SAN DIEGO — Darryl Tainatongo was at his first cooking class for only 15 minutes when he began making a pizza crust out of fresh dough.
"It's light--feels like it has air in it," Tainatongo said as he stretched and pulled the dough with flour-coated hands.
"We've made pizza at home before," added his friend, Lisa Korzec. "But every time we stretch the dough, it tears apart."
This time, under the tutelage of John Borg, executive chef at the Top of the Plaza restaurant in Horton Plaza, the dough didn't tear. After fashioning a 10-inch crust, Tainatongo added olive oil, garlic paste, tomato sauce and other toppings and then popped his pizza into an oven to bake.
Korzec and Tainatongo were among a dozen people who attended a recent class on pizza-making at Top of the Plaza. The class, part of an ongoing series sponsored jointly by the restaurant and Williams-Sonoma Grand Cuisine, a culinary supply store, is one of numerous cooking classes that are available to local residents this year in spite of the recent closing of two popular cooking programs.
The area's largest and best-known sponsor of cooking classes, the Perfect Pan, terminated its program in December after its parent corporation, Vicorp, decided to close its three Perfect Pan stores in San Diego. Cooking classes offered by the Something More Gourmet Center in La Mesa also ended when the center was closed in order to be converted into a furniture store.
The closings have created a void which several specialty stores are eager to fill.
"There is a need in San Diego that isn't being filled since the Perfect Pan closed down," said Mary McHale, manager of the Williams-Sonoma store in Horton Plaza. "We get a lot of requests for cooking classes, and we do want to start some . . . and perhaps use some of the teachers from the Perfect Pan."
Several of those teachers are already leading classes at two other local gourmet food and cookware stores: the Kitchen Witch Gourmet Shop in Encinitas and Almost Gourmet in El Cajon.
Meanwhile, Piret and George Munger, founders of Piret's restaurants and the Perfect Pan chain, have repurchased two of the restaurants they sold to Vicorp and say they hope to reinstitute a program of cooking classes by summer.
Additional classes on health-conscious gourmet cooking are being taught weekly at Grossmont Hospital. And the San Diego Community College District offers multi-class courses in Chinese, Mexican and French cooking.
"It's odd that other schools have gone out of business. The popularity of the classes we offer has increased in the last few years," said Marie Benson, owner of the Kitchen Witch. "This year we're offering 74 classes between February and July, and I'll probably add additional classes by demand."
Marge Denny, owner of Almost Gourmet, said the many cooking classes being taught here reflect a nationwide interest in cooking and fine food that began about 10 years ago. "People these days are just more interested in food than they used to be," she said.
According to Denny and other experts, a concern for health is one thing that has fueled the trend. Consumers are increasingly passing up prepared foods for food that is fresh and low in such things as salt, fat and sugar.
"Our class in chocolate making doesn't exactly reflect that, and it's very popular," Denny added with a laugh. "But it's true--people are more conscious of eating well and eating food that is nutritious.
"Another thing that has helped is the new restaurants opening here," she said. After sampling nouvelle, California, Cajun or other exotic cuisine at one of the area's numerous new eateries, many residents enjoy trying to make similar dishes for relatives or friends.
"Working couples tend to dine out more and are exposed to fine food," Piret Munger said. "Many find it relaxing and creative" to subsequently make some of the dishes at home.
"There are also more men taking cooking classes than ever before," Munger added. "I think a lot of them got pulled into it through a kind of yuppie interest in wine--wanting to be knowledgeable about how to order it and what foods it complements. There's a natural correspondence between serving fine wine and fine food."
At the pizza-making class taught by Borg, 7 of the 12 people who attended were men.
Tainatongo, who works part-time as a cook at the Sculpture Garden Cafe in Balboa Park, said he and Korzec heard about the class from their landlady, Maria West. "We decided to come out of curiosity," he said.
"We cook a lot at home," Korzec added. "We get into fights--he wants to do a dish his way and I want to do it my way."
West said she heard about the class from her daughter, a hostess at Top of the Plaza.
"Cooking is time-consuming, and I never had the time," said West, who worked as a telephone operator for 35 years. "But now that I'm retired, I have the time, and I'm experimenting with different things in the kitchen."