by Jessica Centers
Without fail, every fall Kathleen Taggart meets people in the cookware department at Draeger's Market who are absolutely panicked about Thanksgiving dinner. "They are people with very little cooking experience, and for some reason, they're caught at a time in their life when they need to produce this meal," she says.
Fall is the busy season for the cooking school Taggart directs at San Francisco-based Draeger's. Even though the school offers a variety of Thanksgiving classes, they always sell out. Draeger's presents a lesson for retailers thinking about adding cooking classes to their stores' offerings: The best time to get started may be right now. Retailers like Draeger's and PCC Natural Markets in Washington that have made cooking schools an integral part of their business see the program as more than just a way to bring fresh faces in the door.
Cooking classes help their customers understand good food and how to work with it. "Part of our mission and values is to provide nutrition education to customers, so this is just a continuation," says PCC Cooks manager Marilyn McCormick. "You may remember, in the '70s a lot of the bulk foods natural foods stores and co-ops were carrying didn't have any instructions on them. It was lasagna noodles and brown rice in a bin, and you didn't know what to do with them. That was the beginning of it."
PCC Cooks' card-table cooking demonstrations began 30 years ago and have grown to 833 classes in five store locations. PCC's newest store in Edmonds, Wash., has a kitchen right at the entrance, encased by a glass wall that comes apart when class is not in session. Making the classroom visible is the easiest way to generate excitement and interest, McCormick has found.
Of course, not every retailer can start with elaborate kitchen and classroom facilities. "You can do just about anything with a hot plate and a card table," McCormick says. "A little tablecloth would be nice. You just have to be mindful about health regulations and good health habits when you're away from a real kitchen. Plan carefully to keep foods at the right temperature, and keep hands and utensils clean."
Finding instructors interested in leading cooking classes is rarely a problem. Judith Friedman, program director at the Natural Gourmet Institute for Food and Health in New York, says she's constantly being contacted by prospective instructors, and she also researches new trends and subjects she's interested in to find experts in those areas. Perusing seminars and conferences is a great place to find teachers, as is just keeping your ears open. Friedman found one phenomenal instructor at a party she attended. "An excellent instructor is knowledgeable about his or her subject matter; is a great cook, teacher and communicator; is upbeat and entertaining; relates really well to people; really cares; is not judgmental; and embraces students at all levels," she says.
Taggart agrees. Credibility is a must, she says, but the ability to entertain is also key. "I make them do a little demo, find out if they can speak well in public. Being able to talk and cook at the same time is a skill."
While good instructors are important, the real lure in any cooking class is the menu. "People are drawn to our classes by the articulate and mouthwatering descriptions on our Web site and in our brochure," Friedman says. The menu for the Natural Gourmet Institute's five-hour traditional Thanksgiving class includes pumpkin, pear and fennel soup followed by watercress and fennel salad with lemon vinaigrette; maple-and spice-brined organic turkey with pan gravy; sourdough stuffing with caramelized onions, sage and Gruyère; roasted brussels sprouts with chestnuts and prunes; candied yams; cranberry-orange compote; and maple-pear galette.
Building on the popularity of its Thanksgiving-dinner classes, Draeger's is offering three variations this season. The first is Basic Thanksgiving 101, a hands-on class in which small groups prepare and carve a glazed turkey, with cornbread, traditional stuffing and homemade gravy. Then, because a hands-on Thanksgiving-meal class is a huge logistical undertaking, the school offers demonstration classes, which still take up to three hours. The Do-Ahead Thanksgiving class features triple-mushroom soup with brie, roast turkey, do-ahead gravy, cranberry chutney, sweet-potato apple gratin, parmesan-crusted creamed corn, and warm apple cake with caramel, pecan sauce and vanilla ice cream. A Fast and Easy Thanksgiving class demonstrates spiced-rubbed turkey with honey-chili glaze, cornbread, chorizo dressing, green beans with caramelized shallot butter, cider-mashed sweet potatoes, rum-raisin cranberry sauce and pumpkin sticky pudding with toffee sauce.
Also popular in the fall are hors d'oeuvre demonstrations, like Super Easy Hors D'oeuvres for the Busy Host, including grilled figs wrapped with pancetta and blue cheese; endive spears with hummus and smoked paprika; crostini with goat-cheese, peaches and balsamic syrup; watermelon cubes with ricotta salata, lime and mint; tomatoes, mozzarella and basil on bamboo skewers; and pears with baby arugula and prosciutto.
Baking classes stay in high demand throughout the holiday season, too. The PCC class that always fills up fastest is Iole's Famous Holiday Biscotti, in which Iole Aguero, from Naples, Italy, teaches students to create gifts of twice-baked Italian biscotti. Using its instructors' skills and backgrounds, PCC Cooks offers many ethnic classes. Birgitte Antonsen takes recipes passed down by her great-grandfather, a baker in Denmark, and adapts them with whole-grain flours and unprocessed ingredients in her Christmas in Denmark class. An art teacher leads a gingerbread-house class for kids, and there's also a gluten-free holiday baking class.
"We don't approach it from the standpoint that anybody's a rookie," McCormick says. "We try to cover the basics in every class, but make it alive and interesting. Then, of course, it needs to not be too complicated because people don't spend the amount of time cooking as they once did. But we've found if we talk about the novice cook, or rookie cook, we don't do as well."
Gift classes are another angle on the holiday theme. PCC offers gifts from the kitchen, like French tarragon mustard and chutneys, as well as an herbal soap-making class.
PCC's staple fall class is Vegetarian Holiday Feast, for which Antonsen comes up with a new menu every year. This year, the main course is a savory hazelnut and herb stuffing in baked acorn squash, served with marinated and roasted root vegetables with crispy kale and cranberries, and a dessert of creamy, light, Danish-almond coconut-rice pudding with warm cherry sauce.
Regardless of the class topic, McCormick says it's important to create a vibrant, festive air, with plenty of food sampling and even some wine. An appetizer doesn't hurt either. Nobody likes to learn on an empty stomach.
Jessica Centers is a freelance writer living in Denver.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 10/p.86