The wine had started flowing long before class began.
It was a Tuesday evening in Hyde Park Village, and a group of women were clustered around a table in the back of Sur La Table, a kitchen store that hosts cooking classes like Flavorful Fall Soups and Girls Night Out: Fast, Fresh & Fabulous. The group donned aprons provided by the store and swirled red wine; Sur La Table allows you to bring your own bottle or purchase one from them.
By the time chef Craig Tinling entered the demonstration space to start class, the chatter had swelled to a low roar.
At 6 p.m., about 20 of us — the group of women, plus some couples and pairs of friends — moved to a U-shaped counter with a full stove in the center and a handful of burners surrounding it. We were there for the store's Tour of Italy class, during which Tinling would teach us how to make Creamy Potato and Pumpkin Soup With Cannellini Beans, Parmigianio-Reggiano and Pear Salad, Seared Pork Tenderloin and Chocolate-Covered Figs.
Cooking classes have been around for a while, but the education component of culinary experiences seems to have expanded from cooking stores like Sur La Table to all levels of the food industry. Locally, there are recipe demonstrations at Clearwater's specialty grocery store Nature's Food Patch, pastry chef Michael Ostrander's hands-on courses at his St. Pete Bakery, large-scale classes at Tampa's food-themed Epicurean Hotel and even health-based classes at Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales. There are courses for confident and novice cooks; some that allow you to cut, cook and plate an entire meal; and others that are purely demonstrative. Almost all of them reward you with food at the end.
I attended three cooking classes in the Tampa Bay area recently to get a glimpse of the wide variety offered.
Some places, like Sur La Table, show participants how to make a four-course meal. Others are more specific or more basic. I also experienced a Publix Aprons Cooking School class, where we watched two chefs create the meal as they told us what they were doing, and a more intimate course on mustardmaking at St. Petersburg small business the Urban Canning Company.
As an experience, cooking classes are an ideal combination of adventure and comfort; you get to learn something new, and then you get to eat chocolate-covered figs. For this reason, they make terrific gifts. Keep that in mind for the coming month, when you realize you have given Dad the same Christmas present three years in a row.
Sur La Table: chef's knives, technique
In Hyde Park Village, chef Tinling quieted the class down long enough to split us into groups of three or four and direct us to stations. Each group had a set of preportioned ingredients in front of them for the first course, plus necessary utensils. Throughout the evening, Tinling and his assistants would swoop in, taking away dirty dishes and bringing out fresh ingredients.
We also had access to a double burner, our first clue that we would actually be cooking.
The other women in my group, Tampa residents and friends Kim List and Ann Marie Iwanicki, were attending the class together after List, who has participated in many Sur La Table classes, gifted this particular class to Iwanicki.
Tinling's first lesson was on how to use fancy chef's knives; he told us not to hold them "like an ax murderer," and to cut food by working the knives from the tip down to the heel, using a gentle rocking motion.
"Take it slow," he said. "You'll gain speed with time."
Someone in another group took a gulp of wine and got to work. Before long, we all had our mise en place in front of us.
Time to turn on the burners. We cooked our diced onions, which went into the Creamy Potato and Pumpkin Soup. Tinling called out instructions, and we followed, but the process left room for error if you weren't paying attention. Some people were not. Potatoes went in at the wrong time; burners were turned up too high. I made the mistake of salting pork too soon, which Tinling said can dehydrate the meat. Overall, the room was full of people who know how to cook, and many used their instincts to get their group back on course.
Tinling scooted around the kitchen, adjusting here, fixing there. Taste everything as you go, he told us. By this point, everyone's pans were sizzling. Someone shouted: "This smell is awesomesauce!"
List said she and Iwanicki chose this class because they liked the menu. "It was the best one for us, I think. Not too out there, and not too carb heavy."
We learned about the sous vide cooking technique, as Tinling pulled out a contraption full of boiling water and placed our pork tenderloins, sealed in a plastic bag with a marinade, in the water bath. Iwanicki said she felt like she was watching Top Chef.
As the night went on, the crowd got rowdier, and I asked Tinling if participants were usually this excited.
"It's not normally this rowdy, no," he said. "But this crowd seems more experienced, which is nice. We get all kinds of people in here."
By the time we plated the meal, it was going on 8:45 p.m. But we ate as a group, Iwanicki complimenting my pork seasoning and me pointing out her knife skills. We felt accomplished and, soon enough, very full.
