The Cooking School: Aura Of Change

Posted: September 14, 1986

Some people think cooking schools are going bust. Others see the business booming.

Flo Halbert of Bala Cynwyd has taught gourmet cooking (French, Italian and American) in the Main Line School Night program for 15 years.

"I had the same schedule for 13 years," she said of the three daytime classes she conducted each week at the Creutzburg Center in Radnor. "Then two years ago, enrollment started to drop off. I am only doing one class this year."

In contrast, Center Foods in Philadelphia began its cooking program about two years ago. And, said instructor Rod Moyer, the turnout for these natural- foods classes has been good. "We get people who want to change their diet for health reasons," said Moyer, who reports getting a mixture of experienced and beginner cooks wanting to learn what to do with the new health-food ingredients in their diets.

A teacher in a popular evening program reports declining attendance in her traditional classes. On the other hand, another class, one in Chinese cooking, is crowded.

Some of the changes taking place in cooking-school programs are evident in the accompanying class listings. You will find more health-oriented cooking instruction, more emphasis on ethnic foods and special diets, and more classes are being held in places outside the traditional cooking school/ cookware store format. There are new school listings. And some old names are absent.

"There's been a definite drop-off in our classes over the past two years," said Irina Smith of To Market, To Market, an established cooking school and food-consulting business in Philadelphia.

She sees timing as the biggest problem. "We prefer giving classes during the day, but more women are working. They're mainly interested in evening classes."

As a result, Smith and her partner, Felicity Taormina, have put cooking classes on the back burner. "We're not giving any formal classes this fall. People are too busy with getting kids back to school and then with the holiday season. We are planning some classes in the spring."

Charlotte Ann Albertson, who operates the cooking school at L'Epicure in Haverford, has faced the same problem. "Daytime classes have totally dropped," she said. "There's just no one around. Evening classes are off somewhat, too. Time-management has become the biggest stress in everyone's life. I'm trying a Sunday class for the first time this year."

Only in her men's class, said Albertson, is time not a factor.

"The men seem to want to devote the whole evening," said Albertson, "to take time to enjoy the cooking, to sit down to eat the meal, to talk and exchange experiences."

Time pressures aside, she added, her tours of the Italian Market and day trips into Chinatown are things students still love to do.

The public's interest in more healthful, low-cholesterol, low-fat cooking also is influencing cooking-class formats.

"You couldn't sell health food or fish classes 10 years ago," said Albertson, "but everyone's turning to that today."

JoAnne Delaney, president of the Delaware Valley Association of Cooking Professionals, has more of an overview on the subject. She believes more people than ever are taking more classes.

"I know a few teachers have gotten away from cooking classes and branched out in other culinary fields," said Delaney, who teaches cooking in the adult and extension programs of Bucks County Community College. "But there are so many different types of classes and so many more people involved.

"I think the problem is not in enrollment being down, but in classes keeping up with what people want. Classes are more competitive. Enrollment is down in some classes, but others are doing very well.

"Some people think the cooking school may be passe soon. But if you want to work at it and pursue it and push new things, you can be successful. It takes time and preparation and a lot of work."

Others wonder if the fight for students is worth it, especially with so many department stores and shopping malls offering classes free. Some wonder, too, whether people are simply less interested in cooking.

"Exactly the opposite," said Pat Tabibian, director of the Cooking School in Wilmington. She thinks it's more a lack of interesting cooking.

"For a while, business slumped, but I stuck with it," she said. "I changed my thinking. And it has turned around. The last year and a half it just took right off."

The slump hit Tabibian two years ago, as it did many others in the business. Class registration dropped almost by half, she said.

"I can have the best classes in the world, and if people don't come to my classes, it doesn't do me any good," said Tabibian. "Business has to stay with the times."

And so Tabibian, like other progressive teachers, took the aggressive approach. She rethought her whole program and made changes.

"People think chefs are celebrities, that what they do is magic. So I'm having more guest chefs.

"I started doing one-hour classes last year, and they went through the roof," Tabibian explained. "And I'm doing a trip to New York's Chinatown with a cooking class there. If that works, I will do more travel classes.

"I started doing dinner classes in restaurants that include the meal, instruction in the type of cuisine, a talk by the chef but not the actual preparation. That kind of class attracts couples and has been very successful.

"In the spring, we had a Pritikin-trained chef teach a class, and it filled up right away. But 75 percent of the people in that class do not take other classes.

"This year, we are having a class in imaginative vegetarian dishes. People are getting more nutrition-minded, eating more fish and salads, drinking less alcohol - but still eating desserts."

Tabibian also picked up on the trend to health-conscious cooking.

"It is our policy not to use salt in cooking," she said. "I started that about four years ago. Sometimes a guest chef will insist on using salt, and the students always question it.

"One class last year was a nontraditional Thanksgiving menu. I did the regular recipes one night, and then a dietitian came in the next night, took exactly the same menu and recipes, and cut about 1,000 calories out of it. A lot of people came to both classes."

And that health interest isn't limited to the instruction, said Tabibian. ''We serve coffee before class, and in the evening it has to be decaffeinated or people won't drink it."

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