One of the best travel souvenirs to bring home is being able to recreate the dishes you ate on the road. Freda Moon offers a quick guide to some local, authentic cooking courses in the two places where she divides her time, Mexico City and northern California.
It was in Oaxaca City, the capital of one of the poorest and most politically turbulent states in Mexico, that I first fully understood the lengths to which people go for an incredible meal.
Inside the city’s cavernous central market air is thick with the smokey, chocolatey, chile-scented flavors for which this southern Mexican state is famous. The market’s dimly lit interior, overflowing with vendors, buyers and hungry hordes of European tourists, is as daunting as it is thrilling. To eat one’s way through the market’s many food stalls–sweet rolls dipped in savory hot chocolate for breakfast; spiced dried grasshoppers at snack time; rich, earthy mole or fire-grilled carne asada for lunch–is an act of choreographed culinary devotion. There’s never enough time to taste everything, but a true believer does his or her best.
On the streets and among the stalls of this small but bustling city, I encountered people who’d come from around the world to eat and, to my surprise, to learn to cook the cuisine that Mexican food expert Susana Trilling calls Oaxaca’s “native foods.”
Throughout the town I noticed that restaurants, shops and hotels catered to travelers–not food television celebrities, but middle-class foodies–who came eager to learn how to cook regional specialties. One such place, Trilling’s Seasons of My Heart Cooking School, has established itself as an international destination. The school is outside of town (it sits between two small villages in the hills above Oaxaca’s Etla Valley)
Upon returning to my native northern California, I started to see similar small-scale, regional and specialty cooking schools at every turn.
In Anderson Valley, California, The Philo Apple Farm
(above) lets visitors spend a weekend on a working farm. Over three days guests prepare four meals made with mostly local, seasonal ingredients and spend their nights in elegant cottages overlooking the orchard and gardens.
On the Mendocino Coast–in the former logging and fishing town of Fort Bragg, California–the old company store is now home to a raw foods cooking school, Living Light Institute.
The school teaches raw foodists (and curious health food enthusiasts)
from around the world how to create delicious meals without cooking ingredients above 115 degrees. Through an elaborate processing of nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables, students learn to prepare everything from Vegan “Crab” Cakes (made by mixing, forming and then dehydrating julienned vegetables, nutritional yeast, almond paste and kelp powder), to a decadent Chocolate-Orange Mousse using evaporated cane juice and avocado puree.
At the Culinary Institute of America’s Napa Valley campus, their food enthusiast programs–Flavors of Wine Country, Live-Fire Cooking, and more–allow non-chefs to learn in a professional chef environment. Farther south, in Culver City, the New School of Cooking
- Nat Geo Expeditions
comes highly recommended. The one-day intensives cost less than $100 (including ingredients and the right to “stuff yourself silly”)
and include sessions in the Street Foods of Mexico, a Turkish Summer Sampler, a Fresh Pasta Workshop and Fish Basics. Up north, in Seattle, there’s Diane’s Market Kitchen and Rover’s Restaurant Workshops, which both fill up quickly.
There are so many of these schools across the West that it’d take a book, not a blog post, to cover them all.
Photos: Above, chef Susana Trilling prepares a meal at her cooking school; Below the cabins overlooking the orchards at the Philo Apple Farm.