Aprons: learning through demonstration
If some cooking classes are about putting knife to cutting board, the weeknight class I attended at Publix's Aprons Cooking School was about sitting back and enjoying dinner — and a show.
Led by chefs Bob Vitiello and Alan Bristow, the Gastropub Craft Beer Dinner at the school's Sarasota location drew about a dozen people this evening, most of them couples. (There are nine Aprons schools in Florida, and a 10th is opening in Winter Park in December.) Hands-on classes can hold about a dozen people; demonstration classes like this one can hold up to 40.
The chefs, who worked in restaurants before coming to Aprons, took turns walking the audience through four courses, each of which were served alongside a small glass of craft beer. We were up on the second floor of the store, in a room with white-tableclothed tables and chairs on one side and a large demonstration kitchen on the other. Two large TVs overhead showed the action taking place in the kitchen.
It felt like watching a live Food Network show, as the chefs worked with mostly raw ingredients (some things, like the smoked tomato ketchup, had been made ahead of time) to make Chickpea Frites or Sticky Toffee Pudding. Mostly, they assembled ingredients, demonstrating some basic cooking techniques, then had a premade finished product ready to serve.
One student, Virginia Bailey of Sarasota, said getting to eat the meal was as big a draw as learning about the cooking process.
Bristow took the stage for the Braised Short Ribs With Cannellini Bean Cassoulet, and explained that "cassoulet" is a bean stew.
"It's peasant food," he said. "A little bit of whatever you have lying around."
This one included short rib, which Bristow showed us how to braise and suggested a good red wine to pair with the dish.
Vitiello's approach was a little looser than his co-chef's, as he started in on the Seared Snapper with Sweet Corn and Chive Risotto. The class followed along with a packet we got at the beginning that detailed each recipe. Both chefs routinely put class members on the spot, asking questions to get the quiet room more involved in the cooking process. Vitiello told us we need to season things more than we think, and ribbed one volunteer for daintily salting a salad dressing.
He also warned us to not get too caught up with measurements.
"Become one with the oil," he said.
Canning Company: beer-mustard focus
On a Saturday afternoon in St. Petersburg, I checked out a smaller and more specialized sort of class.
Illene Sofranko gathered six of us around a metal table to talk mustard at the Urban Canning Company, a small canning business that recently opened a storefront on Fourth Street N. Sofranko, the owner, hosts different classes in the space, often with other local businesses: Home Brewing Kombucha 101, Salads That Don't Suck, Beginner Jam Making. There's usually one every month.
This class was called Drink Beer, Can Mustard, a crash canning course that used beer and mustard seeds to create the condiment.
Of the small group there, about half had canned before; a couple of people were drawn in by the beer.
Sofranko cracked open a few cans of local craft brews and began to tell us about the history of beer as she encouraged us to taste the different varieties. We learned about the fermentation techniques required to make the drink and how beermaking helped civilize humans way back when.
"Civilization owes itself to beer," Sofranko said.
It was a lofty way to start a mustardmaking class, but it helped put things in perspective — like the importance of canning and preserving to our ancestors and its usefulness today.
On to the mustardmaking. Sofranko told us stouts and IPAs are the beers that pair best with the flavor of mustard seeds. She went over general canning terms — processing, canning tongs, canning rack — and showed us the ingredients that go into each batch of her mustard.
"Almost everything we do has less than five ingredients, and all of them are pronounceable," she said.
For this class, she made a large batch as we watched, walking us through the process.
First, she filled a large pot with water 3 inches from the top and brought it to a boil on a gas stove in the corner. She pulled out a 20-quart container of mustard powder and plopped it on the table. She told us malt vinegar is often used when making mustard, but the beer is taking its place in this recipe. She added those ingredients to a food processor along with mustard seeds, maple syrup, curry powder, salt and brown sugar, and whizzed the mixture to create a coarse mustard. We would all be sent home with a standard ratio for these ingredients, so we could replicate the mustard in smaller batches.
Sofranko then had each class member scoop out a spoonful of mustard and pour it into their own jar using a funnel. We secured the lid, wrote our names on top and used the canning tongs to lower our jars into the boiling bath on the stove.
I talked to Sofranko afterward, and she said the classes began as a natural extension of her business. They came out of her love for talking to people about canning and demystifying the process.
"I could keep you guys here for hours teaching," she said.
Contact Michelle Stark at [email protected] or (727) 893-8829. Follow @mstark17.