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Eating in the Classroom

We are on the Rhone somewhere between Avignon and Tain-Hermitage, going upstream on a weekday afternoon, when the question occurs to me: “Why don’t chefs have cooking classes to draw more people into their restaurants?”

At the moment, Chef Karoly Reinprecht is giving perhaps 80 passengers aboard the MS Camargue a lesson in the ship’s lounge in cooking without gas, putting his hands to work preparing large batches of tartare – first beef, then salmon.  A couple of months earlier, I had watched Chef Mandy Dixon show guests at Tutka Bay Lodge how to make deep-fried crab beignets with a seaweed aioli. In both instances, the guests – admittedly captive audiences – were fascinated, asking questions, snapping photos, swooping in to taste when the chef was finished.  Hence, my question.

First, a disclaimer.  I have never run a restaurant, nor do I want to.  I am happy having been a home cook since discovering at age 8 that baking cookies on a Saturday morning was more fun than doing farm chores with my older brothers.  I also understand that every restaurant has a different business model (hopefully, there is a business plan) and that what works for one might be disastrous for another.  

That said, I still think there would be many upsides in restaurants offering periodic classes for a nice fee in off hours, such as mid-afternoons:

One, people who like to cook also like to eat out – the definition of a true “foodie.” Classes would be a great way to draw in new customers while encouraging existing customers to be more loyal – to come in more often. And what better word-of-mouth than people talking about their cooking class at weekend parties or on the sidelines of their kids’ soccer matches?

Two, people love a back story, an affinity opportunity. Wine drinkers love talking to winemakers. Collectors want to meet the artists at openings.  Except for celebrity chefs, most of us eaters don’t have a clue as to who’s in the kitchen – although, in some cases, that’s probably a good thing. And consider that the public face of most restaurants is the callow youth who hands us the menu and the one who tries to get our orders right and takes our credit cards.  Would we come back more often if we had the person who is the genius behind the food give us tips on making appetizers?  You bet we would.

Three, cooking classes would give a large restaurant the opportunity to highlight a talented young sous-chef or a personable pastry chef if the chef/owner is too slammed or socially disadvantaged to give classes.  Introduce the underling, then back to the kitchen.

Four, space isn’t a problem.  Cooking classes can easily be conducted in a dining room using burners, mixers and other easily portable items. Concentrate on demonstrations using interesting ingredients and secret techniques, rather than something that demands a full setup and many hands.

Five, classes could be a revenue generator.  People are used to paying fees for getting an insider view.  Yes, there are costs involved, but think about the promotional benefits of having the chef/owner break away from the afternoon dinner prep to greet a small class and say, “I thought you might want to try this new appetizer that we are putting on the menu tonight for the first time.  The staff is hard at work right now in the kitchen, but I’ve asked Chef Josephina to come out here and show you what we’re doing.  Josephina is our new hotshot from the CIA, but we think we can re-train her, anyway.  I’ll come back out when she’s finished, and you can tell me what you think of this new item.”

Sign me up, Chef Scotty!

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