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Cullinary Experience: Allez Cuisine!

Courtesy New York Wine and Culinary Center

If you’ve ever watched an episode of Iron Chef and wondered what it would be like to participate in a gourmet cooking competition, your chance may be closer than you think. At A Culinary Experience in Shelton, Conn., chef Sherry Swanson helps groups to hold their own Iron Chef-style competitions, with secret ingredients and all.

“Sometimes the groups compete against one another, or sometimes they work together,” Swanson said. “One of the options is a market basket competition. Each group gets a market basket full of ingredients, and they have to plan a menu based on that.”

Food competitions and other hands-on culinary activities have been surging in popularity in recent years. Today, cooking classes are one of the most popular experiential elements being offered on group tours, giving travelers opportunities to not only taste food but also learn how it’s prepared and get their hands dirty in the process.

Cooking schools, restaurants and catering companies all around the country offer culinary experiences for groups. Here’s a look at a few that can spice up your next group tour.

A Culinary Experience
Shelton, Conn.

Whether it’s full-on competition or a more friendly cooking class, Swanson tailors cooking experiences to a group’s interests and availability. Most of the classes take place at the Jones Family Farm, where participants can shepherd their meals from the soil to the plate.

“The farm is a wonderful location, because they plant gardens specifically for the cooking classes,” Swanson said. “We try to focus on local seasonal ingredients. If it’s spring or summer, we like to do a walk through the garden so [group members] can harvest some of the fruits or vegetables that they will use in cooking.”

Once the participants have picked their herbs, tomatoes, squash, asparagus or other produce from the garden, they’ll go inside and learn new recipes and techniques for creating some of Swanson’s most popular dishes, such as vegetarian pasta or grilled pizza.

“Some of the most popular classes are the fresh pasta classes, maybe because it’s so tactile,” Swanson said. “It’s something that everybody eats, but not many people have experience with how it’s made.”

For groups that cannot make it to the farm in Shelton, Swanson can bring the culinary experience to their hotel or inn. At some properties in the area, innkeepers allow her to hold cooking classes in the on-site kitchens. For others, Swanson brings a mobile kitchen with tabletop burners and sets up outdoors for an al fresco cooking experience.

New Orleans School of Cooking
New Orleans

In a city renowned the world over for its cuisine, the New Orleans School of Cooking gives travelers a place to learn about the food they’ll enjoy around town and an opportunity to prepare some themselves.

“You come down to New Orleans, and the great thing about us is our food,” said Alison Blondeau, the school’s director of sales. “When people eat the great food, they want to make it. So we do a crash course in Cajun and Creole cooking.”

Groups can choose from two kinds of experiences at the school. During regularly scheduled demonstrations, chefs prepare favorite dishes for attendees to sample, sharing techniques and jokes as they go. In special hands-on classes, groups get to participate in cooking barbecued shrimp, jambalaya, crawfish etouffee and other Cajun and Creole specialties.

“We’ll take the group and divide them into smaller groups, each making a portion of the meal,” Blondeau said. “Some people make the gumbo, some make the etouffee, etc. You’re cutting vegetables and sauteing. We have a recipe, but we don’t make you stay on it — you’re the chef, so you can do what you want.”

In the end, the groups will have prepared a four-course meal that includes an appetizer, soup, a main course and a dessert. After enjoying the meal, visitors can browse through the Louisiana General Store for local spices, cookbooks, kitchenware and hot sauces.

Down the Road Tours
Amish country of northern Indiana

Northern Indiana is home to one of America’s largest Amish populations, spread out in small communities around Elkhart and Shipshewana. Like many other aspects of their culture, the Amish’s culinary tradition is distinctive, and groups touring the area have a number of opportunities to interact with Amish cooks.

Courtesy Down the Road Tours

Karleen Richter, owner of Down the Road Tours, takes groups to visit a number of Amish food vendors in the area.

“We can do cooking lessons with a couple of different Amish families,” she said. “They cook for you the same thing that you’re having for lunch. They show you how they fix their chicken and how they can do different things with bread dough and dinner rolls.”

Visitors might get to taste some famous Amish peanut butter, or “shoofly,” pies. At one stop, a local Amish woman shows groups how she makes cinnamon rolls from scratch, and then everyone enjoys the rolls for breakfast with coffee and tea.

“Another thing I do is make-your-own pretzel with an Amish family that has a pretzel shop at the American Countryside Farmers Market,” Richter said. “They bring the dough and cut a piece for everybody. We explain the story of the pretzel and how it got started at a monastery, where the monks gave them to the kids for saying their prayers.”

New York Wine and Culinary Center
Canandaigua, N.Y.

Formed in 2006, the New York Wine and Culinary school uses cooking classes, wine tasting and a full restaurant to promote New York agriculture. For groups this means a variety of opportunities to taste the state’s produce and work with it themselves.

In the center’s hands-on kitchen, groups can participate in a number of cooking programs.
“The programs can be themed by the season,” said director of education Chris Baldwin. “It can be a breakfast, lunch or dinner class. You come in and find what the featured ingredients are, and we’ll talk to you about preparation skills, knife skills and cooking methods.”

The center has a variety of menus for people to create in the kitchen. Groups are guided by professional chefs with culinary degrees from institutes around the country.

The program can also include introductions to different wines and produce from around New York.
“We feature a lot of agricultural products, like maple in March and the harvest in the fall. In this area, we have a lot of cold-weather crops, like kale, cabbage, pumpkins and spinach. So a lot of the classes we do in the hands-on kitchen reflect the season.”

After the class and the meal, groups can browse through an exhibit hall that features displays on agriculture from around the state.

North Market
Columbus, Ohio

Sound, flavor and scent overwhelm the senses at Columbus’ North Market.

“We’re an old-school public market with 35 local businesses,” said director of marketing Mary Martineau. “We have everything from fresh flowers to raw fish and international cuisine. It’s really an experience just walking in the doors.”

Courtesy Experience Columbus

Groups can take a “taste of the market” tour where they’ll get to meet merchants and taste some of the Indian, Vietnamese, Mediterranean and other offerings in the market. One of the most notable characters is John Hard, owner of CaJohn’s Fiery Foods. Known around town as CaJohn, Hard is one of the most acclaimed spicy-food purveyors in the United States, and he offers customized cooking classes for groups.

“He does any number of things, from showing you how to make dips and salsas to preparing a four-course meal,” Martineau said. “That can be Mardi Gras or Southwestern or whatever your group is interested in.”

During a class, groups make a four-course meal, preparing and eating each course before moving on to the next. The menu often includes Cajun favorites such as jambalaya and etouffee but can also be expanded to Asian cuisine and other foods.

“He makes a Texas chili that has won awards all over the U.S.,” Martineau said. “Everything that is made is really simple recipes, and people are astonished that they can make it at home as well.”

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.