It's an oft-repeated truism that New Yorkers don't cook. With small kitchens and big careers, Manhattanites haven't the time or the space to make their own beef stock. Instead of clipping recipes, they save reviews of new restaurants, and being a foodie means knowing what wine to order with the lamb's-tongue salad at Babbo.
Like all urban myths, this one does contain a kernel of truth. Seasoned by the hurlyburly cultural stew of Manhattan life, we sometimes feel like we're missing out on the deeper satisfactions of the hearth. The irony is that while living in the city makes it easy to not cook at all, it also affords the widest range of choices for those who choose to learn. The same set of circumstances that makes New York the restaurant capital of the world also makes it the only place in the world where you have such a wide range of culinary courses to select from.
To get a taste of what classes are available, I chopped, diced, kneaded, and braised my way through more than 200 hours of cooking classes. Here is a menu of the very best.
A RANGE OF ONE'S OWN
If you enjoy the camaraderie of the classroom but have no interest in returning to school, consider a private teacher with his or her own space. Classes are usually intimate, kitchen setups professionally equipped, and prices affordable.
Main ingredients: In addition to being a passionate instructor, Lee is a veritable kitchen sorcerer (she could turn a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich into a four-course prandial delight). Aprons, clipboards, pencils, and soothing ginger tea are provided. Her tasty, always health-conscious recipes (she's written five cookbooks) are inventive and draw heavily on Asian-fusion influences. She tends to pepper her heavily subscribed classes with all kinds of information -- an off-the-cuff formula for applesauce, for example, or how to season a wok -- so there's never a dull moment. But when she hits her stride, her expansive pedagogic style sometimes reverts to a staccato rhythm, reducing a process to its most rudimentary components: "Chicken, dice, spice, poach, eat." If only life were so simple.
Signature dish: I took three classes with her and am still salivating over the lively fall vegetarian stew, brimming with rutabagas, parsnips, and squash; her carrot-and-rice purée; her pungent barbecued spareribs, and her ability to render plain pork roast or turkey breasts ambrosial. Other delights: mustard-crusted halibut, and sautéed sole and scallops with spicy red-pepper sauce.
Details: 142 West End Avenue, Apartment 30V (212-787-2227); Mondays 6 to 9 p.m., and Wednesdays or Thursdays 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; weekend intensive class, Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Prices: $135 per class, $490 for a series of four; intensive classes, $350. Limit, ten students.
C. Perry Catering
Main ingredients: I joined two classes at Cheryl Perry's modest Lower East Side loft -- a Jewish-singles night and an all-girl birthday party. The singles were clearly new to the food game -- one young man eyed a hunk of fennel and proclaimed, "I don't even know what that is" -- but some of the birthday celebrants exhibited pretty sharp knife skills. Both classes were evenly paced and genial; Perry always has a kitchen assistant or two helping her, so no question goes unanswered. And although she is a caterer, her kitchen is centered upon a single four-burner stove just like the one in your apartment, so you have no excuse for failure when you try her recipes at home.
Signature dish: Perry's original recipes are diverse and easy to follow. Although she trained in the Chef's Program at the Natural Gourmet, her culinary reach extends well beyond standard vegetarian. The singles made boneless lamb in a mustard crust accompanied by a delicious leek-purée-for-dummies and a subtly spiced butternut-squash-and-apple bisque; the other class made a fiery Latin meal of salsa romesco, white-bean salad with gremolata, and tortilla with chorizo and manchego cheese, complemented by a more buttoned-down arugula, orange, raisin, and pine-nut salad.
Details: 115 Allen Street, Suite 2 (212-777-2189); schedules vary; classes last three or four hours. Create your own group, or Perry will put one together; ("stock" party menus include "Five Easy Pizzas" and "Valentine's Baking: The Art of the Tart"). Price: $65 to $75; "Techniques" class, $225. Perry also hosts a "Cookbook Club" on the first Monday of each month, which engineers each meal around a tome (they read biographies and novels, too); $70 per four-hour class and meal, with a three-session commitment.
Julie Sahni's Indian Cooking School
Main ingredients: There are 35 varieties of salt used in Indian cooking, and after a single class you'll have sampled at least a dozen. You'll also learn how to smell spices properly, by crushing them between your fingers, as Sahni delivers a lecture on the chemistry of spicing an Indian meal. Sahni's tidy vest-pocket-size kitchen is cleverly rigged to maximize space (she was trained as an architect). Yellow-lidded plastic containers house staple bulk items while countless diminutive spice bottles are aligned like peewee soldiers on shelves, ready for action. Several hours of each class are spent shopping in an Indian grocery. Participants study various regional cooking -- Mughul, Brahmin, and Jain -- and a half-day is devoted to baking poori, chapati, and other breads. We ate what we cooked while absorbing Sahni's encyclopedic knowledge (the lowest temperature for a tandoori oven, she told us, is 700 degrees) and watching her work the "Indian food processor," a 375-pound granite mortar and pestle that sits in her living room. Students take home a detailed notebook with dozens of recipes. Book early, as aficionados vie for seats.
Signature dish: Although menus may vary seasonally, you can bank on making ghee (clarified butter, an Indian kitchen staple), Indian cheese from lemon juice and milk, a half-dozen breads and pilafs, and some intoxicatingly sumptuous main dishes, such as tamil shrimp with coconut or chettinad chicken sauté with tamarind, and some condiments like tomato-garlic chutney or frozen tamarind cubes.
Details: 101 Clarke Street, Brooklyn (718-625-3958); weekend course, Saturdays 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Sundays 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.; weekday course, Tuesday through Thursday 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Friday 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Prices: weekend course, $1,095; weekday course, $1,595. Limit, three students.