6 Things to Look for in an Authentic Cooking Class
It’s no secret that I am an avid lover of an authentic cooking class. Whenever I travel abroad, it’s usually the first activity for which I do some serious research. And what’s not to love? I get to meet locals, learn something of the local culture, gain a new cooking skill and — to top it all off — end up enjoying the most delectable meal of my entire trip. Cooking classes are an amazing way to experience the country through which you travel, and about the only activity I deem to be ideal for just about everyone. Lone travelers will make new friends, and friends or families traveling together will enjoy a shared fun, informative and unforgettable cultural experience.
Want to book an excellent cooking class during your travels abroad but not sure where to start? We’re here to help!
Here are the top 6 things to look for when taking a cooking class abroad.
1.A good reputation (but not necessarily a BIG one)
As far as I’m concerned, choosing the ideal cooking class when traveling is not just a matter of picking the one that’s best rated on TripAdvisor. Although I always look for a reputable company with some great past reviews, it doesn’t mean it needs to be the most popular cooking class of all. Just because it’s not famous, it doesn’t mean it’s not good. Sometimes, the opposite is true.
When traveling, I prefer to use sites such as Like-a-Local and WithLocals, especially when visiting remote destinations (like the tropics, for example) not covered on sites like Yelp. A brand new website that’s recently popped up and looks very enticing is Cookly, which aims to help you find your ideal cooking class when traveling. So far, this site seems to only cover Southeast Asia, but it will no doubt expand as it becomes more popular.
When researching, I also Google sentences like “fantastic authentic cooking class in (destination) blog” as it tends to focus searches on specific reviews and personal blogs of fellow travelers. Other fabulous sources of info are Facebook and forum pages set up for expats abroad. Don’t know how to find one? Simply type your destination, followed by “expats” on Google, and you’ll find a (usually) long list of groups you can join. Next, simply ask members for recommendations of reputable cooking classes and, in no time at all, you’re bound to have countless tips from experienced foreigners who have lived there for a while.
2. Responsive, friendly and helpful
Once you’ve located a couple of cooking class you’re interested in, it’s time to reach out and write to them. I always look for great communication skills by whoever runs the classes, as I find this to be a good sign of pride in services rendered. Good customer service is a must, and that holds true both for large cooking schools and small, family-run businesses. If they take your emails seriously and respond swiftly, chances are your cooking class will be well organized.
I once took a cooking class in Peru that turned out to be an absolute comedy of errors, when most of the ingredients were missing, the gas bottle ran out within 5 minutes of starting the class, and the cook got hopelessly drunk half way through. That was a hilariously unforgettable experience, that’s for sure, had it not been also rather expensive. The fact that it took the agency two weeks to reply to my initial booking email should have been a hint and should have set off some red flags. I now know to look for a communicative and professional agency when booking classes, as this will help mitigate risk of disasters. But keep in mind that in some parts of the world they are still bound to occur every now and then!
3. An authentic, local setting
Nowadays, cooking classes have become big business and all major capital cities boast a few reputable cooking schools that are as polished as can be. Some are even internationally run. If you love that sort of thing, then you’ll have no problem finding them, but do keep in mind that you may be missing out on a very special experience. Local and authentic cooking classes held in people’s homes are my absolute favorite, as I gain priceless insight into local culture. No only relating to food and cooking, but also lifestyle and living conditions. I prefer to book with a locally run company, and I look for socially responsible projects which give back to their community.
In Laos, for example, I came across BackstreetAcademy, a local initiative which employs families and nurtures the preservation of traditional cooking methods. I’ve since discovered that this enterprise started in Kathmandu and has spread all over Southeast Asia, and will now look for them specifically whenever I’m traveling through the region. If you’re looking for a cooking class with more substance then I suggest you search for similar projects wherever you may be traveling.
4. A small, intimate group
Want to enjoy a relaxing cooking experience and personal attention? Then look for cooking classes which host no more than 4-6 people at a time. Any group bigger than that and you’ll be joining a commercialized production line. As with all tours, a small intimate group lends itself to a much more enjoyable and rewarding experience. Moreover, I find that larger group cooking classes tend to be a lot less hands-on, with many of the ingredients prepared in advance and some dishes already half-cooked. If you’re after more of an overview cooking class then this may suit you well, but if you want to get your hands dirty (literally!) you’ll find smaller groups much more conducive to actual cooking, from beginning to end.
5. A hands-on approach…or not so much?
Now here is a very personal choice. How hands-on do you actually want to be? This is something you ought to decide from the get-go and state clearly when booking your class. I absolutely love cooking and, modesty aside, am quite good at it. I’m not intimidated in a new kitchen – no matter how basic it is – with new ingredients or with rudimentary cooking utensils, but I know plenty of people who are. Most agencies will offer at least two options, one where you are cooking everything from scratch, and one where you may simply be assisting the head cook and learning along the way. Decide which option you prefer before you do anything else.
Actually, to be brutally honest, if you don’t enjoy cooking all that much, but still want to enjoy a truly authentic local meal, then why not opt for something like EatWith, a fantastic site which matches hungry travelers with locals who love nothing more than to host authentic dinner parties for a small fee. If the mere sight of a raw artichoke or whole fish sends cold shivers down your spine, then this may well be a beautiful – and still delectable – compromise for you.
6. Include a shopping trip to local markets
If there’s one thing that I love more than cooking when traveling, it would have to be spending hours on end at local produce markets. All those foreign and exotic fruits and vegetables, the amazing smells, the happy faces of eager sellers, and the abundance of wholesome ingredients I have never seen nor heard of before. How lovely! If you also salivate at the thought of a fresh produce market, then look for cooking classes which include an ingredient shopping trip to a local market before the class. Usually, these classes tend to be a tad longer in duration – and a tad more expensive – but I find the overall experience to be a truly worthwhile splurge.