurateur who personally instructs many of his eagerly awaited classes, hails from Aix-en-Provence and grew up at the apron strings of a Cordon Bleu chef who just happened to be his maman. Inspired, the young Frenchman rose to a Michelin 3-star apprenticeship and worked at several famous venues on the Riviera before opening the Left Bank Restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, which Gourmet, Travel & Leisure, and Bon Appetit magazines have all cited as one of America’s best restaurants for over two decades.

The charming Brehier has a killer Web site, which details, months in advance, each class offered at his school. You can read all about each class, see who’s teaching it and how many spaces are left, book online, or add yourself to a waiting list. Fees are $100 for small, hands-on classes, while a whole cooking series can be enjoyed for $315. (Demonstrations are only $58.) Several illustrious guest chefs and sommeliers also instruct eager students, and the mailing list alone has more than fifty-four thousand members.

Thanksgiving-oriented classes are scheduled at the school for November, to motivate chefs wanting to spice up the family tradition. Chef Brehier will be teaching most of the December classes, and while it’s a busy month for most family cooks, an East Coast getaway could alleviate holiday stress and get the creative juices flowing. Sommelier Eric Hemer discusses holiday wines on December 19, while students learn to prepare complementary holiday dishes.

Chef Jean-Pierre’s Cooking School, 954-563-2700, www.chefjp.com

Mandarin Oriental, Miami
The star shining brightest at Miami’s luxurious Mandarin Oriental might well be chef Clay Conley, the man behind Azul, the city’s only AAA five-diamond restaurant. How fortunate that this iconic eatery on Brickell Key offers monthly cooking classes March through November; what better way for a foodie to spend a weekend away than lounging around the Mandarin until it’s time to hang out with a superstar chef.

A signature apron is given to all who complete a class. Wearing it at home will bring back memories of Azul’s stunning marble kitchen and Conley’s tips for whipping up a gourmet lunch. Sommelier Cynthia Betancourt pairs premium wine flights with the chef’s three-course tasting menu during class.

Each of Azul’s interactive cooking classes has a theme. The November 15 class (the last of this year) prepares cooks for their most remarkable holiday season ever. Next March will start another round of intriguing topics. Previous classes tackled the New England clambake and organic cooking, which included a field trip to Homestead’s Paradise Farms. Classes, held from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays, are $175 per person; pre-registration is required.

The Mandarin further encourages aspiring chefs with its “Miami Culinary Weekend Experience” package, which includes accommodations, gourmet goodies, breakfast daily, the class, a private meeting with chef Conley to choose your evening’s dinner menu, a three-course dinner for two in Azul, and a take-home gift. And that’s not the only reason to check out the hotel. Its stunning lobby offers cocktails and live jazz, while its “beach” on Biscayne Bay has sparkling white Miami-style day beds on which you can enhance your tan. One very sexy pool overlooks the downtown skyline, and all sorts of VIPs dine and chill there.

Bring your platinum card if you feel like going all out: Last time we checked, Azul had a $37,000 bottle of wine on its wine list that we’re sure is delish.

Mandarin Oriental, Miami, 305-913 8358, www.mandarinoriental.com/miami

Johnson & Wales University
North Miami’s esteemed Johnson & Wales University boasts an illustrious list of degreed graduates from its College of Culinary Arts program. Now even recreational chefs can glean a bit of know-how from its professional staff, with the advent of the innovative Chef’s Choice program.

These four-hour hands-on classes in specialized topics—including some from the Baking & Pastry Arts curriculum—are held on Wednesday nights and Saturdays throughout the school year in Johnson & Wales’s state-of-the-art facility. Only fifteen students will be attending the November 1 class (“A Maharaja’s Meal”), which assures lots of personal attention. The cuisine of New Orleans takes center stage on November 12, when “All About the Bayou” is the theme for Wednesday evening. Kitchen-minded children as young as eight may attend with an adult, and classes benefit cooks of all skill levels, from beginners to serious amateurs.

