With tough economic times pinching our budgets, more folks eat at home and realize they need more skills and ideas to keep putting meals on the table. So they call on caterers, private chefs and even talented friends with the same request: Please, please teach me.
As a result, classes for home cooking are growing in the central San Joaquin Valley.
The trend is well established in the Fresno area, where caterer and cooking teacher Shirley Sprinkle shows students how to use supermarket rotisserie chicken in quick versions of pot pie, enchiladas and other dishes. Private chef and caterer Wendy Carroll helps students organize their pantries. Southern-food maven Jeanne Logan shows novice cooks the essential kitchen tools, so they know what to buy.
There's also demand for such lessons in the South Valley. "I get a lot of e-mails about cooking classes," says Elaine Dakessian, a private chef turned caterer and restaurateur in Visalia. "People are asking for basic cooking skills."
Dakessian started teaching this week. Her first assignment: a private session for a family interested in healthy, everyday meals.
It's a shift from about five years ago, when many cooking classes in the Valley had a decidedly gourmet bent. Students were groupies, following their favorite chefs from class to class and treating the lessons more like dinner and a show.
Elena Corsini Mastro of Parma Ristorante wowed a crowd at the Clovis Adult School with pork loin stuffed with prosciutto, artichoke hearts, Jarlsberg cheese, frittata and mortadella bologna. In a cooking class at Whole Foods Market, Kent Specht, then the chef at Max's Bistro, used European-style butter in crab-and-ginger strudel.
Contrast these dishes with those of Sprinkle, who taught a class last week in Ferguson Bath & Kitchen Gallery on Laverne Avenue near Fowler and Belmont avenues. She simmered the bones and skin of rotisserie chicken to make a broth. She used Pillsbury biscuits to top a pot pie. She substituted green onions for leeks because leeks are harder to clean. And as she turned four rotisserie chickens into enough freezer-friendly food for a party, students took note of her thrift and easy recipes.
"We're trying to think of different ways to save money," says Tarneim Sakoury, who attended Sprinkle's class with a group of friends who cook a meal together before watching the television show "Grey's Anatomy." By cooking, the group avoids eating out, Sakoury says. They also make enough food so each person can take home leftovers.
Another student, Ashley Rooney, liked the idea of making a big batch of Sprinkle's enchiladas, then freezing some and cooking the rest. "I never know what to do with leftovers," she says. "I need to learn how to plan."
Indeed, classes such as Sprinkle's attract a variety of cooks. Some are novices learning their way around a kitchen because they can't go out to eat as often. Others, such as Sakoury, are accomplished cooks looking for simple recipes fit for entertaining. No matter their skill level, they are happy to add more quick and tasty dishes to their recipe collections.
As the recession continues, more people may have the same challenges simply because more of them are eating at home. Grocery store sales jumped 6.75% in 2008, according to a nationwide survey by financial research firm Sageworks in Raleigh, N.C. By contrast, the growth in sales is slowing at fancy restaurants, quick-service eateries and bars.
Logan sensed the trend when friends pestered her for cooking lessons.