Edible Homework: Cooking Schools Share the New Orleans Culinary Experience

By: Ian McNulty

Visitors who think a clutch of plastic beads, a hurricane glass and an obscene T-shirt are the best they can bring back home from a trip to New Orleans clearly haven’t experienced one of the city’s distinctive cooking schools.

Anne Gormly has, and after a lunchtime class at the New Orleans School of Cooking (524 St. Louis St., 504-525-2665), the Georgia College and State University vice president was able to whip up a menu of Cajun dishes for a charity event when she returned home.

“We couldn’t find crawfish back home, but everything came out great anyway,” she says. “Everyone is still talking about that meal here.”

The Crescent City’s rich culinary culture is an essential part of the travel experience for many New Orleans visitors, and cooking schools in the French Quarter and elsewhere offer a unique way to tap in to that culture. If going to school isn’t quite your idea of a vacation activity, don’t be put off. These programs offer “students” a fun, interactive curriculum covering a few recipes in about the time it takes to watch a movie. The best part: participants get to dine on the multi-course meal they have just learned how to prepare.

Frank Leo, general manager of the New Orleans School of Cooking, says guests appreciate the value of a cooking class, which at his operation includes instruction, take-home recipes and a three- or four-course meal for $20 to $25. The school has been around for 25 years and holds three-hour or two-hour classes daily in a renovated 1830’s -era molasses warehouse, as well as hosting private classes for groups of 25 or more.

Returning visitors sometimes book a reservation months in advance, Leo says, while a rain squall or an especially hot day in the French Quarter will generate more spur- of-the-moment visitors looking for an interesting indoor activity.

Cooking Around Town

The continuing culinary culture of New Orleans relies as much on the skill and creativity of its chefs and food entrepreneurs as it does on the canon of Creole cookery, and those chefs and promoters are hardly hemmed in by tradition. In fact, a growing cadre of cooking schools and gourmet experiences are flourishing in the city post-Katrina and offering visitors and local foodies many delicious opportunities to expand their culinary horizons. Here are a few notable players operating not far from the French Quarter:

In the House on Bayou Road just outside the French Quarter, The New Orleans Cooking Experience (2285 Bayou Road, 504-945-9104)offers half-day classes, series classes and luxury cooking school vacations featuring traditional Creole recipes and menus taught by noted New Orleans chefs like Frank Brigsten and Gerard Maras.

Cookin’ Cajun Cooking School began as a praline stand in Jackson Square before evolving into a large theater-style cooking school and restaurant in the Riverwalk Mall (1 Poydras St., 504-586-8832) offering classes on weekends and by appointment. A view of the Mississippi River as well as the chef instructors is an added bonus here.

Savvy Gourmet hosts its classes, restaurant, catering kitchens and retail store in a trendy space on the Magazine Street corridor uptown (4519 Magazine, 504-895-2665) Local foodies have flocked to the classes and events promoted in Savvy Gourmet’s breezy irreverent style.

Culinaria (1519 Carondelet St., 504-561-8284) offers classes, demonstrations and culinary explorations in food, wine and spirits in a handsome restored mansion one block off St. Charles Avenue.

Ian McNulty is a freelance food writer and columnist, a frequent commentator on the New Orleans entertainment talk show “Steppin’ Out” and editor of the guidebook “Hungry? Thirsty? New Orleans.”