Johnson & Wales also offers up its expert from Paris, chef Yves Payraudeau, who’s in charge of the Wine Education Series. Trained at the Ecole Hoteliere de Paris, Payraudeau is a member of the Sommelier Guild and visits the world’s vineyards when not teaching oenology. His wine classes are open to anyone twenty-one and older.

Johnson & Wales University, 305-913-2108, www.jwu.edu/northmiami

The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island
Florida only has five restaurants that have earned AAA’s elusive five-diamond rating (Azul at Miami’s Mandarin is one of them). How fortunate, then, for cooks and aspiring chefs that another offers up its chef de cuisine as a cooking instructor a few weekends a year. That’s exactly what epicurean-minded guests at the Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island enjoy: hands-on sessions presided over by chef Richard Gras, whose inventive flair and mastery have earned him accolades and fans from early on in his career.

Gras holds his two-day sessions in the kitchen of five-diamond award winner Salt, and class size is limited. He approaches the classes with an emphasis on seasonal cuisine. The weekend begins with a tour of his domain: kitchens, pastry shop, butcher shop, and garde manger kitchen, which gives students a peek at the various responsibilities of Gras’s forty-five-member culinary team. Then the class proceeds to work through preparation of a four-course lunch, which it enjoys sampling, of course, followed by a gourmet feast on day two. The resort offers a package that includes lodging and a weekend class.

The Ritz Carlton, Amelia Island, 904-227-1100, www.ritzcarlton.com

Apron’s Cooking School
Even Publix has gotten in on the cooking classes trend, recognizing that more and more people have been bitten by the bug to cook. Apron’s Cooking School is how the company helps customers connect fresh food with fresh ideas. Located right inside select Publix Super Markets, Apron’s covers all sorts of techniques and cuisines from around the world.

Because the Apron’s closest to Southwest Florida is on University Parkway in Sarasota, a weekend getaway could easily include one of the school’s fun and enlightening classes. Trained professionals on the Publix staff share teaching duties with high-profile chefs from around the nation (look for the “Celebrity Chef” classes), such as Giuliano Hazan, son of the famed Italian cooking specialist Marcella Hazan and a regular on the Today show. Area chefs who have made a name for themselves instruct during “Talk of the Town” classes.

Apron’s also offers classes under the category “Pairing Topics,” which explore how great wines and beer can enhance a meal. “Cooking Techniques” classes give greater confidence in the kitchen, particularly when it comes to being inventive with ingredients at hand. “Special Topic” classes span the gamut from grains to lobster. Children’s and teen’s classes are also available.

Tampa and Jacksonville are also home to Apron’s schools, if you learn you’re to be in either area. Demonstration classes cost $35 and are at 6:30 p.m. “Celebrity Chef” demonstrations cost $50. Many other classes are hands-on, and students in either type of class enjoy eating what’s been prepared during the course of the evening.

Apron’s Cooking School at Publix at University Walk, 941-358-7829, www.publix.com/aprons/Home.do

Truffles & Trifles
Orlando is not just for kids. The proof is in the pudding at Truffles & Trifles, in the beautiful College Park area near downtown. The Food Network named Truffles & Trifles one of the top five cooking schools in the country, and the Orlando Sentinel gave it Culinary Hall of Fame status this past spring.

Founded twenty-four years ago by the witty and humorous Marci Arthur, Truffles & Trifles has an entire staff of classically trained chefs who take students on an adventure. Arthur’s love of cooking and consistent insistence that the kitchen can be a fun place infuse this cooking school with a happy vibe. Peer inside on any night a class takes place, and you’ll see a roomful of relaxed adults sipping wine, learning techniques, and enjoying the company of the chef and each other.

Not just a cooking school, Truffles & Trifles does double duty as a gourmet shop, with delicious inventory from around the globe. Kitchen equipment and the latest high-tech culinary gadgets snuggle up to exotic olive oils, chocolates, and all sorts of mouthwatering goods.

A sampling of classes offered this year includes “Cuisine of the Keys,” “Hot & Spicy,” and “Fabulous Finger Food.” Arthur’s twice-monthly newsletter reaches about 4,500 devotees and includes recipes from the classes. Register online for classes or call to reserve a spot.

