Want a great gourmet meal next time you're staying at a hotel?
Then try cooking it yourself.
No, I'm not talking about how bad room service can be.
A growing number of hotels, eager to promote the quality of their menus as well as their chefs, are offering specialized cooking schools for their guests.
Want to attempt a timbale of salmon and sole with dill and watercress sauce? Stay at the Vista in Washington, D.C. How about preparing veal entrecote with wild mushrooms and fresh herbs? Book a room at the Mark Hopkins in San Francisco. Are you excited by the prospect of making stir-fried squid with assorted vegetables? The Caribe Hilton International in San Juan awaits you. And, if you absolutely have to know how to make great chocolate mousse, try the monthly cooking classes at the Tunis Hilton.
For the truly adventurous, there's the Thai Cooking School at the Oriental hotel in Bangkok.
"So many of our foreign guests are fascinated by Thai food that this was a natural extension for us," says school director Chalie Amatyakul, who started the Oriental's gourmet Thai restaurant in 1983.
Thai Airways has joined with the Oriental and has organized a special five-night, six-day cooking school program at the hotel. Participants spend their mornings cooking, afternoons shopping and sightseeing, and, last but not least, their evenings eating.
The Mark Hopkins in San Francisco offers cooking classes taught by chef Peter Morency. The free program originated with requests from dinner patrons. Classes are held on two consecutive Saturdays (limited to 10 people per class).
At the conclusion, the students enjoy the fruits (and vegetables) of their labors with their spouses at a celebratory dinner in the suite of the Mark's general manager, Marcel van Aelst.
At the Vista hotel in Washington, D.C., it's standing room only to get into chef Stuart Conway's "Art of Cooking" classes. The hotel offers the course twice a year, and because each program lasts four weeks, most of the students live in the area.
"I started this because many of the hotel guests said they liked the food here," Conway says. "They wanted to be able to duplicate some of our recipes at home. But most of these people don't have the time to do it. So I devised a cooking program around the concept of being able to cook a gourmet dinner for four in an hour or less."
Each week in the Vista's banquet kitchen, Conway demonstrates a special menu--soup, salad, entree and dessert--to his 20 students. Then, in a cordoned off section of the Vista's ballroom, Conway serves the dinner to the students. Each week, a different California or Washington state vineyard sponsors the wines.
The cost for the course is $175, but a number of Conway's students consider the fee a bargain. "There are as many men in the course as women," Conway says. "And I'm convinced that a number of the women joined just to meet men."
(In fact, that's exactly what happened. A number of couples who met while preparing appetizers with Conway are now enjoying dessert together without the aid of the chef.)
The Vista also promotes seasonal cooking classes. This July, Conway runs the hotel's "summer cooking camp" for children (a $75 fee covers instruction, recipes, aprons and, of course, lunch).
At the Mayfair Hotel in London, executive chef Michael Coaker is the organizer of the Gourmet Cookery Club, a group of gastronomes who travel to the kitchens at the Chateau restaurant at the Mayfair as well as to each of Intercontinental's four London hotels.
"We investigate a number of seven-course menus," Coaker says, "both in the hotel restaurants and the kitchens." After watching the food being prepared, the group sits down to enjoy the feast.
Membership in the club is open to anyone--local or guest--and there is no membership or initiation fee. "It's simply an opportunity for us to expose how great some hotel food has become," says Patrick Board, Mayfair's general manager. "We're proud of our chefs, and want to spread the word."
The dishes Coaker prepares can get quite fancy--turban of spinach filled with lobster, and cucumber pearls surrounded by seafood in a white wine cream sauce.
While Coaker hands out the recipe for each dish after it's served, the participants in this program are apparently more interested in observing than in preparing the foods themselves.
Seeing How It's Done
"The program has been successful," Board says, "because many people seem more interested in seeing how it's all done, in seeing what goes into what they eat, as opposed to wanting to cook the same dishes themselves. And when they come back to our restaurant, they know exactly what they want to order."
In Las Vegas, Caesar's Palace often holds private cooking classes for VIP guests at the Palace Court restaurant. And in Los Angeles, chef Raimund Hofmeister plans monthly cooking classes at the Century Plaza's newly designed Garden Pavilion.