Before Lisa Davis took a cooking class, she avoided any recipe that required more than five ingredients. Too complicated. But now, with the benefit of cooking instruction, she feels confident enough to whip up something as complex as a chocolate souffle.
Michael Palmisano, 10, was already an old hand at preparing breakfast standards like scrambled eggs, sausage, pancakes and French toast when he decided to take a cooking class. Now he's expanding his repertoire to include dinner dishes for his family -- including fried chicken and a cheesy fusilli pasta.
Austin George, a retiree, always enjoyed making different kinds of soups. But it wasn't until he took a formal cooking class, where he picked up tips from professionals, that he felt ready to tackle something as sophisticated as a shrimp bisque.
In the Baltimore area, cooks and want-to-be cooks are increasingly signing up for cooking classes.
"There's been quite a renaissance in the art of cooking," says Annette Romanoff, president of the Art Lovers League, which three years ago incorporated cooking demonstrations into its cultural schedule after members indicated an appreciation for food as well as art.
People who were weaned on sophisticated restaurants in the 1980s may be staying home more often these days (less disposable income, more family commitments) but they still want to eat well, and are willing to pay to learn how to cook well.
In addition, cooking has become for many a relaxing hobby. The advent of high-tech food processors and other innovative kitchen equipment has made food preparation easier than ever. And the increasing number of quirky culinary shows on television is convincing more than a few people that they, too, can become cooks.
Those looking to acquire or increase cooking skills have found that classes are a place to have a good time as well as share and develop culinary passions.
"When you meet with a professional you pick up tips," says Mr. George. "It's also a social function."
"It's entertainment," says Mary Lou Toohey, a nurse, whose excursions into cooking education have included classes on spa cooking and Italian specialties. "It's a novel way to learn with a fun group of people. . . ."
For those who think classes merely focus on basic techniques, think again. There's an ever-widening range of cooking instruction to choose from.
Want to make Hungarian pastry or goulash with fried bread? Have an interest in French dishes? Need to know how to prepare spa-style vegetarian meals, molded chocolates and candies for Easter, or Carolina Low Country cooking?
Chances are there's a class somewhere in the Baltimore area to meet your needs.
They're held in places as diverse as sophisticated culinary theaters, churches, museums, schools, restaurant kitchens and private homes.
And celebrity chefs are increasingly in demand at these classes by people who want to know just what goes into creating that sumptuous restaurant meal. The chance to experience the behind-the-scenes atmosphere in a restaurant kitchen is an almost irresistible lure for the food enthusiast.
"The atmosphere of being in the kitchen is like being on the set of a cooking show," says Dara Bunjon, who as president of the Epicurean Club of Maryland arranges demonstrations at popular area restaurants such as Pier 500, Hoang's, Cafe Troia, Boccaccio and the Brass Elephant.
Typically, the chef will prepare a full meal as the students watch. Most valuable are his or her cooking tips. Want to cook a chicken evenly? At one class, chef Linwood Dame advises participants to try cooking it on its side so the juices will drain throughout. Confused about proportions when using dried herbs instead of fresh? At another class, chef Gino Troia reminds students that dried herbs, because they are concentrated, need only be one-third of the amount of fresh herbs called for in a recipe.
The classes are fun for chefs as well. Nancy Longo, who taught at the Baltimore International Culinary College for two years before she opened her own restaurant, says she enjoys teaching shortcuts that one can't find in a cookbook to people who love food as much as she does.
Other regulars on the celebrity-chef circuit include Harold Marmulstein of the Polo Grill, Rudy Speckamp of Rudys' 2900 and Randy Stahl of the Brass Elephant.
David "Spike" Gjerde, of Spike & Charlie's, a participant in Goucher College's the Great Chefs of Baltimore Series, likes to encourage hands-on experimentation.
For his classes he sets up long tables in his restaurant's kitchen. Every student is presented with a paring knife and a peeler, a hand towel and a cutting board.
"It's sink or swim," the chef says, laughing. Then he qualifies his statement by adding, "It's a lot of fun -- they're not taking a cooking class to endure a torturous boot camp."