Truffles & Trifles, 407-648-0838, www.trufflesandtrifles.com

Robb & Stucky’s KitchenAid Culinary Center
For cooking classes closer to home, the environment at Robb & Stucky’s KitchenAid Culinary Center is hard to beat. Located within the Bonita Springs Casual Living/Outdoor showroom, the Culinary Center is the perfect platform for executive chef Kristina San Filippo to share her insights with Southwest Florida residents.

From techniques and shortcuts to delectable entrées, San Filippo takes her students on an epicurean adventure. Trained at none less than the Culinary Institute of America, this talented chef relocated to Southwest Florida from Hawaii, where she served as sous chef at the Beach House Restaurant on Kauai.

Her predilection for Asian food melds with a Sicilian background and love of Mediterranean cuisine. She’s also a “slow food” proponent, meaning she supports local farming and fishing operations and sustainable methods, and exposes her students to the importance of fresh, seasonal ingredients. Recent classes have included Vietnamese cuisine, easy elegant desserts, and vegetarian cooking.

Participants reserving a spot in San Filippo’s kitchen for an evening class often get to enjoy wine pairings as well, sometimes with the help of local expert Frank Pulice of Austin’s Wine Cellar, who has co-hosted several events this year. Whether celebrating a particular grape or wine-growing region, the theme of the evening is always presented with a multicourse tasting.

Classes range in price from $45 to $95 per person, depending on whether or not a wine tasting is included. This makes for a thoroughly enjoyable, interactive evening to share with friends or easily by one’s self. New friends are sure to be made over a bite of something delicious.

Robb & Stucky KitchenAid Culinary Center, 239-390-2222, www.robbstucky.com

If you find yourself with time on your hands on a Sunday at noon, pop into Williams-Sonoma at the Bell Tower Shops in Fort Myers. The store’s talented assistant manager showcases a different technique each weekend in a demonstration that’s open to the public. (The Williams-Sonoma store at Waterside Shops in North Naples also offers a similar program.) These free demonstrations serve a dual purpose. They teach technique, certainly, but they also expose customers to the new tools and food products carried in the store.

On every other Thursday evening, this cook-centric retail store—which appeals to both gourmets and lovers of comfort-food—offers small hands-on classes led by chef Damaris Arroyo. Classes are limited to only ten people and, at $35 per person, book fast. During these classes—which disregard store products almost entirely—participants receive a 10 percent discount on anything they buy that evening.

Williams-Sonoma has been offering its cooking classes for five years and they’re very popular. December is the only month when classes can be iffy, so call ahead. Throughout the rest of the year, however, Arroyo inspires her students with a variety of topics. Like other instructors, she’ll be focused on the holidays in November. A list of classes is always kept in the store.

The mix of students in the Thursday night classes is as varied as the topics: mothers and daughters, couples, friends, singles. Occasionally there are chefs in attendance who know more than anyone in the building. But you don’t have to have any prior experience or skills, except an enjoyment of food.

Williams-Sonoma at the Bell Tower Shops, 239-415-4222, www.williams-sonoma.com; Williams-Sonoma at Waterside Shops, 239-514-2213

Norman Love Confections
If your sweet tooth guides your every move, you have the extreme good fortune to live in the same area as one of the world’s foremost chocolatiers. The aptly-named Norman Love, a Johnson & Wales–trained pastry chef, constantly receives kudos in magazines around the country (Saveur among them), while his sinful signature product appears in prestigious candy cases like those at the Ritz-Carlton.

How sweet that he calls Fort Myers home. Chocolate-making classes by professional pastry chefs take place right here in Love’s Salon, a sort of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory for adults. Love himself is usually present for classes, giving instruction and chatting and taking pictures with students.

Classes are held only from April through July, so year-rounders have something to anticipate. Participants for each class are limited to twenty, and the cost per person is $95. Love’s chocolates have received kudos throughout the country; you’ll be learning from a master chocolatier. Don’t be surprised if you become the most popular person in your circle of friends prior to holidays.

Norman Love Confections and the Chocolate Salon, 239-561-7215, www.normanloveconfections.com

Freelance writer Libby Boren McMillan is a frequent contributor to Times of the Islands and RSW Living.