Becoming Top Chef on your Next Vacation

By: Shelley Seale
A young chef assisting a cooking class and explaining some tips and tricks Getty Images / Copyright by Hinterhaus Productions

Television shows such as Top Chef and Chopped have exploded in popularity in recent years, and travel to another city or country offers the perfect opportunity to learn a new cuisine or cooking style. Cooking schools give travelers the opportunity to participate in such culinary challenges themselves—and learn a little more about the region they are visiting. They often include trips to markets or walking tours, the perfect glimpse into local life.

In the United States

At the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in San Antonio, Texas, visiting students are divided into teams and given a head chef and recipes to cook. After a 90-minute planning session, the teams cook for three hours and then sit down together to eat what they have prepared. CIA chefs and students critique the dishes and choose a winning team. “This can become a very competitive, fun, and educational experience,” says Heather Gasaway, Special Services Coordinator at CIA.

Culinary Travel Programs offer a unique opportunity to experience global cuisines firsthand, allowing traveling foodies to experience timeless culinary techniques from around the world with the professionals from the CIA.

3015 at Trinity Groves in Dallas offers a similar program, with a further twist: just like Food Network’s Chopped, where contestants are given a mystery basket of ingredients they must use, teams, are also given four secret ingredients with which to create their dishes. “At the end of the 30-minute cooking time each team presents their dish to the judges, who select a winner based on the food, team organization, and creativity,” says Mari Ewing, Special Events Director. “They really get excited because it’s something that you see on TV, and they are actually able to do it in real life.”

The events are so popular that 3015 puts one on almost every day—more than 300 a year. “When you have more teams to compete against, it just makes it that much more fun.” She adds that people should not be afraid they won’t enjoy it—with thousands of participants, not one has ever disliked the experience. At both 3015 and CIA, teams can be created ahead of time by groups or tour operators, or randomly assigned as the event starts.

L’ecole de la Maison, the cooking school at The Osthoff Resort in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, holds a cooking class every Friday and Saturday. You’ll find classes from European Brunch to Provencal Cuisine, and everything in between. Each class provides a unique, hands-on experience with Chef Scott Baker, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. I took a class with Chef Baker at the Osthoff a couple of years ago, and it was a blast.

Chef Baker’s cooking experience started early when he would open up a few cookbooks to see what everyone else was doing with a dish – and then he would get creative to make it his own. “Like writing music, once you know all the chords you can make your own song,” he says. He adds that the most vital aspect to becoming a good cook is to know food on a deep, personal level. “You have to eat well, and eat often.”

In Canada

On Prince Edward Island, From The Farm offers the ultimate field to table culinary experience—hands-on cooking classes in a heritage farmhouse setting. Owner Cynthia Peters, a personal chef and food writer, conducts classes that highlight the art of seasonal country cooking from around the world, in her restored 1830’s home in Hillier Township. A wide range of classes is available for groups, couples, and individuals that include meeting local farmers and preparing traditional favorites in the state-of-the-art chef’s kitchen.

In Europe

Outside North America, the globe is full of culinary exploration. Amidst the rolling green hills and russet rooftops of Tuscany, Villa San Michele in Florence offers a range of cooking classes from internationally renowned chefs. Here visitors discover how to prepare the regional cuisine, combined with trips to Chianti, wine tastings, and visits to Florence for boutique shopping and museums.

The classes themselves are varied, from traditional pasta and Tuscan specialties to cooking for one in their “Singles” course, and a compact class tailored for children ages eight to fourteen. Small, restricted classes mean that each student has a hands-on experience alongside the chef; all classes are in English and suitable for every level of expertise.

Sharon O’Connor, the creator of the Italian Intermezzo collection of recipes combined with music, teaches a weeklong course at Villa San Michele devoted to the table, taste, and beauty of Florence. “We are served the dishes we make in class at fabulous lunches on the villa’s loggia overlooking Florence,” says O’Connor. “Participants enjoy a Catherine de’ Medici Renaissance dinner on the last night, with costumed waiters and musicians performing gorgeous Renaissance music. Everyone feels like an aristocrat by the end of the evening!”

In Asia

Skipping across to Asia, the cuisine of tiny Laos has many similarities to surrounding Southeast Asian food, yet with its own unique touches; it’s less spicy than Thai food, and Laos is the only country in Asia where sticky rice is eaten with every meal. Taking a cooking class in Laos, complete with a trip to the fascinating local market, was one of the highlights of my visit to this wonderful country.

Strolling over cobblestone lanes between Buddhist temples at the Luang Prabang morning market with Somroj Mepiern, Executive Chef of Hotel de la Paix, you can check out delicacies on offer such as freshly-gutted tadpoles, live wriggling larvae, water buffalo ears, and live snakes. As part of the Culinary Experience offered by Hotel de la Paix, Chef Somroj and his students then return to the beautiful hotel facility to commence the cooking lessons, whipping up four different fabulous recipes such as Mok Pak (veggies steamed in banana leaf), Lao soup, Panang Gai (red curry) and the Lao specialty Naam Kaow, delicate rice crepes stuffed with meat and vegetables.

“Most people have yet to discover Lao cooking,” says Mepiern. “Just like an artist who sees his paintings in his mind first, I see the food. I see the dish and all its ingredients in my mind first before it comes together on the plate.”